This paper will explore the origins of the circumcision dress worn by Jewish male infants during their brit millah (ritual circumcision). With no requirements according to Jewish law on what is to be worn during this ceremony, how does early textual evidence point to our understanding and use of the dress? An examination of visual representations of circumcision ceremonies during the Early Modern period in manuscript and print culture points to the adaptation and use of a jacket worn by the infant during this time. This is then paired with extant examples of the period in museum collections. Lastly, as Jews began to assimilate and adapt practices of their host cultures in the nineteenth century, we see the rise of the practice of a dress worn by the infant, with an examination of infant costume and materials of the period.
In 1884 Francis Rosenfeld wore a white dress during his brit millah (ritual circumcision)1 in New York City (fig. 1). The dress was subsequently passed down through the Rosenfeld family and worn by generations of male descendants, also during their circumcision ceremonies. The dress is now on display and in the collection of the Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum at Temple Emanu-El in New York.2 This garment, the circumcision dress, has yet to be fully explored by Jewish scholars, as there is no halakhic (Jewish law) requirement on what to wear during the brit millah. Further understanding of its precise origins, stylistic influences, and role within Jewish culture, practice, and tradition also require investigation.
In Judaism, the circumcision is the physical covenant with God and is performed on the eighth day of a male baby’s life. Jewish law goes into detail on the act of circumcision itself, but little is said on what must be worn. Generally, Jewish costume and wardrobe have been adapted over time to reflect the host culture or land in which Jews lived.3 Dress for Jewish lifecycle events is rarely specified within Jewish law, with the exception of burial shrouds.4 So how then did the practice of placing a baby boy in a dress originate within Jewish custom? Looking at Jewish texts, one possibility is found in Exodus 4:25–26.
So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”JPS translation
Prior to this verse God tells Moses that he will slay his first-born. Moses’s wife Zipporah acts quickly and performs the ritual circumcision with a flint, hoping that this will save her child. The twelfth century biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra notes that the use of the word hatan (bridegroom) here is because the brit millah, the covenant between God and the baby, is like a wedding where God is the bride and the baby is the bridegroom (On Exod. 4:25). Ibn Ezra does not provide further explanation on this “marriage” but commentators over the centuries have likened many rituals and ceremonies to weddings between God and the Jewish people. For instance, Jews welcome the Sabbath as a bride;5 here the day of rest is the bride and God the bridegroom. These allegorical unions provide both spiritual and emotional connection to God. At Jewish weddings it is customary for a bridegroom to wear a white robe or a kittel. These robes are also worn on Yom Kippur. The association with white and holiness is not lost on the brit millah and its associations with a newborn baby. Perhaps this reading of ibn Ezra is one reason it became customary to dress a baby boy in a white dress like a bridegroom.
The forerunners to the circumcision dress were the swaddling cloths. This simple yet practical way of dressing the infant is both protective and practical. This practice dates back centuries (fig. 2). The swaddling cloths were transformed into objects of veneration, especially in western Ashkenazic communities.6 After the circumcision ceremony, the swaddling cloths were sewn into a singular long band and embroidered or painted with a set formulaic text. The text would state the name of the child, his date of birth, and “may he grown to learn Torah, to stand under the huppah (marriage canopy) and to do good deeds.” These objects were known as wimpels (or wimpeln as the plural) and depending on the community, they were either donated to the synagogue or used to bind the Torah scroll. When bound to the Torah scroll, the act presents a powerful dichotomy: the object that wrapped a baby during his physical covenant with God is now touching the holiest part of Judaism, the written covenant of the Torah. Wimpels can be found in almost every Jewish museum collection in the world, often by the dozen. Some, found in hoards, are now thought to have served as census records for various communities (fig. 3).7
Visual representations of the circumcision ceremony began in the Early Modern period, particularly with the interest by Christian Hebraists to depict Jewish rituals and lifecycle ceremonies. These images were exclusively made for a Christian audience. While most of these books still show the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths or completely naked, one of the earliest representations in a printed source of a circumcision dress is found in Bernard Picart’s Ceremonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peoples du monde (1723–1737). Picart was granted access to synagogues and private ceremonies of the Amsterdam Jewish community, which he deployed for depictions in this volume (fig. 4) (Hunt and Jacob 7). Here Picart’s subject is the Portuguese (Sephardic) Jewish community.
