July 11, 2013
One of the more shocking aspects of Judaism is the custom of a mohel using his mouth to remove the blood from the genitals of a circumcised infant. Amazingly, this traditional practice is still sometimes performed in contemporary America, and has gained attention in the media when it was revealed that in some cases the rabbi has infected the child with herpes. In my recent research into the medieval accounts of strange Jewish rites, I have come across an article from The Jewish Quarterly Review written by Abraham Gross of Ben-Gurion University that discusses an interesting variation on this centuries-old custom. According to a medieval Jewish text quoted by Gross, the blood of the circumcision ritual was sometimes displayed above the entrance to the synagogue:
a cloth is brought upon which the mohel wipes his hands and mouth sullied by the blood. And why was the practice instituted that this cloth be spread over the synagogue entrance? [I have heard] from my uncle Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn-may the memory of the righteous be a source of blessing-to publicize the commandment, as they publicized the blood of circumcision and the blood of the Paschal sacrifice in Egypt, when they placed it as a sign on the lintel so that all should see the miracle.
This practice of displaying the bloody cloth was never very widespread, and seems to have disappeared by the end of the medieval period. Speculating as to why this practice was abandoned, Gross suggests that the spread of accusations of human sacrifice, the infamous “blood libel”, caused the Jews to become more discreet. When your Christian neighbors suspect that you are using human blood in your religious ceremonies, it might be best to stop displaying human blood at the entrance of your synagogue.