The night before the brit milah

The joyous nature of henna has certainly been the guarantee of its popularity. Everyone has been to, or at least heard of, the henna party – that pre-wedding night event wherein the bride, on her return home from the mikvah, is fitted for the first time into the elaborate gown of velvet and gold embroidery in which she will be wed. (Before the acceptance of the white western bridal gown, this in fact was the usual bridal costume.)

Unfortunately, a tradition that is not so well maintained – and indeed even known – is that of the “brit Yitzchak,” also known by various other terms: talamon or thahid, which are just different names for the same thing. I might add that this custom, with some significant variations, exists amongst Ashkenazi communities, where it is commonly referred to as “kriyas Shema leining” or “vacht nacht.”

 This custom concerns itself with the birth of a boy. It is a ritual that is performed on the night prior to the baby’s brit milah (bris). It is always done at the home where the baby and mother sleep. As an event, it combines the magic of mysticism with the solid foundations of family and faith.

The belief is that just before complying with such a great mitzvah as brit milah, being brought into the Covenant, the child is vulnerable and in need of divine protection. This is part of the concept of the constant battle of good versus evil.

Hence, on this night, the family will gather, ensuring that there is at least the quorum of a minyan. After Arvit/Ma’ariv is said, all windows, doors and any other openings in the home are closed. Then, the verse relating to the episode of Noah’s ark is first said: “And they went in [to the ark], male and female as God commanded him [Noah], and God shut him in.”

In the same way as the hermetically sealed ark contained one family, and with it the future of life, this home, too, now likewise holds that promise. Kabbalistically, at this moment of inclusion, one is also excluding anyone or anything such as evil spirits from being present.

The ceremony continues by symbolically taking a knife or a sword (thahid from the Arabic hadida meaning metal strip), which is passed over the walls and closed openings of the room containing the mother and her baby.

The liturgical part of the ceremony continues with a reading from Zohar, followed by the recital of the priestly blessing and two psalms, 91 and 121. The same sword and a book of Psalms are placed by the child and a specific amulet for this is hung over the crib till morning.

Before concluding the vigil with a festive meal, the words of Jacob’s eternal blessing to Ephraim and Menashe are repeated three times to the baby:  “The angel who saved me from all evil should bless these children and let my name be blessed in them and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and let them grow into a multitude like the fish in the midst of the earth… Joseph is a fruitful vine by a fountain, its branches run over the wall.”