Latest update: January 15th, 2015
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: 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 someone more than once – at least not for two members of the same family.
In his new sefer, Shu’t HaShulchani, Rabbi Enkin cites several authorities who argue that a person may serve as sandak twice; he states that the custom not to do so certainly does not apply to relatives. In fact, a father shouldn’t hesitate to serve as sandak for all of his children should he so desire.
Returning to the original question about the dispute over who would serve as sandak, we quoted Proverbs 3:17: “Deracheha darkei noam vechol netivoteha shalom.” A mitzvah should bring about pleasantness and peace; if it doesn’t, it has not been fulfilled properly. Therefore, strife over the sandika’ot detracts from the full fulfillment of that mitzvah.
The Mechaber (supra, Yoreh De’ah 260:1) states that the right to bestow any honor or segment of the mitzvah of brit belongs to the father alone. Thus, a grandfather may not “grab” this honor for himself if it goes against the father’s wishes. Even the mitzvah of kibud av has limits, and a parent is prohibited from insisting on specific honors from his child.
Rabbi Moshe Stern, the Debreciner Rav, zt”l (Responsa Ba’er Moshe vol. 1, 60:9), discusses a case in which an individual accepted sandika’ot, only to be faced with his father’s strong opposition. A son is not duty-bound to accede to his father’s demands in such a case.
A mishnah (Kiddushin 29a) lists circumcision among the mitzvot that are incumbent upon a father to do for his son. Clearly it is preferable that a father circumcise his child himself; if so, why shouldn’t he serve as sandak as well?
The Divrei Malkiel (Responsa Vol. 4:86) describes the role of the sandak as assisting the mohel by securing the feet of the infant, thus sharing in the mitzvah of the brit. This collaboration assures that a milah performed on Shabbat is not in violation of it. As a mishnah (Shabbos 92b) explains, an act normally done by a single person – or able to be done by a single person – but is in fact done by two people together renders neither one liable for that act.
Since the mohel needs the sandak, though, the Mechaber (Y.D. 266:14) wonders why a brit is allowed to be done on Shabbat. It is an act that requires two people. The Divrei Malkiel offers two solutions: first, the wound inflicted by the mohel in the act of the milah would automatically override the violation of Shabbat; and second, since the sandak’s role is ancillary, a brit is not considered an act that requires two people. The mohel and sandak share in the mitzvah but it is not really a “two man job” and thus a brit may be performed on Shabbat.
Last week, we continued with the Divrei Malkiel’s explanation that the sandak participating in two mitzvot means he more important than the mohel and father, who each performs only one mitzvah. Therefore, it is proper for the father himself to serve as sandak – the most important role at the brit. In fact, when the father is unable to attend the brit, the custom is that the sandak recites the blessing the father would have recited because he is then doing the majority of the mitzvot between the sanika’ot and collaborating in the milah.
If the father is unable to personally circumcise his son, he should perform the other functions if possible. Thus, the sandika’ot or any other part of the mitzvah is entirely his to perform or, at his discretion, to offer to another individual as an honor.
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I have received many interesting e-mails regarding this topic, a few of which are quite relevant to this discussion. What follows is the first of these e-mails and my response:
Dear Rabbi Klass,
I always read your column’s halachic articles with great interest. I find them most informative. In your most recent article, you mention that the meaning of the term “kvater” is “like-father” (what, I assume, non-Jews term a “godfather”).
Since you did not mention it, it is interesting to note that the Aruch Hashulchan states in siman 265:35 (commenting on the Rema who writes that playing the part of sandak is like being maktir ketores) that the name kvater comes from the word ketores. The person bringing in the baby (the ketores) is called a “koter” with one vav, which got corrupted to two vavs: “kvater”!
An interesting tidbit: After discovering this Aruch Hashulchan, I mentioned it a few years ago at my grandson’s bris milah in Lakewood, NJ. Many chashuva rabbonim were at the bris. None of them had ever heard this Aruch Hashulchan. They all actually came up after to see it in the sefer for themselves!
Continued hatzlacha! Good Shabbos.
Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld
STAR-K Certification, Inc.
Dear Rabbi Kurcfeld,
I am most humbled by your remarks. You are extremely keen in finding a “hidden” Aruch Hashulchan, which is plainly there for all to see. I suspect that everyone is so busy searching through the Mishnah Berurah that they forget that the Aruch Hashulchan wrote extensively on all four chelkei Shulchan Aruch.