The eighteenth century also saw Jewish representations of this ceremony become prevalent, especially in manuscript illustrations. Historically, Hebrew
manuscript illustration saw a resurgence in the eighteenth century.8 Among wealthy Jewish communities, sumptuous illustrated manuscripts were commissioned as gifts: for example, small volumes with prayers for after meals, daily worship, Passover haggadot (the text of the seder meal), and mohel books. Mohel books contain the prayers and rites of the ritual circumciser. These would be accompanied with hand-painted illustrations of the ceremony. These illustrations provide an important insight into the ritual, having been made for a Jewish audience by Jewish scribes and illustrators. They are also significant because they offer a glimpse into the fashion and dress of the time. Of the mohel book manuscripts I have found only two that demonstrate a baby wearing a jacket rather than a dress. Others depict the baby in swaddling cloths or naked. It is important to note that these particular manuscripts are both from Ashkenazic communities (fig. 5).9
The jackets seen in these two manuscripts are an important clue to the fashion and dress of a baby boy during his circumcision ceremony in the eighteenth century. However, one of the earliest known examples of a circumcision garment is held in the collection of the Israel Museum: a jacket or coat for circumcision from Germany, 1772, made of ribbed silk, applique, and gilt silver foil on parchment cutouts with an inscription that reads: “As he has entered the holy covenant of circumcision so many he enter into the study of the Torah, to the huppah, and to good deeds” (Talmud, b.Shabbat 137b).10 While the exact origin of this coat is not known, it is likely that it was made for a family of a Court Jew. In the eighteenth century in German speaking lands only a family of great means would have been able to afford such a luxurious coat for a newborn baby (fig. 6).
According to one account of birth rituals and customs in Italian ghettos, on the morning of the circumcision, the baby was bathed with perfumes, dipped in a basin of water and wrapped in fine embroidered bindings and mantles of brocade and silk (fig. 7) (Sztulman). According to Gioia Perugia Sztulman, scholar of Italian Jewish art, the inspiration for these garments “probably derives from those made by Christian neighbours [sic] on the occasion of the baptism” Sztulman 60; Muchawsky-Schnapper, 168). She also notes that these garments were passed down from generation to generation. The notion of borrowing a custom from your neighbor, or in this case host culture, was not a new one, but this practice is perhaps the first instance where it is as explicit and indeed noted. It is that which will lead us back to the late nineteenth-century circumcision dress of Francis Rosenfeld.
For many American Reform Jews in the nineteenth century, there was a blurred line between “embracing their Jewish identity and assimilating into American culture” (Lufkin 122). Questions of identity and belonging, a pride in economic and social success, and integration into American society led to this limen or ambiguity when it came to practice and religious identity. Legends of how these Jews made assimilation look and appear seamless exist perhaps in order to comfort later, contemporary difficulties and challenges with respect to issues of assimilation. The material culture which these Jews left behind provides us with the evidence: in their prayerbooks, devotional objects, cemeteries and indeed fashions. Sometimes the lack of material evidence also gives clues as to how they practiced their religion. For example, men were discouraged from wearing traditional head coverings (such as kippot; Yiddish, “yarmulkes”) in Classical Reform synagogues (Sobel 98–99). Prayerbooks were mainly written in the vernacular language; devotional and ritual objects were made by the best silversmiths and often followed the choicest stylistic designs of the day (Grossman cat. nos. 4, 5, and 24). If we focus upon these examples, we can easily point to the emulation of a host culture in nineteenth-century America. It is no surprise that a prominent family like the Rosenfelds of Temple Emanu-El (a recently founded German-speaking congregation) would be set on using a dress for their son’s circumcision ceremony. This was a dress most likely made from a pattern for a christening or baptism. Some scholars have argued that assimilation or acculturation went too far and led many Jews into mixed marriages and out of the door of the synagogue. However, the use of this type of dress on the day of the most sacred covenant with God is an empowering moment. Instead, one could argue that it elevates the ceremony itself, not to mention that it was later passed along through generations and used for the same function. Further evidence of the influence of christening or baptism dresses can be seen in museum costume and fashion collections. For instance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has over thirty textiles cataloged as christening dresses or related caps and other garments. Nineteenth-century photography of babies in these dresses offers an important clue into the circumcision dress’s origin and fabrication (fig. 8).
