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.
The Shach (Yoreh Deah ad loc. sk 22) clarifies that the Rema does not mean that a person may not serve as sandak more than once. Rather, he should not serve as sandak for more than one boy per family.
The Rema also talks about the honorary role of the kvaterin and kvater, the female and male messengers who bring the baby to the synagogue for the brit.
We quoted Rabbi Ari Enkin’s discussion of sandika’ot in his new sefer, Shu’t HaShulchani. He writes that serving as a sandak enriches one with material wealth, as well as long life full of spiritual wealth. 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. In some communities, the local rabbi is designated as the exclusive sandak for all children.
Rabbi Enkin concludes his discussion by pointing out that the custom of restricting someone from serving as sandak more than once is not found in the Talmud, and therefore is not truly binding.
We then returned to the original question about the dispute over who would serve as sandak. 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; 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 Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:11) refers to sandika’ot as an actual mitzvah that one should actively pursue.
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.
Last week we cited a case discussed by Rabbi Moshe Stern, the Debreciner Rav, zt”l (Responsa Ba’er Moshe vol. 1, 60:9), in which an individual accepted sandika’ot, only to be faced with his father’s strong opposition. Rabbi Stern cites the Knesset Yechezkel (Responsum 35) who rules that a son is not duty-bound to accede to his father’s demands in such a case. The Knesset Hagedolah writes in the name of the Ohr Zarua that if a father tells his son to disregard a mitzvah without offering an explanation, the son should not to listen to him. He cites Tosafot (Bava Metzia 32a sv “d’kavod”) as a source for this ruling.
Rabbi Stern explains that in case of sandika’ot, a father might object because, as the Mechaber states (Yoreh De’ah 257:7), in any situation that involves the assumption of financial responsibilities, a mishap can occur, perhaps leading to false accusations. Rabbi Stern suggests that a father might worry that by his son serving in the capacity of sandak he is taking on some sort of financial responsibility, such as when appointed a guardian for orphans.