Circumcision: Source of Life or Death?

By Samuel Silver, Chairman

The national news media is abuzz with a story linking the tragic death of an infant Jewish boy and his circumcision. The boy and his surviving twin were infected with a herpes virus which may be lethal in infants. New York City officials suspect a “cold sore” type herpes virus may have been transmitted by the circumciser (mohel). Is circumcision really a source of death?

Under Jewish law, all males are circumcised on the eighth day after birth as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The conclusion of the procedure is metzitzah, where to avoid medical complications, excess blood is drawn off prior to applying a bandage. In this case, the mohel used the traditional technique of metzitzah b’peh.

During metzitzah b’peh (“in the mouth”), the mohel uses his mouth to draw off the excess blood. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, there are no hidden sexual undertones or convoluted theories of barbaric blood-sucking associated with this otherwise unappealing procedure or any other aspect of Judaism.

 From Biblical times until the 19th Century, the mohel used his mouth to suction the blood and then spit it out. Since then, newer techniques have been developed avoiding oral contact.

 In hindsight, science was on the side of metzitzah b’peh. Dr. Joseph Lister, the inventor of antiseptic methods in 1877, declared, “I will reveal to you another amazing medical secret… no infection can be transmitted via metzitzah either from the infant to the man performing it, nor the reverse. The blood that vigorously flows through due to the suction, kills almost all kinds of bacilli.”

 This is indeed quite an amazing medical secret. Prior to Lister’s discovery, Jews had been practicing an inherently antiseptic technique for over 3,000 years!

 Today, most circumcisers, even among Orthodox Jews, use alternate techniques to b’peh, such as the use of a glass pipette; however, some cling to the traditional method. They place the burden of proof on those that want to change the tradition. With the advent of anti-septic methods, the weight of the argument has shifted from preventing bacterial infection to preventing the rare transmission of a virus.

 The introduction of HIV/AIDS in the latter part of the 20th Century created a potential threat of AIDS being passed from an infant to the mohel, which could then unwittingly be passed on to other children. A 2004 study identified another, though rare, risk connecting metzitzah b’peh with the transmission of the herpes type 1 virus as suspected in New York.

 The pressure on circumcisers to halt the traditional b’peh technique will only grow, since Judaism places the saving of a human life above all other commandments. According to the sages, “even if one in millions of babies were at risk, it would be permissible to desecrate the Sabbath for him.” It is a principle of Jewish law that “whenever life is at risk, we do not rely on probability.”

 Ironically, once the circumcision is complete, the overwhelming weight of medical evidence indicates the man will be significantly less susceptible to viral infections such as herpes, HIV-AIDS, and HPV-Human Papillomavirus, the most likely pathogenesis of both cervical and penile cancers.

 In 2000, the head of the National Institute of Health’s main HIV-AIDS Research Division stated, “the link between male circumcision and lower HIV infection rates is now an absolute fact.” It has been estimated that if circumcision had been practiced in the African and Asian nations that are now in the midst of a massive plague of AIDS, over 8 million lives would have already been saved. In 2002, a leading AIDS researcher pointed out “the irony that an age-old traditional practice, male circumcision, has probably so far prevented more HIV infections in Africa than all the Western-derived interventions combined.” (An expanded, annotated version of this article including detailed medical references is available online at .)

 Circumcision, far from being the kiss of death, is in fact a source of life. But why haven’t you heard about this amazing discovery?

 Unfortunately, circumcision is in the Bible, which makes it a serious violation of the primary religion of academia and the mainstream media - secular fundamentalism. Even as millions needlessly perish, anti-circumcisionists oppose circumcision under the guise of child abuse with no redeeming value other than “religious superstition.” They believe it is their “religious duty” to misrepresent the evidence and prevent informed public discussion of male circumcision.

 How differently they value human life than Judaism and the Judeo-Christian tradition. 


Samuel Silver is Chairman of Toward Tradition (, a national movement of Jewish and Christian cooperation, fighting anti-religious bigotry and secular fundamentalism. He is currently writing a book in defense of circumcision tentatively titled: The Kindest Cut of All! Myths about Circumcision, Judaism, and Human Nature. He may be contacted at

This article is excerpted from a fully annotated essay including extensive medical references. See Life or Death? Circumcision, Herpes, and AIDS, available online at