Several Jewish museums in North America maintain circumcision dresses and accompanying textiles, such as caps, in their collection. One notable garment is housed in the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California, Berkeley. It is specifically cataloged for a pidyon ha-ben ceremony (fig. 9).11 The overall appearance of the dress is similar to a circumcision dress, however it is likely that the object was donated or acquired by the museum with the narrative of being a pidyon ha-ben dress. It is worth noting that unlike many other ritual items of Judaica that are donated or accessioned by museums, that may have a more obvious use and appearance, without a family history or context of the use of the dress for the circumcision, these items would be lost to time. One particularly significant history concerns a circumcision dress in the collection of the Jewish Museum of Maryland; it was made from fabric used in the train of the wedding dress of the child’s mother (fig. 10 and 11).12
Based on the overall appearance of these dresses in the nineteenth century, without a doubt they resemble women’s fashions of the time, with stylistic references to waistlines, cuts, fabric choices and overall design.13 A good example for comparison is a nineteenth-century blouse in the collection of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 12). Because circumcision dresses are not required by Jewish law to be worn during the ceremony, there is more flexibility for their style. Perhaps the functionality of being loose-fitting is the only requirement of the dress. Fashion historians note that clothing for babies, especially newborn’s clothing, was generally indistinguishable between the genders and took inspiration from women’s fashion. Of course, it was the mother who was making or purchasing such outfits. Long and often loose-fitting white dresses would be layered for warmth. These garments would change in length as the baby learned to walk (Olian).
In conclusion, Sephardic and Italian communities were early adapters of the circumcision dress as evident in the eighteenth century. Their Ashkenazi brethren would follow about a century later. Tracing the development of the circumcision dress, one can loosely follow the history and narrative of wealthier, prominent Jewish communities that saw times of prosperity in the Netherlands and in Italian ghettos. These were luxury items, made by and for wealthy families and communities. German-speaking Jews and the rise of the Reform Movement in the United States certainly welcomed this custom, drawing inspiration from their Christian neighbors. The holdings of many of these circumcision dresses in public collections allow for a greater understanding of how and why these garments were saved and used. They became heirlooms, something to pass down to a future generation, to be used in a sacred ceremony and with the hope of the continuity of religion and covenant.
Brit millah literally translates to “word of the covenant.” Also known as a bris, this occurs on the eighth day of a Jewish baby boy’s life. The ceremony is performed by a mohel, a ritual circumciser. This ceremony and ritual represent the physical covenant with God that harkens back to the book of Genesis when Abraham circumcised himself and his children (Genesis 17:13).
The donation was part of a larger gift of textiles and family heirlooms given to the Temple by one of its long-standing member families. The Rosenfeld family involvement with Temple Emanu-El dates to Francis’s grandparents Lazarus (b. 1817 in Baden) and Henriette Rosenfeld. Lazarus served as a trustee of the Temple, and although not a founding member, his membership is recorded as early as 1847.
See Rubens’s History of Jewish Costume. In his introduction, Rubens notes that Jews dressed similarly to their neighbors even in biblical times. Localized costumes became standard because of minhag, custom. Evidence of this can be found in representations of dress on mosaic floors in early churches, pagan temples and synagogues. Certainly, throughout history Jews have been forced to wear certain items of clothing or colors that identified them as Jewish or as other, as this was meant to segregate the population.
Known as tachrichim; for more information, see Alia Ben-Ami and Esther Juhasz, “Death and Mourning.”
