Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer
1995 Israel stamp depicting 1768 German Elijah’s Chair from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Everyone has a favorite mohel story, and – setting aside the Borscht Belt standards which everyone has known for about a century – here is mine:

 

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Walking to shul in West Orange, New Jersey, on a wintry Shabbat morning in February 1980, I meet 85-year-old Rabbi Herschel Cohen, ah, and, after I walk with him for a while, a young man approaches him and extends a warm “good Shabbos.” The diminutive and wizened 5’4” rabbi looks up quizzically at him and, when it is clear that he doesn’t recognize the young man, the fellow says, “Rabbi Cohen, my name is Peloni Almoni, and you were my mohel 28 years ago.”

After a minute, Rabbi Cohen says “Ah, yes, yes, Peloni Almoni, I remember. When I did your bris a week or two before Pesach, you did a “number one” when I commenced the bris, but I wasn’t too upset because when I did your father’s bris 52 years ago, he did a number two” all over me.” (Cue to the Beatles’ “Penny Lane,” and its reference to a barber who recalls “every head he had the pleasure to know.”)

Rabbi Cohen not only had a memory like a steel trap, he also may well hold the all-time record for the most circumcisions performed dating back to when Father Abraham performed the first bris upon himself (of course, there will never be a way to verify this record). My son Zev’s bris in 1980, when Rabbi Cohen was 88, was his 10,109th and, a few months earlier, a photograph of him at a bris was published in a New Jersey paper where he not only served as the mohel for the infant, but he had also performed the bris for the new child’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, four generations(!) who were all together in the room.

In memory of my good friend the mohel, I present below some favorite bris-related items from my Judaica collection.

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In this undated (but early 1930s; Rav Kook died in 1935) letter, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, in his capacity as chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, writes to the administration of the Jerusalem hospital (most likely Bikur Cholim in Jerusalem), in which he attempts to renew the “ritual circumcision tax” that was customary in Jewish communities:

Rav Kook’s correspondence regarding reinstituting the ritual circumcision tax.

The longstanding regulation that been established by the founders of the holy settlements in the cities and throughout the holy land by the Geonim and community leaders of old is well known, that whoever enters his son into the Bris of Abraham is obligated to elevate Jewish education above his personal joy and to give his donation for the strengthening of Torah scholars in Jerusalem and Zion for the mohels to be vigilant in this duty, to persevere that, before performing the bris, the father will fulfill this obligation.

R. Kook goes on to recommended that the donation be at least one Palestinian pound for the wealthy and, for those with less financial means, at least 4 shillings. He explains that this practice goes back many decades and [citing Genesis 18:19] that Hashem’s only purpose in entering into the Brit shel Avraham (the Abrahamic Covenant) is because of His knowledge that Abraham would pass on to his children doing right and just in the path of Hashem (via teaching Torah). He closes with a blessing that, if Jewish fathers pay this ritual circumcision tax [citing Isaiah 65:23]: “nor shall they labor in vain nor bring forth children for terror, for they are the descendants of those blessed by Hashem, they and their offspring with them.”

 

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Shown here are two photographs of Ben Gurion serving as sandek at a bris. One photo is my original newspaper photograph of a yarmulka-clad Ben Gurion sitting on Elijah’s Chair (July 13, 1974). The other photo shows him wincing at the sight of the infant being cut and, although it is only a copy, I am nonetheless compelled to exhibit it here because it uniquely shows Ben Gurion’s character in a private moment; it is my single favorite photograph of the Israeli Founding Father.

In this undated handwritten note, Rav Frankel writes:

Rav Frankel’s bris invitation to Rav Uziel.

I have the honor to invite you to the bris of the son that was born to me with good fortune (“mazel tov”). The bris will take place tomorrow on Thursday, 11:00 a.m. at my home at Station 18 Street. Certainly, I would have come myself to invite you but for [the brother?], who lays in bed, ill. Therefore, may it be considered to you as if I personally came – and advised you that the time will be at exactly 11:00 a.m. I hope that you will not return me empty-handed [i.e., that you will attend the bris].

The Polish-born Rav Frankel (1913-1986) was a leading figure among the Gur Chassidim in Warsaw before making aliyah to Eretz Yisrael (1935), where he was appointed rav of the Florentine area of Tel Aviv, mostly inhabited by poor Sephardic Jews (a position he held for nearly 40 years). Unopposed, he was elected as Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Tel Aviv (1973), succeeding Rav Shlomo Goren, and he headed Israel’s Rabbinical Court (1973-86) until his death.

At a very young age, Rav Uziel (1880-1953) founded Machazekai Torah, a yeshiva for young Sephardic men and, as Chacham Bashi of Jaffa, he strived vigorously to raise the status of the Sephardic congregations there. He was close to Rav Kook in spirit and ideas, and their affinity helped bring about harmonious relations between the two communities. His intercession with the Turkish government during World War II on behalf of persecuted Jews led to his exile to Damascus and, after his return to Eretz Yisrael, he served as chief rabbi of Salonika (1921-24); chief rabbi of Tel Aviv (1923); and, finally, as Sephardi chief rabbi of Eretz Yisrael (1939).

Invitation to attend bris in Beirut (1905).

Exhibited here is an invitation written in French on a small card to attend a bris in Beirut: “Mr. and Mrs. Porter have the honor to invite you to the circumcision of their newborn which will take place on Friday, December 22 [1905] at their home.”

