The Rema, in his glosses to Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 265:11), writes that a woman may not serve as sandek if a man is available for reasons of modesty (“peritzus”). This ruling – which has come under question recently by some in the Jewish community – is related to a larger discussion of the role of women in circumcising boys.
I. Women and Milah
The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 27b) records a dispute about women circumcising babies. Jewish women are part of the covenant Avraham made with Hashem (which is a reason to allow them to serve as mohelim) but they obviously have never undergone a circumcision themselves (which is a reason to exclude them from serving as mohalim).
Tosafos (ad loc., s.v. “ishah”) rules in accordance with the latter view while many others rule in accordance with the former view. To satisfy both positions, the Rema (ibid., 264:1) writes that a man should preferably serve as the mohel.
One school of thought extends this preference to all areas of circumcision. Rav Malkiel Tannenbaum (Divrei Malkiel 4:86) argues that a sandek participates in the circumcision by assisting the mohel. Therefore, a woman should not serve as sandek in accordance with the Rema’s ruling.
In a somewhat similar vein, Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (Rav Pe’alim, vol. 4, Sod Yesharim 11) notes the frequently-quoted symbolic connection between serving as sandek and bringing incense on the altar in the Beis HaMikdash. Since women do not perform the sacrificial service, they should not serve as sandek either, he argues.
(One can question this proof based on the Noda B’Yehudah [vol. 1, Yoreh De’ah, no. 86], which disputes the practical implications of this comparison; others, though, defend drawing implications from this comparison.)
In any event, both these halachic authorities believe women should refrain from participating in the circumcision of the baby boy.
II. Women Participating in Milah
Others, however, take the opposite approach. Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (Sha’arei Milah, ch. 55), points out that the biblical passage about circumcision (Vayikra 12) does not mention men, which suggests that women should be involved in the circumcision.
Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai (Chida; Yosef Ometz, no. 85) notes a Turkish custom for the baby’s mother – if she feels sufficiently healthy – to carry the baby to the circumcision and hand him to her husband, who, in turn, brings him to the sandek. The Chida praises this practice and sees it as a form of sandeka’us. (The Chida is concerned about the baby’s transfer from mother to father but offers a solution to address the concern.)
According to this approach, women should apparently participate in the circumcision as much as possible. The Magen Avraham (551:3) writes that during the Nine Days, only the baby’s father and mohel may wear Shabbos clothes. Eliyah Rabbah (551:27), however, adds that the kvaters – the man and woman carrying the baby to and from the circumcision – may also wear Shabbos clothes because they serve as sandeks in their own way.
III. Milah and Modesty
Even according to this second approach, however, a woman’s participation should be limited due to concerns of modesty. In 13th-century Germany, women frequently served as sandek for circumcisions. The Maharam of Rothenburg, however, opposed this practice because he saw it leading to impropriety. The woman would enter the men’s section of the synagogue and sit among men. The male mohel would then lean over her to perform the circumcision as everyone looked on.
Even when the mohel was the husband or son of the female sandek, the entire ceremony appeared immodest. Certainly a circumcision, one of the holiest ceremonies in Judaism, for which the mohel (and sometimes sandek as well) immerses in a mikveh, should be characterized by a high level of modesty (see Rav Chaim Palaggi, Tochachas Chaim, Lech Lecha).
Therefore, the Maharam of Rothenburg used all his influence to end this practice. His students followed in their teacher’s path and eventually succeeded in ending it (see Tashbetz, no. 397 and Mateh Moshe, section 7, Milah, ch. 4 no. 5). Due to their campaign, the Maharil later recorded that women, by custom, do not serve as sandek, serving as the basis for the Rema’s ruling that women should not serve as sandek if a man is available to do so.
More recently, Rav Aharon Kotler (Baruch Litvin, ed., Sanctity of the Synagogue, p. 129) emphasized the importance of women not entering the men’s section of a synagogue. (However, some have the custom of women entering with the kvater and remaining on the periphery so they can observe the circumcision without mixing with the men [Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 265:35].)
Rav Yaakov Spivak, in a recent psak for the Rabbinical Alliance of America (dated May 3, 2019), emphasizes the problem of a male mohel leaning over a female sandek, as discussed in the literature surrounding the Maharam of Rothenburg’s opposition to women serving as sandek. Such behavior is inappropriate for the entrance of a Jew into the divine covenant.
For over seven centuries, Jews – Ashkenazim and Sephardim, chassidim and misnagdim – have refrained from appointing a woman as sandek. It is not the case that the opportunity never arose because of pre-modern social conditions. In fact, it did arise, woman did serve as sandeks, and this practice was opposed and stopped because of modesty concerns.
In my capacity as director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America, I reiterate Rav Spivak’s conclusion that violating the long-standing practice of appointing only a male sandek constitutes a breach of minhag and modesty that can only be allowed in the most extenuating circumstances, as the Rema notes.
A circumcision is a joyous time that should be celebrated by the entire family and community within the bounds of tradition and modesty.