One of the haredi battle cries to protect their "right" to suck babies' open, bleeding circumcision wounds is that bris milah, circumcision, can never change. The "reformers" and the government are attacking haredi Judaism, and "we" must "stand firm" against the changes. The problem is, circumcision has changed several times over the centuries, and haredim are "standing firm" on what amounts to quicksand. Here's when and how brit milah changed…
Brit Milah, Jewish Ritual Circumcision, Has Changed Over Time
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
The circumcision Jews do today is not the same circumcision done by Abraham, the first "Jew" (for want of a better term) to be circumcised.
Abraham was 99 years old when he was circumcised. Infant circumcision started later.
But that isn't the only difference.
Abraham did not do periah, the ripping of the mucosal layer under the foreskin, and he did not cut off the entire foreskin.
Those two steps were not added to the brit milah process until about 125 BCE after Hellenistic influences caused many Jews to try to reverse their circumcisions by stretching the remaining foreskin over the head of the penis. The rabbis idea was to counter that by removing all of the foreskin and the mucosal membrane, thereby creating a more radical circumcision that would be irreversible.
More than 600 years later, a few the rabbis of the Talmud, troubled by this late addition to the brit milah ceremony, would try to attribute the addition of these two radical steps to Joshua (see the commentaries to Joshua 5:3 - 5:5). But this flies in the face of what we know from other ancient sources and the lack of such attribution in the previous 1,900 years.
At first, the knife used for circumcision was made of flint. But at some point the knife changed, and was made of metal. The knife changed again later as steel and then stainless steel became available. A similar process happened with the halaf, the special knife used for shechita, kosher ritual slaughter.
One could argue that just as early halakha did not specifiy the material the knife is made of, which allowed Jews to switch to better knives that cause less pain to the infant, early halakha does not specify what type of metzitzah, suction, should be done. It does not specify using the mouth. That should mean that metzitzah can be done in different ways, including use of a sterile glass tube or sterile gauze – which is how almost all Jews, except hasidim and many other haredim, do it today.
Similarly, even haredim no longer put cumin powder on the open circumcision wound to speed clotting, but it is what was done at the time of the Mishna, and it is what the Mishna codifies.
The Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (circa 850 CE) notes that Baylonian Jewish communities circumcise over a bowl of water infused with spices, and that those honored wash their hands in the bloody water at the conclusion of the ceremony. That part of the brit milah ceremony has largely fallen out of use, even in Sefardic communities. (Ashekenazim apparently circumcised over earth, a custom that still continues today in modified form. Most Ashkenazi mohels will have a small amount of earth with them and will place the severed foreskin there.)
In Talmudic times, brit milah ceremonies were done in the home and were attended by close family members and close friends. But by the medieval era in Europe, the ceremony had been moved to the synagogue. It was at this point the the Chair of Elijah the Prophet was added to the ceremony.
When Christians in Europe changed the time of baptism from early adulthood to infancy, they added godparents to their ceremony who brought the child to the church for the ceremony because, obviously, unlike adult baptism, the infant could not bring himself.
Jews imitated this new institution and added godparents to the brit milah ceremony, as well.
First Jews added a syndekos, a Byzantine Greek term equivalent to godparent. In Yiddish, the syndekos is called a "Sandek."
After that, Jews added the Gevatter and the Gevatterin. The words are taken from German and mean co-parent. Gevatter and the Gevatterin are now known as "Kefatter" and "Kefatterin" in Yiddish.
All three of these positions did not exist in the brit milah ceremony until medieval times.
We've now seen that ancient rabbis changed the brit milah ceremony by making the circumcision much more radical than it previously was.
We've also seen that the knife used for the ceremony changed over time.
In medieval times, when the ceremony was moved from private homes to synagogues, the Kisei Shel Eliyahu, Elijah's chair, was added.
We've also seen that three positions of honor are all medieval additions to brit milah, and were added in imitation of Christian religious practice.
It's important to note that, except for circumcising over water or earth and washing hands in the bloody water, all of these changes are additions, not subtractions, and that has halakhic import.
But to claim that brit milah is the same now as it was 3500 or 2500 years ago, as some haredi spokespeople are wont to do, is simply false.
Source for the addition of Kisei Shel Eliyahu, Sandek, Kefatter and Kefatterin: Ivan G. Marcus, Rituals of Childhood – Jewish Acculturation in Medieval Europe, Yale University Press, 1996, p.105-107. (Also note that the iconic Jewish ritual marking the passage of a boy from childhood to adulthood, the Bar Mitzvah, is a medieval addition to Judaism patterned after Christian innovations.)
Source for the Second Century BCE addition of periah and the total excision of the foreskin: David L. Gollaher, Circumcision – A History of the World's Most Controversial Surgery, Basic Books, 2000, p. 17.