Congratulations, it’s a boy! A friend or family member has given birth to a baby boy, and now you are invited to the ceremony—known as the brit milah, or brit (alternately pronounced bris milah or bris)—when Jewish boys are circumcised, brought into Abraham’s covenant with G‑d, and named.

What is expected of you at a traditional brit milah, and what should you expect?

Should I expect to be invited?

Unlike many Jewish lifecycle events, formal invitations to a brit milah ceremony are not sent out. If you have been notified of the time and place of the brit by phone, e‑mail, or even a general announcement or Facebook post, you can take this as your invitation and know that you are wanted.

When will it be held?

In most cases the brit milah will be held on the eighth day after the baby was born, as per the biblical command. (If the baby has jaundice or other health problems, the brit milah will be postponed until the baby is in good health.)

The brit milah is also usually conducted first thing in the morning, to show that now that the appointed day has arrived we are eager to perform the mitzvah of circumcision without delay. The event is not very formal—guests come as they are, and often leave straight afterwards to school or work—and children of all ages are generally quite welcome.

Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

What to wear?

Even if this is your first time attending a brit milah, there is not much you need to do to prepare.

A brit milah is not as formal as a bar mitzvah or a wedding. Whatever you would normally wear to a religious service is fine. If you are a woman, you will likely feel most comfortable in a modest top and skirt, or a modest dress. If you are a man, come wearing a kippah—if you don’t have one, a baseball cap will do in a pinch. There will also likely be some kippot available to borrow.

Must I bring a gift?

It is appropriate, though not necessary, to bring a small gift (of a baby outfit, toy, or gift for the older children, if there are any). If you were going to give a baby present anyway, now is a good time.

Photo: Clifford Lester
Photo: Clifford Lester

Will I need to do anything?

Since the mitzvah of circumcision is such an important one, multiple people will be called upon to say things or hold the baby, and any of these roles are considered an honor. There are also a few points at which the entire crowd will participate. All the speaking parts will be in Hebrew, but don’t worry if you are not able to understand or recite the words. Just the fact that you are there is valuable.

Where to sit?

If the brit milah is taking place in a synagogue, the ceremony may take place immediately following the morning prayer services. If this is the case, seating will likely be gender-segregated. You can find a spot in the appropriate section and follow the prayers as best you can, or just listen. The text for the circumcision ceremony can be found on page 409 of the Siddur Tehillas Hashem.

Photo: Clifford Lester
Photo: Clifford Lester

How is the baby brought into the room?

When the time for the ceremony arrives, the mother will hand the baby to the kvatters (messengers) who will carry the baby, on a special pillow, to the part of the room where the mohel (trained ritual circumciser) will perform the circumcision.

When the baby will be carried in, everyone will welcome the baby with the words “Baruch haba!”

The mother passes the baby to the kvaters, who will bring him to the circumcision.
The mother passes the baby to the kvaters, who will bring him to the circumcision.

What is Elijah's Chair?

The baby will first be gently placed on a special chair called Elijah’s Chair (according to tradition, the prophet Elijah attends every brit). He is then picked up and held by one of his grandfathers, or another older respected man, who sits in the chair (or another one). While the baby is thus being carefully held, the mohel will recite a blessing in Hebrew (translation: “Blessed are You . . . King of the Universe . . . Who has commanded us concerning circumcision”), and the mohel will skillfully perform the circumcision.

A mohel assisting a father to read the text. Photo: Clifford Lester
A mohel assisting a father to read the text. Photo: Clifford Lester

Will the baby cry?

You may hear a cry when the mohel performs the circumcision (or possibly just removes the baby’s diaper, bringing a rush of cold air), but the baby will be quickly soothed with a few drops of wine and soon brought back to his mother.

How does the baby naming happen?

The father or another honoree will recite a blessing in Hebrew (translation: “Blessed are You . . . who has commanded us to enter him into the covenant of Abraham our father”), and the crowd will respond in Hebrew, “Amen! Just as he has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into Torah, into marriage and into good deeds.”

Immediately thereafter, the mohel or another honoree will name the child while holding a cup of wine. There are a few verses here as well that the crowd calls out.

Since traditionally Jewish parents do not divulge the baby’s name prior to the naming ceremony, along with calls of “Mazel tov!” you will likely also notice murmurs going around the room as those who heard clearly the baby’s name clue in those of their neighbors who missed it.

Photo: Clifford Lester
Photo: Clifford Lester

Will there be food?

Yes! After the circumcision and baby naming, guests will move to wash their hands for bread, and then sit down to eat a festive meal. Some communities will have gender-segregated seating for the meal, so take your cues from those around you, but aside from that there are no set rules, so wherever you find a spot, make yourself comfortable.

What is on the menu?

Since it is often still early in the morning, a brunch-style meal is often provided. Though meat is actually halachically preferred (a little-known fact!), the most common brit menu features bagels, cream cheese, and lox or smoked fish. Whatever the time of day, the mood at a brit is joyful and casual.

Will there be speeches?

A rabbi or the baby’s parents may give a short speech, often about the name and why it was chosen. If the child was named after a departed relative or mentor, the speech may be about the baby’s namesake and express the hope that the baby will grow up to live in his ways.

Will I need to say anything?

You can tell the parents or other relatives “Mazel tov,” “Congratulations,” or whatever feels natural to you to express your joy at the birth of the baby. Comments on how cute the new baby is are appropriate, as are compliments on the name given.

Photo: Mordechai Lightstone
Photo: Mordechai Lightstone

How does it end?

After the meal winds down, Grace After Meals will be recited, including six stanzas added specifically for the occasion.

If there is no waitstaff, your help cleaning up will be appreciated.

How do I know when to leave?

Feel free to linger, or leave when you need to. There is no need to stay till the end of the event, as it is understood that guests will leave at different times depending on their personal schedules.

Even if you cannot stay long, make sure you eat something before you go, as participation in the post–brit milah festive meal is considered an integral part of the mitzvah.

Photo: Flash90
Photo: Flash90

Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding of Jewish rituals and traditions.