The Pluralistic Bridge for Conversion

About Hattafat Dam B’rit for Conversion

Questions and Answers

A recent convert, David Davies, intentionally went to his hattafat dam b’rit in Rhode Island without a clue about what to expect. That was partly due to his sense of awe about becoming a Jew, and partly because (as he put it) “a guy typically does not want to be a wuss.” That’s fine for some guys, but if you have questions and would like some answers, read on....

What is hattafat dam b’rit?

Actually one of the simplest rites in Judaism, הטפת דם ברית hattafat dam b’rit (often transliterated more plainly as hatafat dam brit) consists of the drawing of blood from the remnant of a male’s foreskin. It marks the covenant between God and the Jewish people. It is called for in a number of situations (but only once per person!). Typically, it’s done for an already-circumcised male who is now becoming a Jew — which is the situation addressed here.

Hattafat dam b’rit can be memorable. As Martin Rawlings-Fein of the Bay Area, who served as a witness invited by the conversion candidate, reflected in a published essay (p. 110):

With the blood from his foreskin, my friend was transformed into someone who was only a step away from his new people. He was still the same person, but now he was transformed by this blood ritual confirming his commitment to becoming Jewish.... I remain entranced by the connectedness I felt as a Jewish man welcoming another Jewish man into the tribe.

In what setting is it performed?

No special location! In a clean place. A place that preserves the candidate’s privacy as much as possible. One that’s mutually convenient for the parties involved.

When is it performed?

Anywhere from several weeks before going for t’vilah (ritual immersion) until just prior to that immersion, right at the Mikveh. (The latter situation is the most common.) During daylight hours. Not on Shabbat or holy days.

Who performs it?

Basically, someone who’s willing and whom you don’t object to. Performing hattafat dam b’rit is considered a kindness — and so nobody charges money for this.

Some mohalim (ritual circumcisers — the plural of mohel) do so in their office, as a sideline. (Although they normally deal with infants, they do have the assured advantages of steady hands and a familiarity with blood and with handling male genitals.) Sometimes the candidate’s sponsoring rabbi will perform it personally. Or one of the other rabbis on the Bet Din panel will volunteer if asked in advance.

Or you can perform it on yourself, while a Jewish witness assists (or at least looks on). That’s not unusual, according to the staff at the Mikveh of the American Jewish University. It’s up to you.

What exactly happens?

Dr. Alan J. Green, a certified mohel in New Hampshire, sums it up this way:

I perform the procedure using a tiny spring-loaded lancet of the type used by diabetics to check their blood sugar levels.… It takes just a few seconds.

Before Dr. Sam Kunin (of blessed memory) retired as a mohel, he often used to perform this service for our conversion candidates. He provided this drawing (while noting that rubber gloves are optional) and then explained it as follows.

 

  1. With a gauze sponge, the one performing the rite gently grasps the head of the penis between the thumb and forefinger and pulls it slightly taut.
  2. At the base of the penis, the candidate pulls the skin taut in the other direction, toward the body. (A parent may do this for a child.)
  3. The performer selects the site to be lanced (avoiding blood vessels), swabs the area with alcohol, and carefully breaks the skin with the needle.
  4. After breaking the skin, the performer daubs the site with the gauze sponge, in order to display the drop of blood.

I should put “the drop” in quotation marks — because it’s sufficient to show only the merest discoloration of the gauze (i.e., less than a true drop). If a full drop (or even more) is expressed, that is okay, too.

At any rate, the essence of the rite is the sighting of blood. No benediction or utterance is required. Yet because it’s over so quickly, many a mohel or rabbi can’t resist adding to the rite by reciting a benediction or two. It’s for effect!

It’s truly over only when one Jewish witness can attest to having seen blood from the foreskin. Typically, that witness is the one performing the rite. You can also invite other Jews whom you believe will be appropriately respectful of the proceedings. At any rate, unless the Bet Din happens to be waiting outside for the witness’s testimony, at least one witness must sign a dated written attestation. Collect that document, to show the Bet Din panel. (Our Bet Din offers sponsoring rabbis a blank form for this purpose.)

Does It Hurt?

Speaking after many years of performing hattafat dam b’rit, Dr. Kunin used to tell conversion candidates as follows:

It feels like plucking a single hair.… It is much less uncomfortable than any blood draw.

For his part, Dr. Green notes:

Stretching the skin between my fingers results in the procedure being virtually painless.

But you don’t have to take the practitioners’ word for it. Indeed, recently a female convert wondered about what her male counterparts go through. So she asked around among fellow converts — and then blogged as follows:

The answers all boil down to “Not really.” And usually, the anticipation was the worst part.… Interestingly, it was mostly described as “uncomfortable.” Why? Think of getting blood drawn from a finger stick: sometimes the blood doesn’t immediately come out. What do they do next? Squeeze your finger.

And David Davies of Rhode Island has detailed his own experience:

An alcohol swab, a sterile lancet like those used for getting a drop of blood from a finger tip, and a quick jab in the side resulted in no pain and — what shall we call it? — a small drop of blood? Some might call it half a drop.… “My” new mohel said, “Good enough.”

What can go wrong?

Dr. Kunin has advised our rabbis that in the rare case of further bleeding, one should tie a sterile gauze sponge around the penis at the place of the needle stick, so as to apply direct pressure for at least ten minutes. (Much the same way that one stops bleeding from a minor cut on your finger, right?) He continued: “Blue discoloration under the skin … will not occur if the [blood] vessels are avoided. If it occurs, it is usually self-limiting and of no consequence.”

Hattafat dam b’rit is not required for a hemophiliac, or when doing so would otherwise create physical harm.

Finally, some authorities contend that it may be waived when there might be great psychological harm or extreme trauma to the candidate. (If you think this applies to you, please speak with your sponsoring rabbi, who will discuss the matter with the head of our Bet Din.)

—Rabbi David E. S. Stein