Parshas Lech Lecha presents the first mitzvah that was given specifically to the Jewish People, beginning with Avraham Avinu and continuing today. The deep significance of the bris milah is latent in the word bris, a covenant. The eternal covenant between Hashem and Israel, which was initiated with Avraham, is forever reflected in the physical bris.
The centrality of bris milah is also reflected in halachah. An entire chapter of the Shulchan Aruch is dedicated to noting and clarifying the fact that the commandment of bris milah is the most important of all positive commandments. While most chapters of the Shulchan Aruch are subdivided into sections, chapter 260 of Yoreh De’ah contains only one law, stating: “It is a positive commandment for the father to circumcise his son, and this commandment is of greater importance than all other positive commandments.”
While non-Orthodox Jews are lax generally about most mitzvos, this is not the case for bris milah, which continues to be practiced by virtually all Jews with a Jewish identity (in Israel this is close to 100%). Certainly bris milah is the most widely embraced of the commandments. Beyond other mitzvos, it expresses the very essence of our Jewishness, the very core of our national purpose.
In the present article we will discuss one particular aspect of the bris milah ceremony—the Sandak, who holds the baby on his lap when the bris is performed
Although there are several honorary functions that are given to family and respected guests over the course of the milah ceremony, none are as important and honorable as the Sandak. Whenever a son is born, one of the first questions that parents will consider is whom to honor as the Sandak.
What is the source for the Sandak custom? Why it is considered a special merit to serve as a Sandak? Which halachos does the position entail?
Sources for the Sandak
We find in Midrash Tehillim (Siman 35) that Hashem Himself was the very first Sandak. The midrash explains that Avraham was afraid to perform the bris on himself, and Hashem therefore held him in place and became his Sandak.
Another early source for the Sandak concept is found in Targum Yonasan ben Uziel, who writes that when the Torah states that the sons of Machir ben Menashe were born “on the knees of Yosef,” it means that Yosef acted as the Sandak for his great-grandchildren. This is the earliest source for a great-grandfather acting as a Sandak.
Another source of the concept of the Sandak is Yalkut Shimoni (Chap. 35). In noting the different parts of the body that are called into the service of Hashem, the Yalkut mentions, “with my thighs I perform sandiko’us for my children during the milah ceremony.”
This last source, which is cited by the Vilna Gaon (Yoreh De’ah 265:44), also alludes to the source of the word sandak,which, according to the Aruch Hashulchan (265, 34), derives from the Greek syndicus, meaning representative or advocate. This suggests that a special connection is forged between the Sandak and the child.
One Sandak Per Family
The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:11, citing Maharil) records the practice of the Sandak holding the baby on his thighs, notes a custom that a father should not honor the same individual twice as Sandak for his children.
The reason, based on the Maharil, is that the Sandak is compared to a Kohen offering the ketores (incense). The Gemara (Yoma 26a) states that the Kohen offering the ketores is rewarded with wealth, and therefore a Kohen would only be given a chance to perform the mitzvah once in a lifetime, so as to afford the opportunity for wealth to as many Kohanim as possible Similarly, we wish to give as many people as possible an opportunity to serve as Sandak and receive Hashem’s blessing to become wealthy.
The Vilna Gaon (265:45) raises a challenge to this halacha based on empirical evidence: we have not seen that those serving as Sandak become wealthy! Different answers are suggested for this unusual question. Some (see Shut Chasam Sofer, Orach Chaim 158) suggest that the sins of the Sandak may prevent fulfillment of the promise of wealth. The Chida (Petach Einayin, Yoma 26) suggests that the blessing of wealth depends on the individual’s love for the mitzvah, while others (see Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:584) explain that the concept of wealth can be interpreted in a non-literal way. On this point, the Steipler Gaon, Rav Yakov Yisrael Kanievsky, was once asked why he had never become wealthy considering the numerous times he had served as Sandak. The Steipler responded: “Having a son like Rav Chaim is the greatest wealth one can have!”
The Gaon was clearly unsatisfied with these solutions, and he also raises another challenge to the custom: Based on the ketores idea, the custom should be that no person should serve more than once as a Sandak for any child, and not just for two different children of one family. He notes that the source for the minhag is the tsavo’o of Rav Yehuda Hachassid.
Shut Noda Biyhuda (Kama, 86) adds that the relationship between milah and the ketores might only be connected to Hashem’s desire for the mitzvah, and not to the segulah of wealth. In addition, the ketores was special because of its rarity, which can hardly be said for milah. The Noda Biyhuda justifies the custom by the principle that a person should not give all of his terumah to a single Kohen, which applies by extension to one person giving multiple honors of serving as Sandak to a single individual. He finally notes that since there is no Talmudic source for the halacha, it is not binding, and notes that many are not particular about this.
The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 265:34) concludes that we should abide by the custom recorded by the Rema, adding that there are kabbalistic reasons for the custom that the Rema wished to hide (the Gaon also suggests kabbalistic sources for the custom). At the same time, he notes (as did the Noda Biyehuda) that the custom in many places is that the city rabbi serves as the Sandak for all baby boys, even for several boys in the same family. He justifies this practice by comparing the local rabbi to the Kohen Gadol, who has the right to offer a sacrifice or a ketores offering whenever he desires to do so (see Yoma 14a).
