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.
Last week we heard from a woman who related that she and her husband raised her younger siblings after their parents died. After lovingly incurring half the expenses for her youngest brother’s wedding to a girl whose father has also passed away, she and her husband were delighted when the young couple told them they were expecting and asked her husband to be sandak. Yet, at the brit, her brother asked his wife’s family rabbi to serve as sandak. The rabbi had told them that since neither parent has a father, it was only proper for him to serve as sandak. The reader was mystified how the rabbi could have so easily disregarded the love and dedication she and her husband extended to her brother.
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The reader last week who told of the slight her husband suffered at her nephew’s brit is not the only one who e-mailed us about a perceived insult at a brit. One person wrote that his son rescinded an invitation to serve as sandak at his grandson’s brit. The son said his rabbi maintained that it would improper for him to accept this honor since he had already served as sandak many years before at the brit of one of the infant’s older brothers. Though he accepted his son’s explanation, it is obvious that he remains bothered by the matter and has not received closure.
First, I would like to address all the readers who e-mailed us about their hurtful experiences: You must find it in your heart to forgive and move on. There are so many wrongs that we do against our Creator, but we don’t hesitate to beseech Him for forgiveness, which He readily offers every year during the Holy Days of Awe.
I am reminded of an address that I heard many years ago at a convention of Agudath Israel of America, where Rav Avraham Pam zt”l, rosh yeshiva of Mesivta Torah Vodaath, was the keynote speaker. Rav Pam argued that we must be good with others and careful not to be too quick to judge. Look at II Samuel 11-12, he said. In rebuking King David for marrying Batsheva, wife of Uriah, the prophet Natan told David a story about two individuals, one exceedingly wealthy with vast flocks and the other destitute with but one small sheep to his name. The wealthy person did not wish to slaughter any of his own sheep to serve a guest, so he seized his neighbor’s sole sheep instead. No sooner had the prophet related this story that King David, in fury, blurted out: “ben mavet ha’ish ha’oseh zot – deserving of death is one who does such a thing.” Natan replied: “ata ha’ish – you are that man.”
Rav Pam explained that in his rush to judge another, King David pronounced his own judgment. From this, we can learn that even rabbis can make mistakes. My rosh yeshiva at Mir, the late Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz, zt”l, was known to address students embarking on their first foray outside the beit midrash to a new shteller – a new position – with the following: “Do you remember the four chelkei [sections of the] Shulchan Aruch?” After an affirmative answer, he would ask: “And what about the fifth chelek?” When asked what that was, Rav Kalmanowitz would reply: “how to deal with people.”
A rabbi, or anyone in a community position, has to take care never to do anything to anyone that can be construed as unseemly. For to do so may not only cause a chillul Hashem but may be hurtful to that individual or a family member. Indeed, the rabbi or community leader may quickly move on, but the slighted individual will remember the hurt and, in many cases, relive it for years to come.
We cited from Rabbi Enkin’s sefer that there are many who maintain that one may serve as sandak more than once for the same family. We further noted that since the mitzvah of milah is one of those mitzvot incumbent upon the father, the honor of sandika’ot (as well as any other mitzvah related to the brit) is totally within the province of the father to offer to anyone he pleases and no one should make that decision for him – no less usurp the mitzvah for himself.
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. Its performance should be remembered as an act of love and joy.
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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