During the 3rd century A.D., the Egyptians began writing their language in letters borrowed from the Greek alphabet augmented by a few characters from Demotic (a popular Egyptian script dating from the 2nd century). Beginning in the 7th century, this language, known as Coptic, began to disappear from everyday use, to be supplanted by Arabic. It survives to this day however in the Egyptian church. In Coptic societies, circumcision is performed on boys at ages ranging from one week to several years. It is not obligatory in character but is generally carried out for reasons of social conformity and hygiene.
The Arabs were circumcised before the advent of the Prophet; Islam merely allowed this practice to continue. In fact, Islam does not prescribe circumcision and the word is not even mentioned in the Quran. Circumcision is nevertheless traditional in Muslim societies where it constitutes a rite of initiation: a transition from childhood to adulthood. It also allows integration into the community of believers. Performed most often in the first few years of life (sometimes the odd-numbered years in certain communities) to minimize psychological trauma, it can be carried out by a Muslim or a Jew.
In no culture does circumcision occupy the position it occupies in Judaism.
The first circumcision was that of Abraham, who circumcised himself as a sign of the Covenant at the age of 99, then circumcised his eldest son Ishmael, aged 13, as well as all the males of the household. Isaac, son of Abraham, was born exactly one year after the Covenant and was circumcised by his father on the eighth day.
Since circumcision served as a mark of identity, it was frequently prohibited by enemies of the Jews such as the Ptolemys and Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2nd century B.C.) It was also forbidden during the two centuries of slavery in Egypt. Moses, who was not circumcised, reinstated the practice after the Exodus. It was again banned by Hadrian. With the rise of Christianity, circumcision became the distinguishing feature of Judaism
A number of rationales have been put forward for performing circumcision (“Milah”) on the eighth day. According to some, the period of eight days lets the infant experience at least one Sabbath. Others believe that since Creation took six days and God rested on the seventh, the eighth day symbolizes the beginning of a period that is more human, compared with the preceding seven days of divine prerogative. The eighth day, therefore, marks the true birth of man and circumcision assumes the meaning of new beginning and inauguration.
Any Jew who has been circumcised himself can perform circumcision on another, but usually the task is reserved for an individual specially trained in the act (Mohel). The contraindications to circumcision are many and specifically include a suspicion of hemophilia. The Talmud provides, for instance, that if two sisters have each lost a child to circumcision, then the third sister cannot have her son circumcised. In the same way, if a mother has lost two sons to Brit Milah and circumcision appears to be the cause of death, then circumcision is waived for the third son.
The ceremony is carried out according to well-defined rules and comprises three phases: separation of preputial adhesions, done with a fingernail and called “periah”; cutting off the prepuce; and “metzitzah”, the sucking of blood by the Mohel, indispensible for full compliance with the Covenant.
Circumcision and Christianity
Circumcision is mentioned in the New Testament. The practice was not straightway put in question during the early years of Christianity, but Paul, anxious to facilitate conversions, decided to relax certain rules (observance of the Sabbath, dietary laws and circumcision). Circumcision became worthless for Christians as a means of integrating members into the community. It was replaced by baptism, while the blood covenant with God was succeeded by Communion with Christ. It should be noted that the circumcision of Christ, which has inspired numerous paintings, notably from the Renaissance, is celebrated by Christians every year on January 1st.