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 source of the word “sandak” is important to our discussion, as is an examination of what exactly the sandak’s role is at a brit. We find the following in the Midrash (Tehillim pg. 723): “With the tender [young infants] I do sandikus at the time of milah and priyah.”
“Sandak” is clearly a Greek word, as are many words found in the Midrash. It means “companion of child” or “advocate.” Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech Spira of Dinov explains that it is an acronym: “Sanegor na’aseh din kategor,” which means “The defense emerges victorious vis-à-vis the prosecutor.” This is explained in the Zohar (Parashat Pikudei pg. 255b): “At the time that a person is cut [circumcised], the sitra acher, the one on the other side [Satan], is broken and no longer empowered to cause any harm because the defense of Israel has been performed.”
In answer to your question, we find that the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:11) writes as follows: “It is customary for one to pursue this mitzvah to hold the infant at the time of circumcision. And the sandak is considered even greater than the mohel in that he is given the honor of being called up to the Torah even before the mohel. This is because every sandak is compared to a kohen who offers ketoret [Temple incense]. It is customary not to give sandika’ot to someone more than once, as we find in regards to offering ketoret.”
The Rema is referring to the mishnah (Yoma 26a) and Gemara (ad loc.) that relate that the ketoret was never offered by the same individual more than once since it enriched the one who offered it, and everyone wished to benefit from this blessing. The Temple used to conduct a lottery for kohanim who had never offered ketoret to ensure that everyone had an equal share in this avodah.
The Shach (Yoreh Deah, ad loc., sk 22) clarifies that the Rema does not mean that one may not serve as a sandak more than once. Rather, he means that a father should not give the honor of sandika’ot to the same person more than once.
The Rema notes the possibility of a woman serving as sandak and cautions against it, especially where a man is available. He explains that it is immodest for a woman to serve as sandak. Rather, he writes, the woman serves as the companion to her husband as she is given the honor of bringing the baby to the synagogue where she hands the infant to him. (This husband and wife are commonly referred to as the kvater and kvaterin, which mean, respectively, “in place of the father,” his messenger, and “in place of the mother,” her messenger.)
(To be continued)