Latest update: May 17th, 2013
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.
The Shach (Yoreh Deah ad loc. sk 22) clarifies that the Rema does not mean that a person may not serve as sandak more than once. Rather, he should not serve as sandak for more than one boy per family.
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.
We quoted Rabbi Ari Enkin’s discussion of sandika’ot in his new sefer, Shu’t HaShulchani. He writes that serving as a sandak enriches one with material wealth, as well as long life full of spiritual wealth. 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. In some communities, the local rabbi is designated as the exclusive sandak for all children.
Rabbi Enkin concludes his discussion by pointing out that the custom of restricting someone from serving as sandak more than once is not found in the Talmud, and therefore is not truly binding.
We then returned to the original question about the dispute over who would serve as sandak. Proverbs (3:17) states, “Deracheha darkei noam vechol netivoteha shalom – Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” 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 Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:11) refers to sandika’ot as an actual mitzvah that one should actively pursue.
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.
Last week we cited a case discussed by Rabbi Moshe Stern, the Debreciner Rav, zt”l (Responsa Ba’er Moshe vol. 1, 60:9), in which an individual accepted sandika’ot, only to be faced with his father’s strong opposition. Rabbi Stern cites the Knesset Yechezkel (Responsum 35) who rules that a son is not duty-bound to accede to his father’s demands in such a case. The Knesset Hagedolah writes in the name of the Ohr Zarua that if a father tells his son to disregard a mitzvah without offering an explanation, the son should not to listen to him. He cites Tosafot (Bava Metzia 32a sv “d’kavod”) as a source for this ruling.
Rabbi Stern explains that in case of sandika’ot, a father might object because, as the Mechaber states (Yoreh De’ah 257:7), in any situation that involves the assumption of financial responsibilities, a mishap can occur, perhaps leading to false accusations. Rabbi Stern suggests that a father might worry that by his son serving in the capacity of sandak he is taking on some sort of financial responsibility, such as when appointed a guardian for orphans.
Our original question, however, concerns a person serving as sandak for his own child, so the grandfather’s objection cannot be based on such a consideration and is not applicable.
* * * * *
I have to admit that I have been at many brit milah and I don’t recall a father ever serving as sandak for his own son. Let us see how the Shulchan Aruch sets forth the order of the brit milah ceremony.
The Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 265:1) states: “The mohel should recite the blessing ‘asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al ha’milah – who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us regarding the milah.’ The father of the child, between the time that the foreskin is cut and the priyah (the revealing of the corona), should recite ‘asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hachniso b’vriso shel Avraham Avinu – who has sanctified us with His mitzvot and commanded us to bring [the child] into the covenant of our patriarch Abraham.’ ”
The Rema (in his glosses, ibid) adds: “If the father of the child is not present at the brit, there is one (Rambam in Hilchot Milah) who says that another person should recite this blessing since [in the absence of the father] beit din is obligated to circumcise the child. And the custom in such a circumstance is that the one entrusted with holding the child [i.e., the sandak] recites this blessing. Similarly, if the father does not know how to recite the blessing, the [sandak] should recite the blessing even if the father is present.”
The father and the mohel are required to stand while they recite the blessing. However, if the sandak recites the blessing, then the custom is for him to sit. Custom also dictates that all present during the brit should stand. We derive this from the verse (II Kings 23:3) “vaya’amod kol ha’om ba’brit – and all the people stood at the brit.” (The brit referred to in this verse is the covenant that Josiah, king of Judah, reestablished between the people and God when he removed and destroyed all the idols from the Temple.)
A second reason for the father to stand at the brit is cited by the Mechaber (infra, Y.D. 265:9): in order to make known to the mohel that it is the father’s wish to appoint him as his agent to perform the mitzvah.
Now we seem to be faced with a contradiction. On the one hand, all present at the brit are required to stand (the father, mohel, and all others), and yet the sandak sits – even if he is the one reciting the blessing. There is no real contradiction, however, for two reasons: first, the verse is only an asmachta brought as a support for the practice, as the passage in Kings II is not discussing brit milah but another covenant with God. Second, the sandak, when reciting the blessing, is doing so at the instruction of another, whether it is the father or beit din. Thus, in either case, the sandak need not stand next to the mohel. We can add a third reason, which is probably the intent of the Rema, supra, 265:1. That reason is that, in actuality, there is no absolute requirement for the one reciting the blessing to stand, whether it is the sandak or the father himself.
In truth, even though the Mechaber and the Rema seem to take it as a given that the father does not perform the milah but rather appoints another (the mohel) to do the mitzvah on his behalf, what we see in the mishnah (Kiddushin 29a) is something different. It states: “All mitzvot of the son upon the father: men are bound by but women are exempt. All mitzvot of the father upon the son: both men and women are bound by.” The Gemara seeks to clarify: Surely it can’t be that only a son is duty bound in the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em but a daughter is exempt. The Gemara therefore explains that “what is meant is that regarding mitzvot incumbent upon the father to do for his son, men are bound by but women are exempt.”
The Gemara then lists the responsibilities of the father that are implied in our mishnah: “The father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem his [first born] son [from the kohen – pidyon haben], to teach him Torah, find him a wife, teach him a trade [that would lead to gainful employment], and some even say to teach him how to swim. R. Yehudah adds: One who fails to teach his son a trade teaches him thievery.”
It is thus clear that the father himself should circumcise his child. Now, if the father is really duty bound to serve as the mohel, then why not serve as sandak as well?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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