What Is a Brit Yitzchak?

Getting to know lesser-known observances for newborn Jewish boys

Close-up of baby boy sleeping on bed
Daniel Ramsay / EyeEm / Getty Images

There are many traditions surrounding the days leading up to the brit milah (circumcision) or bris of a newborn Jewish boy, but some are obscure and not well-known. 

For Ashkenazic Jews, the shalom zachar is the most well-known and is a special event that occurs the first Shabbat after a baby boy is born.

The Vach Nacht

Additionally, there is the vach nacht, which is Yiddish for "watch night," which occurs the night before the baby's brit milah. In some communities, this night is also known as the erev zachar, or "men's night." 

On this night, the newborn's father will gather 10 men to stay awake all night to study Torah and recite verses from as a type of vigil over the boy. Likewise, the father will recite HaMalach Ha'Goel("The angel who redeems me"). The practice derives from a belief in Kabbalistic, or mystical, Judaism that the night before a baby boy's brit milah he is in greater danger from the evil eye (ayin hara) and requires extra spiritual protection.

In Chasidic communities, a special meal is held, while in the general Askhenazic community it's common for schoolchildren to visit the baby, and recite the Shema and share Torah in the baby's presence. 

The Brit Yitzchak

For Sephardic Jews, the vach nacht is known as a Zohar or Brit Yitzchak, or "covenant of Isaac," and

occurs the night before the baby's brit milah, in place of the Ashkenazic vach nacht.

In these communities, the newborn's male family members and their friends get together and recite portions of the Zohar, the foundation text of mystical Judaism known as Kabbalah, related to circumcision. There's a light meal with sweets and cake and the family's rabbi usually delivers a d'var Torah (words on the Torah).

It's also common to line the newborn's walls with Kabbalistic charts that have protection-related verses from the Torah to ward off evil spirits. 

There is also a custom in many Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities for the mohel (the individual who performs the circumcision) to visit the family the evening prior to the brit milah to place the circumcision knife under the baby's pillow. This serves not only as a protection against the "evil eye," but also keeps the mohel from violating Shabbat if the circumcision is on the Sabbath because he doesn't have to carry his tool on the Sabbath.

Example of a Brit Yitzchak

The family gathers, making sure there are 10 men present to make up a minyan (the minimum number of men needed to recite certain prayers). After the evening prayers (ma’ariv) are finished, all windows, doors and other entrances/exits to the home are closed and the following verse is recited:

“Two by two they came to Noah to the ark, male and female, as God had commanded Noah” (Genesis 7:9).

The purpose of this is symbolic: Just as the ark was sealed for the duration of the flood to protect Noah and his family from death, so too is the newborn boy’s family sealed in for the evening with him to guarantee life amid potential danger.

After this, a knife or sword is passed along the walls and closed openings of the room where the mother and baby are. Then, portions of the Zohar are read, followed by the priestly blessing and Psalms 91 and 121. The knife or sword that was used earlier, along with a book of Psalms, is placed near the child and an amulet is placed over the baby’s crib until the morning.

The entire evening concludes with a festive meal, but prior to this, Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim and Menashe (Genesis 48:13-16) is said three times to the baby:

"And Joseph took them both, Ephraim at his right, from Israel's left, and Manasseh at his left ... And he blessed Joseph and said, "God, before Whom my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, walked, God Who sustained me as long as I am alive, until this day, may the angel who redeemed me from all harm bless the youths, and may they be called by my name and the name of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac, and may they multiply abundantly like fish, in the midst of the land."


The Night Before the Brit Milah. Canadian Jewish News, 10 Jan. 2008

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "What Is a Brit Yitzchak?" Learn Religions, Aug. 28, 2020, learnreligions.com/what-is-a-brit-yitzchak-2076854. Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. (2020, August 28). What Is a Brit Yitzchak? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-brit-yitzchak-2076854 Gordon-Bennett, Chaviva. "What Is a Brit Yitzchak?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-is-a-brit-yitzchak-2076854 (accessed June 2, 2023).