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.