The sixteenth-century hymn, Lecha Dodi (“Come, my Beloved”), is sung Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. Other examples of “marriage” tropes include special ketubbot, marriage contracts made for the festival of Shavuot, celebrating the allegorical marriage between the Jewish people (bridegroom) and God/Torah (bride). See, for example, a Shavuot ketubbah from Gibraltar, circa 1830–40s in the Braginsky Collection, Zurich (Braginsky Collection Ketubbah 26)
This practice was mainly relegated to German-speaking lands such as modern-day Germany, Alsace, Switzerland and Denmark. There are later examples that are known to be made in Bohemia and Moravia with a slight variation on the formulaic text. With the constant movement of Jewish communities, it is possible that this practice had a further reach.
For more on wimpels and Torah binders see Ruth Eis, Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig, and Annette Weber.
On the resurgence of Hebrew manuscript illumination in the eighteenth century, see Haviva Peled-Carmeli and E.G.L. Schrijver.
The two manuscripts with notable jackets or coats worn by the baby are HUC MS 599 and Braginsky 52.
The coat is from the collection of Eliezer Burstein, Lugano in the Israel Museum (B55.03.0864). For more information on this coat, see Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper, “Birth and Childhood.” See also the exhibition catalog of Richard Cohen and Vivian Mann.
The pidyon ha-ben ceremony, literally “redemption of the first born,” is marked on the thirtieth day of the first-born male baby’s life. The baby is “redeemed” by coins of silver from being predestined to serve as a priest. See figure 9.
I am grateful to Joanna Church, collections curator at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, for her assistance in providing me details and information on pieces in the museum’s collection (email correspondence, June and July 2020). More on the Kornblatt family can be found at
I am grateful to my colleague Anna Yanofsky at the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York for her assistance and guidance.
Ben-Ami, Alia, and Esther Juhasz. “Death and Mourning.” The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Ed. Esther Juhasz. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2012. 237–259.
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Hunt, Lynn, et. al., editors. Bernard Picart and the First Global Vision of Religion. Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute, 2010.
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Juhasz, Esther, ed. The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of the Israel Museum. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2012.
“Kornblatts.” Just Married, www.marylandweddingstories.org/kornblatts.
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Muchawsky-Schnapper, Ester. “Birth and Childhood.” The Jewish Wardrobe from the Collection of the Israel Museum. Ed. Esther Juhasz. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 2012. 164–191.
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Peled-Carmeli, Haviva. Illustrated Haggadot of the Eighteenth Century. Jerusalem: The Israel Museum, 1983.
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Schrijver, E.G.L. “Some Superb Examples of Eighteenth-Century Viennese Penmanship: The Manuscripts of Aryeh Judah Leib of Trebitsch.” Jewish Studies in a New Europe: Proceedings of the Fifth Congress of Jewish Studies under the Auspices of the European Association of Jewish Studies. Eds. U. Haxen, et. al. European Association of Jewish Studies, 1998. 732–744.
Sobel, Ronald B. A History of New York’s Temple Emanu-El: The Second Half Century. Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1980.
Sztulman, Gioia Perugia. “A Male Child is Born: Festive Circumcision Events in Italian Ghettos.” La Nascita nella Tradidzione Ebraica. Livorno, Italy: Belforte, 2005. 60–83.
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Weber, Annette et. al., ed. Mappot … Blessed be who Comes, the Band of Jewish Tradition. Osnabruck, Germany: Secolo, 1997.
Shavuot ketubbah from Gibraltar, circa 1830–40s. The Braginsky Collection, Zurich, Ketubbah 26. https://braginskycollection.com/contracts/gibraltar-2/.
Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, University of California Berkley, Berkeley, CA [81–50].
Uri Pheibush ben Isaak Eisik. Seder Tikkun ha-Mohel (Order of Circumcision). HUCMS 599, fol. 12r. Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbeck, 1741. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Library.
Judah Leib ben Samson Segal. Seder Tikkun ha-Mohel (Order of Prayer for the Circumciser), Düsseldorf, 1744. CEE 45–95, folio 9r. New York: Temple Emanu-El.
Braginsky 52, Hamburg, 1750. Zurich: Braginsky Collection.