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. He explains that the sandak participates in two mitzvot and is therefore more important than the mohel and father, who each perform 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 doing the majority of the mitzvah 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.
Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, kashrus administrator at STAR-K Certification, wrote about a little-known Aruch Hashulchan (265:35) on the Rema’s statement that due to modesty, a woman does not serve as sandak. Instead, she can be honored with being a kvater – bringing the infant to the synagogue and handing him to the sandak.
The Aruch Hashulchan explains that the term kvater is derived from ketoret. The sandak is compared to the kohen offering the ketoret, and the one bringing the baby to the place of the brit is like one bringing the ketoret to the place of the offering – the “koter,” spelled with one vav, which, over time, became interchanged with “kvater,” with two vavs.
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The following response came in from a distraught woman who relates her personal brit experience:
Dear Rabbi Klass,
After reading your columns on the topic of who should serve as sandak, I feel compelled to write to you. The memory of what should have been a sweet occasion sets me back emotionally every time I think about it. We lost our parents at a young age and I, being the oldest of five siblings and married only a few short years at the time, accepted upon myself, lovingly, the burden of caring for my younger siblings, in addition to my own baby daughter.
Fortunately, two of them were away in yeshiva (one in Eretz Yisrael and one here in the states in a dormitory yeshiva), though I hosted them when they would come home for the yamim tovim. My husband’s great investment of time, love, and care for children that were not his own was beyond compare.
When my youngest brother got married, we sat down with his future mother-in-law, a widow, and planned the wedding for which we agreed to pay for half of all incurred expenses. Soon we heard the great news that our brother and sister-in-law were going to be having a baby, and we were so excited. The young couple told us confidentially that if this child would be a boy, my husband would be the sandak.
As the months passed by, we awaited with anticipation the birth of a baby, with only one thing in mind: no matter whether it would be a boy or girl, it should be healthy. Imagine our joy when my brother called from the hospital and informed us that we were the aunt and uncle to a healthy boy! Again we sat down with our brother’s mother-in-law and made plans for the bris, the shul, the caterer, etc. My brother agreed to use the same mohel used by many in our family, including some of my siblings.
On the morning of the bris, my husband was at my brother’s side as the bris was about to begin. My brother then pointed to his wife’s family rabbi to sit and serve as sandak. My husband’s heart sank at that moment, but he said nothing. I was quite upset but kept my cool. Needless to say, our whole family was upset. Even my brother’s mother-in-law was surprised.
When we questioned them later on, they told us that the rabbi had told them that since neither parent has a father, it was only proper for him to serve as sandak.
I am mystified how we, who invested so much in this couple, could be simply discarded as though with the wash water by a rabbi. Am I wrong in how I am viewing this matter or is the rabbi?
A devoted older sister
I am very moved by your letter and numerous others that related similar experiences. Since you took the time to e-mail me about this matter, and since your letter reflects to some extent the experience of other readers, I feel it is important to include it in this discussion. I am at a loss to comfort you. I can only say that I sense that your love for the young child is not diminished, and time will serve to heal any wounds. I hope to conclude this discussion next week with a full response to your letter.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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