Rabbi does mohel duties lovingly Birth is completed in circumcision rite

October 25, 1992|By Meredith Schlow | Meredith Schlow,Staff Writer

Fast asleep and just eight days old, Scott Brandon Weisman is about to participate in his first religious ceremony.

Scott, of course, knows nothing of this. Lying on a pillow spread across the knees of his grandmothers, Scott is lifted and passed from relative to family friend, and finally to his father. Robert Weisman turns and hands his firstborn son to Rabbi Michael Henesch, the mohel who will perform Scott's circumcision.

The 3,700-year-old ritual, called a bris -- which means "covenant" in Hebrew -- fulfills a commandment that will affirm Scott's acceptance into the covenant of Abraham, and establish his identity as a Jew. As the man charged with maintaining the covenant, the mohel (pronounced MOE-el) is a clergyman-surgeon who occupies a unique place in the Jewish community.

"Scott's birth didn't end at Sinai Hospital eight days ago," Rabbi Henesch tells 100 relatives and friends gathered for the ceremony. "It extends for eight days over Shabbat [the Sabbath] until his bris. When I hand this child back to his parents, that phase of life has ended, and the rest of his life can begin. . . . We will be here when he is made complete and whole in every way, thank God."

Quiet until his legs are held still by his maternal grandfather, Scott cries when his diaper is removed.

"We haven't started yet," Rabbi Henesch jokes. Guests laugh nervously, then talk quietly. Scott continues to cry, but seconds later, it's over.

Rabbi Henesch lifts the baby, comforts Scott in his arms until he quiets, and places him in the arms of his paternal grandfather to receive his Hebrew name. It's Binyamin Shmuel, after his great-grandfathers. Finally, Scott returns to the arms of his mother, Robbyn, who is obviously relieved that the ceremony is over.

Though it's not the first bris she's attended, "It's different when it's your own," she says.

It was a routine call for Rabbi Henesch, who has conducted the procedure hundreds of times in his 11 years as a mohel. But it's a calling he loves. "It's the most wonderful profession in the world," he says. "I do a religious act, I get a Mitzvah [fulfillment of a commandment] for doing it. . . . It's a happy occasion."

Four mohelim serve Baltimore's Jewish community of 90,000, although a mohel may be called anywhere to perform the ceremony -- particularly in remote areas with small Jewish communities. Rabbi Henesch, for example, once traveled to Alaska.

By any standards, it's an unusual profession. Mohelim must be certified religiously by the local Board of Rabbis, and medically by a hospital. There are no schools for mohelim. They learn by watching experienced mohelim perform circumcisions for months or years before they perform the procedure themselves.

Arthur Schulman, a retired cantor who has been a mohel for more than 30 years, performed his first bris on his son in 1958.

"I wasn't really very nervous," he says. "My wife wasn't even nervous. My in-laws -- were nervous."

Since then he has performed thousands of circumcisions, including those of his grandsons.

In the beginning

The Book of Genesis says Abraham circumcised himself and his son, Isaac, as his part of the covenant with the Lord. While the covenant remains, most fathers today are reluctant to emulate Abraham's example, so they authorize a mohel to perform the surgery during a bris.

Under the hand of an experienced mohel, a circumcision takes a matter of seconds -- much faster than a hospital circumcision, which can take up to five minutes, doctors say.

"If we took as long as it does in the operating room, no one would ever have a bris," Rabbi Henesch says. "But I don't like to say I'm fast. I like to say I'm accurate."

Instead of the Gomco bell -- a clamp used in the majority of hospital circumcisions -- mohelim use a "mogen," which means "shield" in Hebrew. The mogen doesn't clamp the skin, but rather protects what shouldn't be cut.

As a medical practice, circumcision has waxed and waned in popularity. Once confined largely to the Jewish community, it gained wider acceptance during the late 19th century as a measure to promote cleanliness and became routine in the Western world during the 20th century.

The medical advisability of routine circumcision is still debated. For 18 years, the American Academy of Pediatrics found no medical basis for the surgery. But in 1989, it modified that position, recognizing that circumcision may reduce the frequency of urinary tract infections in older men and virtually eliminates the risk of rare penile cancer. The academy still does not recommend routine circumcision for other than religious reasons.

But for many Jews, the reason for a bris is clear. It's what God told you to do," says Rabbi Henesch.

"It's something that we carry on from generation to generation," Mrs. Weisman adds.

"A lot of traditional things have been cut out -- it's just nice to have something traditional still."

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