Observing a Bris Milah (Jewish Circumcision)

Brit Mila (Bris)

As a general surgeon with forty-five years experience of observing and performing thousands of operations the most interesting by far was as an observer at a Jewish circumcision. While stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia as the only surgeon on the base from 1969-1971 I was responsible for all the surgical procedures done at the base. I was fresh out of surgical training at Charity Hospital in New Orleans and eager to apply my newly acquired skills where needed.

Not long after arrival the lone Internist (Internal Medicine Specialist) on the base, Dr. Steve Zaron asked if I would be interested in observing the circumcision of his new-born son. I knew the spiritual importance of circumcision for the Jews dated back to Abraham recorded in the Old Testament in Genesis 17:10-14. He was instructed to be circumcised along with all Jewish men as a covenant sign of their faith in the Lord God Almighty. According to God’s commandment all newborn males were to be circumcised on the eighth day of life.

I readily accepted Dr. Zaron’s invitation to be present at the ceremony of his son’s circumcision. Any Jewish ceremony requires ten men of Jewish faith to be present, and since there were were not ten Jewish men at Moody AFB Dr. Zaron said I could stand in as a Jew despite being a Southern Baptist. I had been baptized in a Southern Baptist church as a pre-teen, but in those Air Force days Cathy and I were only occasional attenders of the First Methodist Church in Valdosta. My only requirement for attendance was to wear the Jewish skullcap, the yarmulke. After arrival of the Rabbi who performed the ceremony he joked with me about a Baptist wearing a skullcap saying, “Don’t worry about it Doctor. We only ask for you to give $1000 to The National Jewish Appeal!” At this time in our life Cathy and I didn’t have even $100 in our savings account, so I was grateful he was only joking!

The Rabbi invited by the Zaron’s was from the Synagogue in Jacksonville, Florida which is about ninety miles from Valdosta. Because there were only eight to ten Jewish families in Valdosta at the time most of them traveled to Jacksonville to worship and be present for special Jewish ceremonies. I don’t recall the Rabbi’s name, but he was elderly (approximately seventy-five years old), and I remember he had been in Jacksonville for nearly fifty years. The other things I remember about him were that he was forgetful of names and had a visible tremor in his hands. As I think about his physical signs now he probably had Parkinson’s Disease. I was curious and a little concerned about his skill and ability to perform such a delicate procedure on a tiny eight day old infant. Dr. Zaron obviously knew the Rabbi well, because he joked with him saying, “We have Dr. Moore here as a surgical observer to make sure you do the procedure correctly.” To which the Rabbi responded to me, “Don’t worry yourself Doctor. I have done thousands of these!”

A Rabbi who does circumcisions is called a mohel (pronounced “moil”), and the ceremony is called Bris Mila, or Bris. I was curious about his instruments, and before he began he showed me a beautiful cherry wood box which was velvet lined. There were two instruments in the box; one was a surgical C-clamp, and the other was a beautiful ceremonial knife which appeared to be fourteen to sixteen inches in length and very sharp. Both appeared to be stainless steel and neither were pre-sterilized.

With some preliminary remarks by both Dr. Zaron and then the Rabbi, the ten men gathered around the baby. Dr. Zaron sat in a comfortable chair and held his son in his arms. The Rabbi stood while preparing the baby for the procedure by cleansing him with some type of cleansing fluid. All the while he was speaking in Hebrew which I could not understand, but the other men who were Jewish seemed to know exactly what he was saying. I do know when he was to speak the baby’s Jewish name name he kept forgetting the name and Dr. Zaron had to correct him. The Rabbi was not in the least perturbed by his memory lapses as if this was common for him.

As I watched over the next five minutes and observed the Rabbi’s shakiness and heard his memory lapses I became more anxious my surgical services might well be needed before this afternoon was over. The baby had been lightly sedated with a nipple which had a wine- soaked cotton ball inside, and he was perfectly happy with everything taking place. With a deftness of hand the Rabbi then applied the C clamp across the foreskin making certain only skin was in the clamp. This was the only time the baby whimpered a little with pain. Several more statements by the Rabbi were made in Hebrew and several mentions of the baby’s name which had to be corrected. Then the Rabbi took the knife and with a very swift motion he excised the protruding foreskin without the baby even making the slightest motion or even crying out in pain. I think I winced more than the baby!

Following a few more remarks by the Rabbi he removed the C clamp and I leaned over to look at the surgical site. To say I was shocked would be an understatement because the result was the most perfect circumcision I have ever seen! There was not even one drop of blood and young son Zaron seemed to be as happy as he could be. I was extremely happy my surgical expertise was not needed.

Following the Bris was a celebration which in addition to the men present, included the baby’s mother and wives of the men present. There was an abundance of delicious food and alcoholic beverages, none of which I drank. Young son Zaron seemed perfectly content to have his baby bottle of milk which I assumed contained no wine!

In considering why a Bris is done on the eighth day following birth it is a medical fact in a newborn the amount of Vitamin K is the highest  on the eighth day and only minimally present at birth. Vitamin K is essential for blood clotting, and prior to all circumcisions done today which is the day after birth, the babies are given an injection of Vitamin K. God knew injectable Vitamin K was not available in Abraham’s day.

After my experience that afternoon whenever I did a circumcision whether on a newborn or an adult I thought about and longed for the instruments used by the Rabbi. For certain the procedure and methods I used were not at all similar to what I observed. I also know for certain I knew the names of my patients. 🙂

Dr. John

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