Indeed, it is important that we turn to the Aruch Hashulchan at the beginning of the above-mentioned se’if (265:35), who cites the Rema’s statement: “It is not proper for a woman to serve as sandak due to modesty. Nevertheless, she helps her husband in the mitzvah – she brings the infant to the synagogue and then her husband takes the infant from her. [Thus] he becomes the sandak. However, the man may do it all without the woman [i.e., bring the infant to the synagogue].”
The Aruch Hashulchan comments: “But as for us, the custom is not like that. As far as the sandak is concerned, the woman does not assist him. Rather, this is a separate honor – when the infant is brought to the synagogue, women come with the infant and they stand at the doorway of the room where the brit will take place. A woman securely holds the infant on a cushion or pillow and then hands him over to her husband, or [even] a young unmarried man or an unmarried woman, and he/she carries the infant to the chair of Elijah. This one is referred to as kvater.”
He continues: “My understanding is that this term [kvater] is derived from ketoret, the frankincense offering, as the Talmud (Kerisot 6b) states: What is this term ketoret? It is a matter that is ‘koter’ and rises. Rashi (to the Gemara) explains that it rises like a stick. Therefore, the one who brings [the infant] closer to the place of milah [is referred to as kvater]. But what happened is that due to translation, the word koter – spelled with one vav – became interchanged with kvater – with two vavs.
“And know that our custom is that one takes the infant from the kvater and hands him to another, who then hands [the infant] to yet another, until the child is finally handed to the one honored with kisei shel Eliyahu, who places the infant on the chair. The father then steps forward and lifts up the child – or he may appoint another to do so – and hands him to the sandak.
“And I suspect that the source for the infant being handed from one to another is the Talmud Eruvin (97b), which refers back to the mishnah (95b), which states that when there is a need to transfer an infant in the public domain [on Shabbat], one hands him from one person to another, even 100 times [with each person remaining in his four cubits so that no Sabbath violation is incurred].
“The Gemara asks: What is the son doing there [in the public domain]? The Gemara answers that it refers to an instance where a mother gave birth in the field. In such a scenario, they bring the infant in [to the house] by passing him from one person to another – even if there are 100 [people standing in line to transfer the child] and doing so entails great discomfort for the infant. They do so because there is no other option due to Shabbat.”
(An obvious difficulty: A newborn’s fragile condition grants it the halachic status of a choleh – a sick person – and violating the Sabbath should be permissible. Indeed, Rabbi Aryeh Leib Yellin of Lisk, in his Novella Yefei Einayim to Eruvin 97b, states that this precisely what the mishnah teaches us here. Although carrying even less than four amos is usually prohibited, it is permitted in this case due to the unusual circumstances.)
The Aruch Hashulchan concludes: “Since it causes great discomfort for the infant, why do they [hand him from person to person at the brit]? Yet,” he writes, “it is very difficult to abolish a minhag whereby each [participant] wishes to gain merit through holding the object of the mitzvah [the infant].”
Now, two things are striking about this Aruch Hashulchan. First, if the kvater is compared to the koter who offers ketoret, then how come there is no rule against someone serving as a kvater twice (like the rule about someone serving as sandak twice)? If the infant is passed through so many hands on the way to the sandak, surely people will wind up serving as a kvater more than once, even for sons of the same family.
The second striking thing is the Aruch Hashulchan’s apparent distaste of this minhag of passing the baby from one person to another – multiple kvaterim, or what the chassidim refer to as chaikas. We actually don’t generally see this custom in the non-chassidic world.
Interestingly, the Rav of Navhardok cites the Gemara in Eruvin (97b to the mishnah, 95b) as the source for this practice. And even though the city of Navhardok was a “Litvisher shtut,” this practice was the minhag. The Rav of Navhardok actually wished to abolish the custom but did not do so. Thus, in effect, he actually codified it as halachah.
Though I am a litvak by way of my father’s family (e.g. Slutzk and Minsk), from my mother’s side we descend from “groiser Rebbes” such as Reb Meilech, the Koznitzer Magid, and Reb Mordche Dovid Unger, the Dombrover Rebbe. I’ve always tried to reconcile chassidic practice to halachah. In this matter of the chaikas, you have resolved it for me by pointing out this Aruch Hashulchan who reconciles himself to the custom because of the desire of so many to derive the merit that comes along with serving as a kvater.
(To be continued)
About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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