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circumcision (sûrˌkəmsĭzhˈən), operation to remove the foreskin covering the glans of the penis. It dates back to prehistoric times and was widespread throughout the Middle East as a religious rite before it was introduced among the Hebrews. It is performed by Jews on the eighth day after the birth of the male child, unless postponed for reasons of health. It is also practiced among Muslims and by other peoples in many parts of the world.

Explanations of the origin of circumcision are entirely conjectural. It is related to rites of initiation. Among Jews it is considered to involve membership in the community and to be a sign of the covenant between God and humans. The decision that Christians need not practice circumcision is recorded in Acts 15; there was never, however, a prohibition of circumcision, and it is practiced by Coptic Christians. Despite some controversy, it also has been widely practiced in modern times, especially in the United States, as a sanitary measure believed to give some preventive advantage against penile cancer and sexually transmitted diseases (studies have shown it to be associated with a significant reduction in the risk of HIV transmission, particularly among heterosexuals).

Since 1971, when the American Academy of Pediatrics stopped recommending routine infant circumcision, the number of circumcised newborns in the United States has declined; the infant circumcision rate is now around 33%. In the early 21st cent., however, the benefits of circumcision in controlling the spread of HIV has led to a renewed interest in the practice, particularly in parts of Africa where heterosexually transmitted AIDS is common, and nonsurgical circumcision techniques have been developed for use on large numbers of adult men. These methods typically involve using elastic bands or plastic clamps to cut off the blood flow to the foreskin, which results in its dying, drying up, and being easily removed after a week.

So-called female circumcision, in the form of excision of the labia minora and clitoris (clitoridectomy) aimed at destroying sexual sensation, is known in Islam (although it is a cultural, not a religious practice) and in certain societies of Africa, South America, and elsewhere. Also called female genital mutilation, it is a controversial practice, but deeply rooted in local custom; there are movements toward prohibition in some countries. In the United States it is illegally practiced among some immigrant populations. In some instances women have sought asylum in the United States or other Western nations to prevent forced operations on themselves or their daughters. A World Health Organization study released in 2006, which involved more than 28,000 women in six African countries, found that the practice increased the risk of complications and death during and after childbirth for mothers and their newborns.


See study by D. L. Gollaher (2000).

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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Although it is an ancient medical procedure dating back to primitive times and is practiced by Muslims, some Christians, and many nonreligious people, circumcision, called Brit Milah by the Jews, is specifically the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. Indeed, Abraham received his name as a direct result of obeying this commandment.

"This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and you...." On that very day, Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God had told him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised. (Genesis 17:9-11, 23-24)

One shudders to contemplate the picture of a ninety-nine-year-old man circumcising himself, but "it's in the book." Ever since, circumcision's influence has been so strong that, even today, Jews, many of whom do not regularly practice their religion, still obey this commandment. On the eighth day, Jewish boys have the foreskin of their penis surgically removed by the mohel (circumcisor) in the presence of the child's father and sandek (godfather) and the required Minyan (religious quorum). The child is usually named during the blessings recited at the completion of the operation.

The Bible treats a delicate subject (one that is rarely heard preached from the pulpit) with a rather shocking nonchalance at times. In the book of 1 Samuel, for instance, the future King David asks King Saul for his daughter's hand in marriage. Saul, jealous of David, grants the wish on one condition. David must offer, as a goodwill offering, "one hundred Philistine foreskins." Saul had an ulterior motive. He "thought to make David fall by the hands of the Philistines."

But Saul didn't take into account David's flair for the dramatic. He was presented not with one hundred foreskins, a gift presumably acquired only after deadly persuasion, but with two hundred.

This isn't the only instance in the Bible where this kind of thing goes on. Genesis 34 tells a similarly gruesome story. What is arguably the most difficult passage to understand in the entire Bible, Exodus 4:24-26, is about circumcision. Moses, the great Jewish liberator, has met God at the burning bush and agreed to go back to Egypt, stand before Pharaoh and say, "Let my people go!" But right in the middle of all this, after Moses has promised to do all God requires of him, three very strange and enigmatic verses are inserted into the well-known story.

At a lodging place on the way, the Lord met Moses and was about to kill him. But Zipporah, Moses' wife, "took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched his feet with it. `Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me,' she said. So the Lord let Moses alone. At that time she said, `A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.'"

And Moses, without any comment, continues on to Egypt and into the pages of history. Commentators have written, debated, editorialized, and moralized, but when all is said and done one gets the feeling everyone would have been a lot happier if this passage had simply been left out of the Bible. Jonathan Kirsch, in his book The Harlot by the Side of the Road, presents an excellent, no-holds-barred summary of the many opinions that have been offered attempting to explain this passage, and he arrives at a compelling conclusion:

Like some grotesque insect preserved in biblical amber, the spare three lines of text in Exodus that describe God's night attack on Moses—and the blood ritual that Zipporah uses to defend her husband and son— suggest that the faith of the ancient Israelites was far stranger and richer than the biblical authors are willing to let on.

Even modern translations of the New Testament try to edit out mention of the "c" word, presumably for Sunday-morning consumption. When you hear a preacher proclaiming that "Jew and Gentile are one," chances are the original text says "circumcised and uncircumcised."

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the rite that consists in removal of the foreskin, or prepuce, of the penis. The custom of circumcision arose in primitive society. As youths emerged into young adulthood, they would undergo initiation rites during which they were familiarized with the traditions of the tribe. The youths would be subjected to various physical ordeals, including hunger, incisions in the skin, circumcision, and knocking out or sawing out of teeth. The rite of circumcision has been preserved among some peoples of Australia, Oceania, and Africa; it is also a part of the religious rituals of Hinduism, where it is performed on infants, and Islam, where it is performed on boys seven to ten years of age.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


Surgical excision of the foreskin.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


initiated rite in covenant with God. [O.T.: Genesis 17:11–14]
Berith Jewish
rite of circumcising male child eight days after birth. [Judaism: Misc.]
traditionally represented at ceremony by empty chair. [Judaism: Wigoder, 172]
Hill of Foreskins; where Joshua circumcised Israelites. [O.T.: Joshua 5:3]
Shandy, Tristram
accidentally circumcised by a loose window in a sash. [Br. Lit.: Tristram Shandy in Magill I, 1027]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.