The sandek is the individual honored with holding the baby during the brit milah ceremony and it is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a person at a brit.1 Although sandek is often translated as “godfather,” it likely comes from the Greek word suntekos, which means “companion.”2 The sandek sits during the brit and holds the baby on his lap while the mohel performs the circumcision.3
Choosing a sandek for the first of one’s son is probably the hardest honor that one will ever have to assign in one’s life. Does one honor a relative? A rabbi? A friend? One also worries if so-and-so or so-and-so will be offended for not being appointed sandek. It is clear that according to halacha, any fine, upstanding Torah-observant individual may serve as sandek.4 Nevertheless, many customs, traditions and opinions have evolved throughout the ages as to who should be considered for this honor.
We are told that one should choose the most righteous person possible to serve as the sandek (and as mohel as well for that matter).5 This is because we are taught that the one who serves as sandek will have an impact on the child’s spiritual development.6 For this reason, most people honor their rabbi or other distinguished Torah scholar with serving as sandek.7
There is also an opinion, though not widely practiced, that an older brother or other family member should be honored with serving as sandek. This is based on the approach that one should offer family members the opportunity to perform mitzvot before anyone else.8 In some communities, the custom was to auction off the honor of serving as sandek to the highest bidder.9
Since the mitzvah of milah is upon the father of the baby to perform, the father should consider serving as sandek himself. This is especially true if the father is not qualified to serve as the mohel.10 If the father does not want to serve as the sandek and would rather honor someone else, he should consider honoring his father (the baby’s grandfather) with serving as sandek. In this way, he also fulfills the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em. The baby’s grandfather might also want to consider honoring his father (the baby’s great-grandfather) with serving as sandek so that he in turn can fulfill the mitzvah of kibbud av va’em. We are taught that one who serves as sandek for his great-grandchild will never see gehennom.11 There is also a custom to honor the paternal grandfather with serving as sandek for one’s first son and the maternal grandfather for one’s second son.12
It is better that an unmarried individual not serve as sandek.13 So, too, a number of authorities discourage one from appointing a minor to serve as sandek.14 A mourner during shiva may serve as sandek.15 The father should verbally appoint the sandek to serve in his role. In this way, the sandek is truly considered to be an emissary of the father, and the father is considered to have participated in the mitzvah and will be rewarded accordingly.16 Although a woman should not serve as sandek,17 bringing the baby to the father or sandek is also considered to be a sandek-like role in which a woman may serve.18
Once one has invited someone to serve as sandek, one should not renege and honor a different individual instead. However, if the first individual was chosen even before the child was born, the father is permitted to renege and honor a different individual should he feel the need to do so.19 A sandek should make an effort to immerse in a mikvah before the brit.20
- Maharil, Hilchot Mila; Rama, YD 265:11; Magen Avraham 282:18.
- Aruch, s.v. “Sandikos.”
- Rema, YD 265:11; Rav Yehuda Hachassid 40.
- Rikanati 591; Shulchan Gavoha.
- Rema, YD 264:1; Or Zarua, Vol II 107.
- Pele Yoetz, Milah.
- See Darkei Chaim V’shalom, Milah p. 84 and Yabia Omer 4:23:13
- Chacham Tzvi 69,70; Sefer Chassidim 873.
- Derisha, YD 249:1; Taz, YD 249:1.
- Divrei Malkiel 4:86; Pele Yoetz, Milah; Leket Yosher, YD p.52.
- Leket Yosher, YD p.52.
- Otzar Habrit Vol. 2 p. 254; Massa Chaim, Sandek 156. See also Chayim B’yad 75.
- Shraga Hameir 6:165:5.
- Brit Avot 5:17.
- Rema, YD 393:3.
- Yabia Omer 4:23.
- Rema, YD 265:11.
- Yosef Ometz 85; Massa Chaim, Sandak 156.
- Radbaz 1:278.
- Darkei Moshe, YD 265:11; Birkei Yosef, YD 265:11. See also Sefer Chassidim 407.