One can envision two different methods to circumcize a penis based on where the cut is placed. The first method involves placing the cut after the glans and the second placing it before the glans. The first method would expose the urethra, but leave most of the glans covered, while the second method would leave the glans completely exposed. For the circumsised, these two procedures are much different. The image below demonstrates the difference:

enter image description here

What I think is a myth goes as follows:

Jews used to practice the first method, but as many male Jews practiced epispasm, the Rabbinate (?) in 140 CE decreed that the second method should be used instead. Epispasm means restoring the function of the foreskin by stretching it by tying weights to it. Some male Jews practiced epispasm in antiquity but it is very unclear how widespread the practice was. The Rabbis objected to epispasm and therefore imposed the second circumcision method, according to the claim.

This claim can easily be found on anti-circumcision sites. One source for the claim is Jim Bigelow's book The Joy of Uncircumcising! p.8:

I have met very few Jews and even fewer Christians who know that the style of circumcision which is practiced both by Jews and the medical profession today bears little resemblance to the circumcision rite in biblical times. Almost no modern-day Christians know that the rabbis radicalized the circumcision procedure in approximately 140 A.D. Before that time it was a rather simple, symbolic procedure, quite different from the current practice which denudes and permanently alters the nature of the glans. Most Christians assume that God told Abraham to carry out a procedure something like that which a modern doctor or rabbi calls circumcision. It follows, therefore, that what they have the doctor do to their son is a circumcision like God told Abraham to do some 4,000 years ago. It isn’t!

Bigelow's source for the claim is Kaufmann Kohler's entry "Circumcision" in The Jewish Encyclopedia from 1964 p. 93, which I can't find online. The same claim can be found in Circumcision: then and now by James E. Peron p. 41-42:

The original Biblical circumcision of Abraham's time was a relatively minor ritual circumcision procedure in which only the redundant end of the foreskin extending beyond the tip of the glans was removed. [...] No other feature was added to the religious ritual until about 140 AD when a second step to the ritual circumcision procedure was introduced. [...] Periah: The laying bare of the glans After performing "milah", the cutting back of the end of the infant's foreskin, a second step, periah was then performed. Periah consists of tearing and stripping back the remaining inner mucosal lining of the foreskin from the glans and then, by use of a sharp finger nail or implement, removing all of the inner mucosal tissue, including the excising and removal of the frenulum from the underside of the glans. The objective was to insure that no part of the remaining penile skin would rest against the glans corona.

  • The title and the body of the question do not match. The title asks whether the practice changed, which is on-topic for this site, but the body asks how the myth (presupposing it is a myth) originated, which is off-topic.
    – jwodder
    Jan 18, 2021 at 20:17
  • I'm not familiar with either method. "In the most common procedure, the foreskin is opened, adhesions are removed, and the foreskin is separated from the glans" Wikipedia. Both the glans and the urethra are undamaged in a perfect (allegedly modern?) circumcision. Something the first quote seems to recognize.
    – user11643
    Jan 18, 2021 at 20:22
  • @jwodder I removed the reference to that. Still, if someone answers the question they should, of course, providence evidence and not just answer "Yes it is true"/"No it is false". Jan 18, 2021 at 20:34
  • 1
    Oh, I see now from the pictures. Well, that they used to do it by pulling the foreskin and and nipping the end is more or less accepted, I believe, but it was a simple matter of having the right tools and anatomical knowledge (ancient fathers often performed the ritual, rather than a "specialist"). But that "you must remove all of the foreskin" was handed down from an authority is certainly a very interesting question. With that said, you might get better answers on judaism.stackexchange.com, history.stackexchange.com, or even christianity.stackexchange.com
    – user11643
    Jan 18, 2021 at 20:38
  • 2
    We have a site dedicated to Judaism Mi Yodeya. You might consider asking there. Jan 19, 2021 at 13:56

1 Answer 1


I have consulted a source I missed when I asked my question and now feel I can answer it. There is not enough evidence to conclude that a new form of Jewish ritual circumcision (Periah) was introduced in the second century. In fact, the opposite seem to be true; in 140 CE, Periah was well-established practice.

In Infant Male Circumcision: A Catholic Theological and Bioethical Analysis, David Albert Jones writes:

It is attested from multiple sources that during the period between the Maccabean revolt (167 BC) and the Bar Kokba revolt (135 AD) some Jews sought to disguise or reverse their circumcision, some omitted to circumcise, and some practiced circumcision that did not involve removing the complete foreskin. It seems reasonable to conclude that this context explains the rabbinic insistence in the second century AD that periah must henceforth be regarded as a necessary element of Jewish circumcision. However, even if scholars are correct in arguing that this element only became a requirement for Jewish circumcision at this time, this would not demonstrate that this form of the ritual was only instituted at that time. Furthermore, even if it is granted, for the sake of argument, that this form of the ritual was only instituted in reaction to Hellenization, this would suggest an earlier date, around the time of the Maccabean revolt. Recent scholarship has discovered evidence of the practice of periah precisely in this context. In the book of Jubilees (from the second century BC) God warns Abraham about a future generation who “will not circumcise their sons in accord with this entire law because they will leave some of the flesh of their circumcision when they circumcise their sons” (Jubilees 15:33, emphasis added). Concerning this passage, Thiessen states that “most interpreters see here a reference to the practice of periah, in which the entirety of the foreskin is removed” (Thiessen 2014, 385). Thiessen here cites Rubin (2003), but Rubin reserves judgment on this point, referring to the differences in the translations of Charles and VanderKam and speculating that these may reflect underlying textual differences. However, VanderKam confirmed to me in personal communication that the critical texts constructed by Charles (in 1895) and his own (in 1989) do not differ on this passage, and the difference is due to a mistake in translation by Charles. The Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906 would not have had access to an accurate translation of this passage from the book of Jubilees.

There seems every reason, therefore, to believe that periah was practiced by at least some Jews in the second century BC and that during this period omitting the periah was associated with Hellenism and was regarded by its opponents, whether correctly or incorrectly, as an innovation.

The argument is that a passage in the Book of Jubilees defines a proper circumcision as Periah and dissuades Jews from leaving foreskin on the penis. Thus Periah was not invented in the second century CE.

My take is that among Jews in the Greco-Roman world, practice was not uniform. It is entirely possible that Milah and Periah coexisted. For example, the first century Roman writer Aulus Cornelius Celsus described a device called pondus Judaeus which Jewish men would attach to their penis to stretch their foreskin so that it would cover the glans. This implies that Periah wasn't always practiced since then there would be no leftover skin to use for stretching. Perhaps some families would opt for Milah if previous babies died after being circumcised.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .