The night before a boy’s circumcision, many communities have the custom to gather at the home of the newborn child and learn all night (or at least until halachic midnight1).2 Additionally, young children come to the home of the newborn baby and recite the Shema, as well as other Torah verses.3

In Yiddish, this night is called vach or vacht nacht,"awake night or “night of watching.” The corresponding tradition in Sephardic communities is referred to as brit Yitzchak, “covenant of Isaac.”

The custom can be traced back to the Zohar, where we read that the sages stayed up learning Torah and delving into the deeper aspects of brit milah the night before a circumcision. Many have the custom to study that very section of Zohar, together with other specific texts, during the course of the night.4

Abraham at the Gates of Gehenom

Circumcision is one of the greatest mitzvahs, a physical sign of the bond and covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people. As the Talmud and Midrash describe, our patriarch Abraham “sits at the gates of Gehenom(Hell)” and doesn’t let anyone who had a brit milah descend into it.5 The mystics explain that knowing the great spiritual power of this mitzvah, the negative spiritual forces try to harm the child and prevent the circumcision from taking place. Thus, the night before the circumcision, we stay up learning Torah and doing mitzvahs in the vicinity of the child to spiritually protect him.6

Additionally, some explain that learning Torah by the newborn infuses the child with added holiness.7

Children Reciting Shema

This is also one of the reasons why it is customary to have young children recite the Shema (as well as other verses). Young children, who are pure and without sin, have a tremendous spiritual power; thus, their reciting Torah verses protects the baby from evil. This is especially true regarding the recital of the Shema. Expounding on the verses in Psalms, “The pious will exult in glory; they will sing praises on their beds. Lofty praises of G‑d in their throats and a double-edged sword in their hands,”8 the Talmud tells us that one who recites Shema on his bed is metaphorically “holding a double-edged sword” that guards him from all evil.9 Thus, the custom is to recite the Shema next to the newborn child.10

Additionally, the Talmud explains that the first paragraph of Shema, Shema Yisroel (“Hear O Israel . . .”) is about accepting the yoke of Heaven, and the paragraph Vehoyah im shemoah (“And it shall come to pass . . .”) is about accepting the yoke of mitzvahs. So when the newborn is about to take part in his very first mitzvah, i.e., the brit milah, we recite the Shema.11

Staying up on Shabbat Night

Since the reason for staying up the night before the brit is to spiritually watch over the child, some are of the opinion that if the brit is on Shabbat, the vach nacht is not necessary. Shabbat itself serves as a spiritual guardian against forces of negativity, as evidenced by the Friday night prayers, where we omit certain prayers that discuss G‑d’s watching over us.12 Others, however, contend that we still need to be on guard, albeit to a lesser extent. Thus, some have the vach nacht for a smaller portion of the night.13

Persecution Throughout the Generations

Although thus far we’ve discussed the negative spiritual forces that try to prevent the Jewish child from completing his brit, it is no accident that our oppressors throughout the generations, be it the Greeks, the Romans or the Nazis, would first ban circumcision in their efforts to stamp out Judaism.

Despite this, Jews have always been ready to perform this mitzvah with great joy and sacrifice, as the Talmud proclaims, “Every mitzvah that the Jews initially accepted upon themselves with joy, such as circumcision . . . they still perform with joy . . . Any mitzvah for which the Jews sacrificed their lives at the time of the decrees of the wicked [Roman] empire, such as the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of circumcision, is still steadfastly observed.”14