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Q & A: The Sandak (Part VIII)

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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 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. The Knesset Hagedolah writes that if a father tells his son to disregard a mitzvah without offering an

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 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?

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.

* * * * *

“Now,” the Divrei Malkiel continues, “since the sandak in actuality accomplishes two mitzvot – the act of sandika’ot and the act of securing the infant’s feet and holding them in place, significantly assisting the mohel in the physical part of the mitzvah – he is [of greater importance than] the mohel and the father, as they each perform only one mitzvah.

“Indeed, we see the same in Tosafot in Berachot (19b, s.v. “amarta lo yitamei”), as they write that one who is imbued with two kedushot [referring here to a nazir and kohen gadol] is greater than one who possesses only one kedushah. Therefore, it actually would be proper procedure for the father to serve as sandak because in all truth he is the one upon whom the mitzvah of milah is incumbent. In fact, there are poskim who [go so far as to] write that it is prohibited for a father to appoint a shaliach [i.e., a mohel] to perform the milah when he himself is able to do so [see Ketzot Hachoshen, siman 382].

“Now in light of what we have explained – that sandika’ot is a physical part of the act of the milah – even though the father can’t perform the actual act of milah, nevertheless, he is required to serve as sandak and do everything possible as relates to the actual act of milah.”

The Divrei Malkiel further strengthens the argument: “It is precisely because of this that in the event the father is unavailable [to attend the brit], the custom is that the sandak recites the [main] blessing ‘l’hachniso b’vrito shel Avraham Avinu – to enter him into the covenant of our patriarch Abraham,’ because he is then doing the majority of the mitzvah [between the sandika’ot and collaborating in the milah]. And just as the father [ordinarily] gives over the infant to be circumcised, similarly the sandak prepares the infant for the circumcision. This is the reason that the sandak is referred to as ba’al brit – because he prepares the child for the brit just like the father.”

The Divrei Malkiel, who was also a mohel, presents his own personal conduct in these matters. Interestingly, his minhag is somewhat at variance with the one stated above. “My own personal minhag when I serve as mohel is that in the event the father is unavailable, I recite the blessing and not the sandak, since in such a circumstance the actual responsibility to circumcise the child lies with the beit din.”

The Divrei Malkiel also addresses the significance of the sandak. He notes that the Talmud and poskim (Rema, Y.D. 264) explicitly state that it is prohibited to have a non-Jew perform the milah. As such, it follows that if a non-Jew were honored with sandika’ot, it would be a defective sandika’ot and any blessing that was recited would be a berachah l’vatalah. In fact, the Rema (ibid.) goes so far as to say that in such a case there would be need to draw some blood again at a later point – hatafat dam brit. The reasoning is simple; the non-Jew was not commanded to perform the mitzvah of milah, and one who is not commanded obviously has no part in the performance of such a mitzvah.

In any event, what we do see is that the father, when he is unable to personally circumcise his son – since it is clearly his obligation – should correctly perform the other functions he is able to do. If so, 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.

(To be continued)

Rabbi Yaakov Klass

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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  1. Joseph Lewis says:

    So I guess to "fulfill" it "properly" they have to tell godawful jokes eh?

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