In the early 20th century, Jews were relatively safe in Beirut, a booming Lebanese port, making it an attractive city for Jewish immigration. The 1926 Lebanese Constitution later established that the Jewish community, among many others, had “inalienable rights” that afforded Jews constitutional protection and it granted the Jewish community authority over its civil matters. As a result, the Jewish community flourished, extended its influence throughout the country, and went on to play a leading role in the establishment of Lebanon as an independent state. However, all that changed in the wake of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, when Arab enmity turned against the Jews and many Jews fled Beirut for Israel.

In the early 19th century, the bris milah was broadly viewed as a serious impediment to the assimilation of Jews into German society and came under sustained assault. Circumcision abolitionists, who argued that the procedure deformed a healthy organ and was cruel to infants, were joined by Reform “rabbis” who argued that a bris was little more than an obsolete tribal “blood ritual” which should be discontinued.

Though not prohibited, circumcision became highly regulated, and circumcision laws were passed with the stated purpose of promoting health and sanitation to conform with “German sensibilities,” but which were actually calculated to make performing a bris more difficult. Mohels were required to pass an exam to demonstrate their medical proficiency; a bris could not take place without a physician being present; and financial penalties were imposed on fathers and mohels who failed to follow the mandatory procedures.

German rules for circumcision (first page, 1815).

Exhibited here is an extreme rarity, an 1815 document issued by the German Department of the Interior concerning rules for circumcision in Germany. Only rabbis who receive medical authorization may legally circumcise, and rabbis who wear glasses or who have shaking hands may not perform the procedure. As per Talmudic law, a sick child will not be circumcised, and winter circumcisions must be conducted in a heated room. Jews studying to become rabbis or cantors will also study to become mohels. Noting that there have been some circumcisions where the children were injured, the document stresses that these rules must be obeyed.

 

Circumcision ceremony – Frankfurt am Main (1892).

Shown here is the cover page of Die Rituelle Circumcision (1892), a circumcision instruction booklet by Dr. Josef Grunwald, a mohel from Vienna. The text is in German with Hebrew citations, and included are two illustrations and several prayers.

Subjects addressed include: advantages of circumcision in sanitary terms; anatomy of the male limb; the surgeon; viewing the child; characteristics of the child’s maturity and health; abnormalities in the development of the child; preparation for the operation; site of the operation; the operation – the cut and tearing of the internal preputium (“periah”); hemostasis (“metzitza”); after the operation; sagittal cut through the middle of the limb after the operation; time of circumcision; paternity; and receiving the child.

 

On this beautiful, undated (2nd of Nissan, but no year) telegram designed by Boris Shatz, founder of the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, Arthur Ruppin, on behalf of himself and his wife, writes to Mr. and Mrs. Moch: “On the day that your son is entered into the Bris of the Jewish Nation, we send to you our warmest blessings.”

Ruppin’s telegram.

Ruppin (1876-1943) is perhaps best known for his leading role working for the Zionist settlement of Eretz Yisrael, which included laying the foundation for Zionist settlement and leading the systematic expansion of settling the cities and rural regions and promoting the country’s economy. He also helped create new forms of settlement, including the kibbutz, the kevutzah, the moshav ovedim and the moshav shittufi.

From the outset of his work, he directed the purchase of contiguous tracts of land for agricultural settlement and established the Palestine Land Development Corporation (1908). In particular, Ruppin directed the purchase of land in Emek Yizrael, Haifa and Mt. Carmel, Rechavia and parts of Jerusalem, and the land that became Tel Aviv. He is credited with transforming settlement enthusiasm into a driving force for the settlement of the land.

Original newspaper photo: Jail Bris (October 30, 1961).

Exhibited here is an original photograph of members of the Jewish community holding a service outside Brixton Prison while the ceremony of circumcision was being performed inside in the presence of the baby’s father, Shalom.

HM Prison Brixton, a local men’s prison operated by Her Majesty’s Prison Service, is located in the Brixton area of the London Borough of Lambeth in inner-South London. Originally built in 1920, the prison quickly became notorious for its overcrowding and earned its reputation as one of the worst prisons in London. Famous prisoners held in the significantly improved modern prison include Bertrand Russell and Mick Jagger.

 

Original photo of bris in Cinecittà (1944).

Exhibited here is an original photo of the first circumcision ceremony for a Jewish refugee in Italy post-World War II. Prof. Asgarelli, religious leader at Cinecittà (a refugee camp in Rome), performs religious rites for Walter Spitz, the first refugee Jewish child born in an Italian refugee camp. The infant was born on December 31, 1944.

Cinecittà, which served as the center for displaced persons in Italy after the war, was founded by the Allied Commission in December 1944, when a synagogue and nursery were established on the premises. During 1945, when the camp held some 1,800 DPs, the executive staff of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Italy regularly convened there. Cinecittà, which literally means “cinema city,” was founded by Mussolini in 1937, and refugees in the camp found themselves surrounded by movie sets, backdrops, and props. In fact, Quo Vadis? was filmed in the camp area in 1949, and it is likely that some of the refugees served as extras in the film. (Notably, Miklos Rozsa, who scored the film, incorporated a number of Jewish melodies in his score.)

Al Hashminit (Amsterdam, 1926).

Finally, exhibited here is Al Hashminit, “Memoir on the Occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the Union Brit Kodesh, Composed by its Secretary I[saac] De Groot (July 25, 1926).”

The cover page (exhibited) displays the tools used by the mohel in performing circumcisions, and the end provides a comprehensive list of mohels in Holland. The pamphlet includes a list of 63 certified mohels throughout Holland, including 22 from Amsterdam, and four men who are “admitted to the circumcision exam but not in possession of a certificate.”

 

 

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.