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Guide to Sephardic Customs

The Significance of Sephardic Customs in Milah Ceremonies

Sephardic Jewish Brit (Bris) ceremony | Mohel Rabbi Nechemia Markovits | USA Mohel

Sephardic Jews hold a rich tapestry of customs and traditions when it comes to the sacred practice of milah, or circumcision. While the laws of milah remain consistent across Jewish communities, Sephardic customs add a unique flavor to this important ceremony. In this guide, we explore some of the captivating customs observed by Sephardic Jews, which have been compiled from various sources. These customs not only showcase the diversity within Jewish practices but also provide a glimpse into the rich cultural heritage of Sephardic traditions.

Prior To the Brit: Preparations and Rituals

Before the brit, the circumcision ceremony, Sephardic communities engage in meaningful rituals and preparations. On the night preceding the brit, it is customary for the men of the family and their friends to gather and recite portions of Zohar, a Kabbalistic text, that are related to milah. This gathering, known as Zohar or Brit Yitzchak (Covenant of Isaac), serves as a spiritual preparation for the upcoming ceremony. During this event, cakes and various sweets are served, and the Chacham (Rabbi) delivers a Torah lecture, adding a touch of sanctity to the occasion. Interestingly, in Moroccan Jewish communities, both the Shalom Zachar and the Zohar are celebrated on this evening, unlike Ashkenazic Jews who observe the Shalom Zachar on the following Friday night.

To protect the newborn from evil spirits, many Sephardic families hang Kabbalistic charts containing protective Biblical quotations on the walls and doors of the child's room. Some families also place the milah knife under the child's pillow, further emphasizing the desire for protection. These customs, while predominantly observed by Sephardic Jews, can also be found in certain Ashkenazic circles, highlighting the common threads that connect Jewish customs.

The Day of the Brit: Rituals and Symbolism

On the day of the brit, Sephardic Jews engage in various practices that add depth and symbolism to the ceremony. Let's explore some of these unique customs:

  1. Syrian Traditions: In Syrian communities, a large tiered tray adorned with flowers and candles takes center stage during the circumcision ceremony. Guests place their contributions on the tray, and after the brit, it is sold to the highest bidder. The money collected, along with the donations on the tray, is then given to charity. This act of philanthropy not only adds a charitable dimension to the ceremony but also serves as a symbolic gesture of good fortune. Some individuals use this "money of blessing" to embark on new financial endeavors, such as starting a business or purchasing a home, viewing it as an auspicious omen for future success.                                                                    

  2. Persian Customs: In Persian communities, a significant custom involves placing a large tray of apples on a table during the brit. Young couples are encouraged to partake in eating the apples, drawing inspiration from the Midrash. The Midrash recounts that when Pharaoh ordered the midwives to kill all newborn Jewish males, Jewish women sought refuge in apple orchards. There, heavenly emissaries supported them in the birthing and care of their babies. The verse "Under the apple tree, I begot you" (Song of Songs 8:5; Rashi to Sotah 11b) alludes to this protective role of apples, believed to facilitate easy labor and delivery.                                                                                                                                                                                                   

  3. Blessings and Prayers: In many Sephardic communities, the father imparts blessings upon his son during the brit. One common blessing is "May God make you like Ephraim and Menashe" (Genesis 48:20). Some families further add, "May it be His will that you be a brother to seven and also to eight." This additional blessing is a play on Ecclesiastes 11:2 and alludes to the princes of Menashe and Ephraim, who were the seventh and eighth tribal leaders to bring their offerings at the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the Wilderness (Numbers 7:48, 54). This custom draws inspiration from Targum Yonasan to Genesis 48:20, which states that this particular blessing is conferred by a father on the day of his son's circumcision (R' Yaakov HaCozer).                                                                                                              

Moroccan Tradition Symbolism in the Sands

n Moroccan Jewish communities, a dish of sand is placed near the mohel during the brit. This symbolic act signifies the hope that the child will be as fruitful as the grains of sand. The reference to Hosea 2:1 further reinforces this symbolism, where it is written, "And the count of the Children of Israel will be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted." Additionally, the sand is used to cover the excised foreskin, further connecting the symbolism to the act of circumcision.       

 The Throne of Elijah

n Moroccan Jewish communities, a dish of sand is placed near the mohel during the brit. This symbolic act signifies the hope that the child will be as fruitful as the grains of sand. The reference to Hosea 2:1 further reinforces this symbolism, where it is written, "And the count of the Children of Israel will be like the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured nor counted." Additionally, the sand is used to cover the excised foreskin, further connecting the symbolism to the act of circumcision.       

