Brit Milah is the most ancient Jewish ritual that is still practiced today. It connects an infant and his family to our Jewish ancestors, the Jewish community of today and to those who will follow us. It is a time of joy and celebration.
The biblical source for brit milah is the commandment for Avraham to circumcise himself, all the males of his household, and all his male descendants:
This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant between me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you.
In fact, the Torah recounts several other cases of brit milah in addition to Avraham's own circumcision, Tzipora, Moshe’s wife, circumcises their son, and Joshua's circumcision of all the previously uncircumcised males before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel. The Jewish people continued to observe brit milah through the generations and circumcision has become the most profound symbol of the Jewish community, a physical sign attesting to a covenant of the heart. Jews throughout history risked their lives to circumcise their children as the brit milah was a symbol of Jewish distinctiveness.
Jewish communities have practiced this rite of passage for thousands of years, even under threat of persecution.
Circumcision does not determine the Jewishness of a child: having a brit milah does not make a non-Jewish child Jewish just as not having a brit milah does not make a Jewish child non-Jewish. Still, this act represents a transitional moment as the newborn now carries a testimony to his inclusion within the Jewish people, and this is the first rite of passage for a Jewish boy.
A wimpel is a long, narrow sash--typically seven inches high and at least seven feet long--most often made in linen and used to bind the scrolls of the Torah. Traditionally, wimpels were made from the cloth used to swaddle a baby boy during the Jewish covenantal ceremony of circumcision (called brit milah in Hebrew and commonly referred to as a bris). After the ceremony, the cloth was cleaned and cut into strips that were sewn together to make the sash, which then was then decorated with elaborate needlework or paint. This decoration included a Hebrew inscription based on the following formula: "May God bless this young boy [child's name], son of [father's name], born under the good star on the day of [day of the month] in [month] in [year]. May God raise him to a life of Torah,chuppah [wedding canopy], and good deeds. Amen." Traditional decorative motifs for wimpels included birds and other animals, images of bride and groom, and the Torah scroll.
Wimpels originated as a German-Jewish ritual object, although Italian Jews developed a closely related form called a mappa. In the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries (the period to which most surviving wimpels date), completed wimpels were stored at the local synagogue, thereby serving as a census of the congregation. An individual boy's wimpel was used to bind the Torah scroll during hisbar mitzvah ceremony (which marks the coming of age in Jewish religious life) at age 13. The wimpel was also incorporated into the chuppah used during Jewish marriage ceremonies. In this way, the wimpel followed the individual for whom it was made through three life-cycle events: birth, coming of age, and marriage (with the implication that this marriage will produce children, and the cycle will begin anew). Wimpels were material representations of a family's hopes and dreams for their child, the new life they have brought into the world, a life bound to the study of Torah, ethical behavior, and the continuation of the Jewish community.
Jewish ceremonial objects have been remarkable in their continuity and persistence. Menorahs; mezuzahs; Sabbath lamps and candlesticks; finials, crowns, and breastplates for the decoration of the Torah scroll; the pointer, or yad, used while reading the Torah--among numerous other ritual forms--have been constant and consistent elements of Jewish religious life for centuries, even millennia. The wimpel, however, fell out of common use beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. It remains a rather obscure form today, although the most recent decades have seen a tentative, slow-building revival of interest in the wimpel.
Typically, contemporary wimpels such as those created through The Wimpel Project are egalitarian--they are created for boys and girls, and include the names of both parents. Their inscriptions are not limited to the formulaic Hebrew prayer; their decoration ventures far beyond the bounds of traditional motifs; and they are created in celebration of a broad range of life-cycle events, from brit milah and baby-naming to bar and bat mitzvah, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays--any and all of life's milestone events.
Dr. Gerson will, upon request, embroider a personalized Wimpel for this special occassion.