The common custom is that leading rabbis serve as Sandak for countless boys, and in some cases for several boys in the same family. (I know a family for whom Rabbi Elyashiv zt”l served as Sandak for all five boys.)
It is interesting that the Maharil compares the Sandak’s role to that of the Kohen offering the ketores, which of course explains why the honor of serving as Sandak is the greatest honor of the milah ceremony. Some note that this is somewhat difficult, since it seems to be the mohel, rather than the Sandak, who offers the korban by performing the mitzvah—he seems to be more comparable to the Kohen than the Sandak, who functions as a mizbe’ach (altar) of sorts (see Noda Biyhuda 1:86).
How to Select a Sandak
The Rema states that one should choose the biggest tzadikim that one can find to be the Sandak (and the mohel) for one’s child (Yoreh De’ah 264:1). For this reason many fathers honor their rosh yeshiva, rav or a different Torah scholar with being Sandak. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (163:1) writes simply that one should appoint a pious Sandak. However, other sources require only that the Sandak should be a person who is careful in mitzvah observance (see Ohr Zarua; Rikanati no. 590).
On the question of which to prefer—a Torah scholar or a family member—it is interesting to cite the analysis of the Chacham Tzvi (nos. 69, 70) concerning the choice of a mohel.
The case involved a man who died, leaving behind an adult son from a previous marriage and a pregnant widow. For his previous sons, the man had used a respected Torah scholar as a mohel, and prior to his death he had appointed this individual as the guardian for his children. The adult son, however, was himself an inexperienced mohel, and a dispute broke out over who the mohel for the child should be: the widow favored the experienced Torah scholar, while the son claimed that he had the right to be the mohel of the newborn child.
The Chacham Tzvi ruled that the son should perform the bris, because a close relative takes precedence in performing a mitzvah even over a Torah scholar, just like a person should give preference to a relative when distributing his tseddoko. In the same sense, it follows that one should give preference to a close family relative, and especially a grandfather, over a Torah scholar, to serve as Sandak.
Family Members as Sandak
The obligation to ensure that a child undergoes the bris milah falls on the father of the baby. When a father is incapable of performing the bris by himself, and instead uses a mohel—as is almost always the case—Shut Divrei Malkiel (4:86) suggests he should at the very least serve as Sandak, so that he gains a partial fulfillment of the mitzvah of performing the bris. It is likewise clear from Leket Yosher that the ideal is that the father should himself serve as Sandak.
This is unusual today, certainly for Ashkenazi families. When a father does not want to take the honor for himself, and wishes to choose a family member as Sandak, there is some discussion among Poskim as to the order of preference. The Leket Yosher writes that the grandfather of the baby should be given precedence over the great-grandfather, but notes that the custom is to have the great-grandfather serve as Sandak, based on a tradition (“people say”) that somebody who serves as a Sandak for his great-grandson will be spared from Gehinom.
Concerning the question of preference between maternal and paternal grandparents, the question is often very individual, and one should strive to make sure that all parties are satisfied. The Leket Yosher implies that one should offer the honor first to his own father (the paternal grandfather).
The Divrei Malkiel (ibid) also explains the ruling of the Magen Avrohom (282, 18) that the Sandak has preference over both the mohel and the father in being given an aliyah to the Torah on the day of the bris. He explains that the Sandak is involved in two aspects of the bris whereas the mohel is only involved in one aspect.
Implicit in the principles above is that the mohel himself does not act as Sandak. This is recorded in halacha by the Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim 585:10). One reason suggested for the principle is that one should recite berachos on mitzvos while standing, and the Sandak has to sit. Another reason is that one must refrain from performing mitzvos in bundles; the Maharam Shick (Shut Maharam Schick, Orach Chaim 64) rejects this reason because both are parts of the same mitzvah. A third reason is noted by Otzar HaBris (3:24), noting that the mohel is said to have the mazel of blood and killing, whereas the Sandak is in place of the altar, which lengthens a person’s life. One should avoid this implicit tension in the bris milah.
Other Halachos of Being Sandak
The Rama cites further from the Maharil that he would go to the mikvah prior to serving as Sandak. This fits into the Maharil’s connecting the Sandak with the ketores ceremony, for a Kohen must immerse himself in the mikvah before performing any avodah. The Darchei Moshe, however, writes that this is an unnecessary stringency, and that it is not common practice. The Chida (Birchei Yosef 265, 18) encourages the practice of immersing prior to serving as Sandak.
The Sandak, as well as the mohel and the father of the baby, must wear special, festive clothes for the bris milah ceremony. Even during the first nine days of the month of Av, which are days of national mourning wherein we reduce our joy, these three individuals may all wear Shabbos clothes (Rema, Orach Chaim 551:1). If the bris falls on the Ninth of Av itself, these people should nice clothes, but not the special white clothing worn by some on the Shabbos (Orach Chaim 559:8).