  1. Syrian Tradition: In Syrian communities, a special ornate curtain bearing the name of Elijah the Prophet is draped over a designated chair known as the Throne of Elijah. This chair holds great significance throughout the brit milah ceremony.                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

  2. Moroccan Tradition: Moroccan families have their own fascinating tradition related to the Throne of Elijah. On the night before the brit, the Throne of Elijah is brought from the synagogue to the infant's home, where it is lavishly adorned with colorful fabrics. During the brit, the honored sandek (the one who holds the infant) sits on the Throne of Elijah, symbolizing the presence of the prophet himself.                                                                                                                                                

  3. Sefrou, Morocco Custom: In Sefrou, Morocco, an intriguing variation of this custom is observed. The Throne of Elijah is placed near a mezuzah in the child's home, believed to bring blessings of long life to the newborn. The placement of the Throne of Elijah in close proximity to the mezuzah alludes to the verse, "On the doorposts of your house... In order to prolong your days" (Deuteronomy 11:20-21). Unlike other parts of Morocco, the sandek in Sefrou does not sit on the Throne of Elijah but on a separate chair placed next to it.                                                                                                                                                                                        

  4. Spanish Tradition: Spanish Jews also honor Elijah the Prophet by draping the chair designated for him in regal purple and gold braided material, giving it the appearance of a majestic throne. This chair is positioned next to the sandek, serving as a reminder of Elijah's presence and reserving it solely for his use. A Chumash or Siddur, containing sacred texts, is placed on the chair, emphasizing its sanctity.

The Brit Ceremony: Rituals and Celebrations

During the brit ceremony itself, Sephardic customs incorporate additional rituals and celebrations to mark this significant milestone in a child's life. Let's explore some of these practices:                                                                                                                                       

  1. Musical Procession: In many Sephardic communities, it is customary to bring the infant to the synagogue accompanied by lively music played on traditional instruments. As the procession enters the synagogue, the women ululate, producing high-pitched sounds of joy. This ululation, sounding like "Ielelelelelelele," is a common expression of celebration in numerous Middle Eastern cultures, adding a joyous atmosphere to the event.                                                        

  2. Symbolic Entry: The baby is often brought into the synagogue on a large pillow adorned with colorful scarves and shawls intricately woven with lace and embroidery. This symbolic entry highlights the importance and beauty of the occasion, as well as the significance of the child's entry into the covenant of the Jewish people.                                                  

  3. Inclusion of Family Name: Among certain Sephardic communities, it is customary to include the family name in the naming of the child during the brit. For instance, if the family name is Haddad, the child would be given the name Moshe ben Gavriel Haddad. This practice not only acknowledges and honors the family lineage but also serves as a way to preserve and pass down ancestral connections and traditions from generation to generation.

Fragrant Spices and Symbolism

Following the recitation of blessings over the wine, Sephardic customs often include the ritual of smelling fragrant spices. This practice holds symbolic significance and draws inspiration from various sources:                                                                                                     

  1. Connection to Creation: Some Sephardic traditions view the custom of smelling spices as an allusion to the creation of Adam, as described in Genesis 2:7. It is believed that when God breathed life into Adam, the soul was infused through his nostrils. During the brit, which represents a significant milestone in a Jewish male's life, the sense of smell is invoked to symbolize the connection of the soul to the physical body.                                                                                                                    

  2. Association with Divine Acceptance: Another interpretation of the use of fragrances during the brit relates to a Midrashic story about Abraham. According to the Midrash, when Abraham circumcised the members of his household, he collected their foreskins into a heap. The aroma that emanated from this pile of foreskins was said to be pleasing to God, akin to the fragrance of the incense burned on the altar at the Temple. Thus, the act of smelling fragrant spices during the brit represents a connection to this ancient story and serves as a reminder of the divine acceptance and favor.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

These symbolic customs, infused with spirituality and cultural significance, add depth and meaning to the Sephardic brit ceremony. They reflect the diversity and richness of Sephardic Jewish traditions and provide a glimpse into the cultural tapestry that makes up the Sephardic heritage.

Conclusion

The Sephardic customs surrounding the milah ceremony are a testament to the deep-rooted traditions and cultural heritage of Sephardic Jews. From the rituals preceding the brit to the symbolic gestures and celebrations during the ceremony itself, Sephardic customs add a layer of beauty, spirituality, and meaning to this significant milestone in a child's life. By preserving and passing down these unique customs, Sephardic communities continue to uphold their rich heritage and create meaningful connections to their ancestors. The diversity within Jewish customs serves as a reminder of the vibrant tapestry of Jewish culture and traditions that have spanned generations.

Disclaimer

The customs described in this article represent a sampling of Sephardic traditions and may vary between countries and communities. It is important to consult with local rabbis and community leaders for guidance on specific customs and practices within each Sephardic community.

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