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Q & A: The Sandak (Part VII)


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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.

M. Renkin
(Via E-Mail)

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. Moreover, the practice not to serve as sandak more than once is not found in the Talmud and therefore is not truly binding.

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 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.

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. 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.

Last week we examined the Shulchan Aruch’s description of the brit milah ceremony, including the blessings recited by the mohel and father. The Rema adds that if the father is not present at the brit, the sandak recites his blessing instead of him. The father and the mohel are required to stand while they recite the blessing, as are all present at the brit. However, if the one holding the child recites the blessing, the custom is that he sit.

The Mechaber and the Rema assume that a father does not perform the milah himself, but rather appoints another (the mohel) to do the mitzvah on his behalf. Yet 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?

* * * * *

In Responsa Divrei Malkiel (Rabbi Malkiel Zvi Tannenbaum, 1847-1910, Vol. 4:86), we find an explanation of the role of the sandak at the brit. The sandak, Rabbi Tannenbaum writes, secures the feet of the infant, holding them in place, and positions the milah toward the mohel. If so, the sandak actually plays a significant part and assists the mohel in the physical part of the mitzvah. It is as if the two of them have done the mitzvah together.

Rabbi Tannenbaum compares sandika’ot at the brit to other instances where two collaborate in an act. (This is relevant for a brit milah performed on Shabbat and whether collaboration exempts one from full halachic responsibility.) For instance, the mishnah (Shabbos 92b) states: “If one carries out a loaf [on Shabbat] into the public domain, he is liable. If two carry it out [into the public domain], they are not culpable. If, however, one [alone] is unable to carry it out on his own and thus two carried it out, both are liable; however, Rabbi Shimon exempts them.”

Thus, we see that an act normally done by one person – or able to be done by one person – but is in fact done by two together renders neither one liable for that act (if the act is forbidden). (Rabbi Tannenbaum notes that an exception to this rule is found in the Gemara [Makot 20b], derived from the Leviticus 19:27. A makif [one who shaves another’s peyote] and a nikef [one who allows another to shave him] are both liable even though each is doing only half an act.)

Now, regarding a mohel and sandak, we find that the Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 266:14) issues the following warning: “Care is to be taken that two mohalim not perform the brit together on Shabbat, [i.e.,] that one circumcises [milah] and the other reveals the crown [priyah]. Rather, the one who circumcises shall himself [also] do the priyah.”

The implication of the Mechaber’s statement is that since two would be performing the act together, it is possible that neither is fully accomplishing the act on his own, thereby leaving each in violation of Shabbat. The Rema (ad loc.), while essentially not agreeing with the Mechaber’s logic – since he argues that the avodah in the Beit Hamkidash on Shabbat was performed by numerous kohanim and yet was not considered a violation of Shabbat – cites a source that prohibits the division of the brit between the mohel and sandak, even though he himself would find no such reason to prohibit it.

Rabbi Tannenbaum alludes to this halacha of the Mechaber and applies it similarly to the roles of the mohel and the sandak at the brit. If we consider that the sandak plays a significant role in the actual milah, then the same problem arises at any milah performed on Shabbat.

He offers two possible solutions: One, since the mohel in the course of the milah is allowed to inflict a wound in the act of circumcision, he instantly overrides the violation of Shabbat. Second, the sandak actually does not aid that much in the performance of the milah. Therefore, it is considered as if the mohel has the ability to override Shabbat but the sandak does not. Since the mohel already overrode Shabbat by inflicting the actual wound, the sandak is not liable in such a case. Nevertheless, when the sandak holds the child, he is considered as having a part in the mitzvah of the milah. Additionally, he is considered to have the same status as a kohen who offered the ketoret.

Rabbi Tannenbaum cites the Chatam Sofer (Responsa Orach Chayyim 159) – which he notes that he saw only after he wrote his own responsum. The Chatam Sofer basically arrives at the same conclusion, that the sandak accomplishes two mitzvot: first, he holds the infant and second, he plays an ancillary role in the act of the circumcision and as such precedes the mohel in importance as relates to the mitzvah. (See the Chatam Sofer, who has a different source, the sefer of Rabbenu Peretz, actually cited by Maharil found in Rema , Y.D. 265:11, who cites Midrash Rabbah to Parashat Vayera, from where we derive the comparison of the sandak to the kohen offering ketoret, as opposed to Zohar – Parashat Pikudei – we cited at the outset.)

The only difficulty Rabbi Tannenbaum finds with the Chatam Sofer is his statement that the sandak is ancillary. How is it possible that one who is merely ancillary – which in the case of milah would imply that the involvement is merely an act of hachanah (preparation) – can be compared to one who accomplishes the actual act of the mitzvah (and even takes precedence in the mitzvah)? However, Rabbi Tannenbaum notes, according to what we explained, that the sandak securing the infant’s feet is very integral to the mitzvah. He, therefore, expresses his joy at having come to the same conclusion as the Chatam Sofer – that the sandak is actually performing two mitzvot.

(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 yklass@jewishpress.com.


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