Question: I was at a brit where the father and grandfather of the boy argued over who should be sandak. The grandfather had served as sandak once before, but he persisted and, as they say, “might makes right.” I am curious as to your view on this matter.
Answer: Last week we examined the source of the word “sandak” as well as the sandak’s role at the brit.
The Midrash (Tehillim pg. 723) contains the term “sandikus,” a Greek word meaning “companion of child” or “advocate.” Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov explains that sandak is an acronym of “sanegor na’aseh din kategor – the defense emerges victorious vis-à-vis the prosecutor,” referring to the brit’s function as a protection from Satan.
The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:11) writes that the sandak is given the first honor of being called up to the Torah, even before the mohel. The Rema explains that the sandak is compared to a kohen who offers incense in the Beit Hamikdash. All kohanim wished to benefit from the blessing of the incense, which enriched the one who offered it. Therefore, a lottery was established to assure that all had an equal opportunity to perform it. Similarly, it is customary not to give the role of sandak to one individual more than once.
The Shach (Yoreh Deah ad loc. sk 22) clarifies that Rema does not mean that one may not be a sandak more than once. Rather, if a person has served as sandak for a boy, he should not serve as sandak for any of his brothers in the future.
The Rema also talks about the honorary role of the kvaterin and kvater, the female and male messengers who bring the baby to the synagogue for the brit.
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I am very fortunate to have recently received the newly published sefer, Shut HaShulchani, a collection of very relevant halachic responsa in English authored by my esteemed chaver, Rabbi Ari Enkin of Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel. (The sefer is available directly from the author. Contact Rabbi Enkin at email@example.com or call 011-972-52-579-1773.)
Rabbi Enkin discusses the matter of the sandak in great detail. He writes as follows (pg. 154-156):
“The sandak is the individual honored with holding the baby during the brit milah ceremony and it is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon at a brit. Although sandak is often translated as godfather, it likely comes from the Greek word suntekos, which means companion. The sandak is seated during the brit ceremony and holds the baby on his lap while the mohel performs the circumcision It is taught that when the sandak holds the baby on his lap, thereby including his knees and thighs in the performance of the mitzvah, he embodies the verse (Biur Hagra, Yoreh De’ah 265:44) ‘All my bones shall say, Who is like You, G-d?’ ”
Rabbi Enkin discusses the custom not to honor the same individual as sandak more than once within the same family. He agrees with the sources that compare the sandak to the kohen offering incense in the Beit Hamikdash and explains: “A kohen was only given the opportunity to perform this mitzvah once in his lifetime. This is because whoever offered the incense would become wealthy. Therefore, in order to offer as many kohanim as possible the opportunity of becoming wealthy, it was decided to appoint a different kohen to perform the incense offering every day.”
Likewise, the sandak, who represents the kohen offering the incense, will become wealthy. In addition, Rabbi Enkin continues, it is “a segulah for a long and good life. Therefore, we offer the opportunity of serving as sandak to as many different people as possible.”
Rabbi Enkin explains that once a certain individual is invited to serve as sandak, the baby’s parents should not renege and give the honor to another person. However, if the original offer was made before the child was born, and once the child is born the parents decide to honor a different person instead, it is permitted to do so.
There are a number of authorities who disagree with the restriction against appointing the same sandak twice. Rabbi Enkin discusses their reasoning as follows: