Explaining the Customs of Bris Milah
By Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff
The mitzvah of bris milah has been enhanced by many beautiful customs. We will explain the background of these minhagim in the course of a guide to the honors bestowed during a bris and the steps of a bris milah procedure.
THE DIFFERENT HONORS AT THE bris milah
Each of the “kibbudim” at a bris milah performs a different mitzvah. The sandek is the greatest honor at a bris, since the milah is performed upon his lap. The Zohar (Parshas Lech Lecha 95a) teaches that bringing one’s son to a Bris Milah is equivalent to building the mizbayach (the altar) in the Beis HaMikdash and offering all the korbanos of the whole world! Since milah is compared to a korban, the sandek himself is like a mizbayach. In addition, since holding the baby assists the mohel perform the bris, the sandek also partly fulfills the mitzvah of performing the bris.
The kvatter and kvatterin perform the mitzvah of transporting the baby to the bris milah. Frequently, this honor is given to a couple who do not as yet have children. It is hoped that as a reward for performing the mitzvah of bring a child to the bris, they will soon merit bringing their own child to a bris.
The other honors at a bris milah include: placing the baby on Eliyahu’s chair, reciting the berachos after the bris, naming the baby (in some places the last two honors are combined), and holding the baby during the berachos and the naming.
When the mohel calls out this word, he calls the assembled to attention. The “kvatterin” carries the baby from the women’s area and hands him to her husband, the kvatter, in the men’s section. The kvatter, in turn, brings the baby to the mohel. Some have the custom of sharing the mitzvah of bringing the baby to the bris among several people, an honor called “cheika.” Those who follow this practice should make sure that each honoree brings the baby closer to where the bris will take place. (I have seen brisin where the people honored with cheika carried the baby in the opposite direction from where the bris was to be held. These individuals did not realize that they were doing the opposite of what they were supposed to be doing and thus not performing a mitzvah.)
Two chairs of honor are set up, one for Eliyahu (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah265:11) and one for the sandek who will hold the baby during the bris.
WHY IS THERE A CHAIR FOR ELIYAHU?
According to the Midrash, Eliyahu Hanavi attends every bris. Before Eliyahurose to heaven and assumed the role of an angel, he was the prophet responsible for admonishing the wicked monarchs Achav and Izevel. Eliyahu was a zealot for Hashem’s honor (Melachim 1:19:10, 14) and accused Bnei Yisrael of abrogating Bris Milah. As a response, Hashem decreed that Eliyahu would be present at every bris to see that the Jews indeed fulfill bris milah. Chazal therefore instituted the custom that there should be a seat of honor for Eliyahu at every bris (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapter 29; Zohar 93a). Eliyahu thus came to be called the “Angel of the Covenant,” since he attends and attests to every bris. Therefore, the chair that the baby is placed upon before the bris is referred to as Kisay shel Eliyahu.
The poskim discuss whether it is better to give the mitzvah of sandek to a great tzadik or to a family member (see Shu’t Chacham Tzvi #70). Incidentally, some poskim contend that the father of the baby should be sandek, since he thereby assists in the bris which is his mitzvah to perform (Shu’t Divrei Malkiel 4:86). However, the prevailing custom is to give the honor either to a grandparent or other honored family member or to a tzadik or talmid chacham.
Very special rewards and blessings are associated with being sandek. For this reason, the Rama cites a custom not to honor the same person with being sandek twice (Yoreh Deah 265:11; compare Gr’a and Shu’t Noda Bi’yehudah, Yoreh Deah 86; see also Shu’t Chasam Sofer, Orach Chayim #159).
There is a custom, seven hundred years old, that the sandek immerses himself in a mikveh before the bris. Since the sandek is compared to the mizbayach, he must make every attempt to make himself pure and holy (Maharil).
BERACHOS AT A BRIS
Several berachos are recited both before and after the bris. Immediately before performing the bris, the mohel recites the beracha “asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al hamilah” (that He commanded us to observe the mitzvah of Bris Milah), and the father immediately recites “asher kideshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu lehachniso bivriso shel Avraham Avinu” (that He commanded us to bring the child into the Covenant of Avraham). If the father is himself the mohel, he recites both berachos and then performs the bris. Among Sefardim, the father also recites the beracha shehechiyanu (Yoreh Deah 265:7). In Eretz Yisrael, shehechiyanu is recited at a bris even by Ashkenazim. In Chutz La’Aretz, most Ashkenazim do not recite shehechiyanu at a bris.
WHY ARE TWO BERACHOS RECITED ON THE MITZVAH OF MILAH?
It is indeed unusual to recite two different berachos before fulfilling a mitzvah, each beginning with the words “asher kideshanu bemitzvosav.” Why do we recite two such berachos?
According to one opinion, the beracha of lehachniso is recited on the mitzvah of training the child in mitzvos (chinuch), rather than being exclusively about milah (Abudraham). It is recited at the bris since this is the first mitzvah that the father performs in raising his child as a Torah Jew.
An alternative approach is that this beracha is an appreciation for bringing the child into the kedusha of Klal Yisrael (Aruch HaShulchan 265:5-8). According to this approach, the beracha of lehachniso is a beracha of thanks and praise rather than being a beracha on the performance of a specific mitzvah (Tosafos Pesachim 7a).
WHY IS IT THAT SOME COMMUNITIES RECITE SHEHECHIYANU AT A BRIS AND OTHERS DO NOT?
This machlokes is hundreds of years old. Usually, we recite a shehechiyanu on a mitzvah that is observed on special occasions, such as Yom Tov, Pidyon HaBen, Shofar, and Lulav. Thus, it would seem that one should recite shehechiyanu at a Bris Milah. Nonetheless, the old minhag in Ashkenaz was to omit shehechiyanu at a Bris Milah (Tosafos, Sukkah 46a; Rama 265:7). What was the reason for this minhag? (The custom among Sefardim was, and is, to recite shehechiyanu at a bris.)
The poskim offer several reasons why there is no shehechiyanu. Some suggest that shehechiyanu is recited only on a mitzvah that is dependent on a date, such as a Yom Tov, or a very specific time, such as Pidyon HaBen, which is always performed on the thirtieth day after birth (Ran, Sukkah Chapter 4). Although Bris Milah can only be performed beginning the eighth day, since there are occasions when one cannot perform the bris on the eighth day (such as when the baby is ill or when it is uncertain which day the baby was born), there was no establishment of shehechiyanu.
An alternative approach is that Chazal did not institute reciting shehechiyanu at a bris because it is not a totally joyous time, since the baby suffers pain. However, other poskim disagree with this reason, pointing out that one recites shehechiyanu when hearing news that includes both good and bad tidings (see Berachos 46b, 59b). Thus, suffering does not preclude reciting the beracha of shehechiyanu (Hagahos Maimoniyos, Hilchos Milah 3:4, who also cites two other reasons for the Ashkenazic custom).
The Gr’a, himself an Ashkenazi, disagreed with the accepted practice and ruled that one should recite shehechiyanu at a bris (Yoreh Deah 265:36). Since disciples of the Gr’a established the contemporary Ashkenazic community in Eretz Yisrael, they followed his practice to recite shehechiyanu at a bris. As a result, the custom in Eretz Yisrael developed that everyone recites shehechiyanu at a bris. The prevalent Ashkenazic practice in Chutz La’Aretz follows the opinion of Tosafos and Rama not to recite shehechiyanu.
WHAT BERACHOS ARE RECITED AFTER THE BRIS?
After the bris is performed, two more berachos are recited over a cup of wine: first, a borei pri hagafen and then a lengthy, special beracha that begins with the words “Asher Kideish Yedid Mibeten” (Shabbos 137b). (Sefardim have the custom to recite an additional beracha, “Borei Atzei Besamim” on a hadas, after the beracha on the wine; see Shulchan Aruch 265:1.) This beracha translates, “Praised are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the Universe, Who sanctified Yitzchok Avinu from birth, placed a permanent mark on his body, and sealed the holy covenant upon his descendants. As a reward for fulfilling Bris Milah, Hashem the living G-d, command that Avraham’s descendants be saved from the punishment of Gehenom (Shabbos 137b with Rashi; Shach, Yoreh Deah 265:5).”
An alternative interpretation of the beginning of the beracha is that it refers to the three forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov (Tosafos, Shabbos 137b).
WHY WAS THIS BERACHA INSTITUTED?
It is unusual to have an additional beracha recited AFTER a mitzvah is performed.
Some Rishonim explain that milah warrants an extra beracha since it was commanded to the Avos before the Torah was given (Tosafos Rid, Shabbos 137b). This theme is reflected in the structure of the beracha, since it refers to the Avos Avraham and Yitzchok (and also Yaakov according to the second explanation above).
The wording of the beracha is unusual, since it instructs Hashem to command that Avraham’s descendants be saved from the punishment of Gehenom. What is meant by this unusual beracha?
This beracha can be explained by the following Agada. The Gemara teaches that Avraham Avinu rescues all of his descendents from Gehenom, no matter how many sins they performed during their time on Earth, provided they observed Bris Milah and did not intermarry (Eruvin 19a). Thus, the observance of just this one mitzvah may be enough to guarantee that a Jew not end up in Gehenom. We ask Hashem to command that all Jews be protected in this way (Shach 265:5).
An alternative approach to explain this bracha is that the Hebrew word “tzavei” should instead be pronounced “tzivah,” He commanded. In this interpretation of the bracha we are not asking Hashem to command — we are mentioning that in this merit he did command (Shaylas Yaavetz #146).
THE NAMING OF THE BABY
After the beracha “Asher kideish,” the baby is named in a special text that quotes the Prophet Yechezkel (16:6), “vo’e’evor alayich vo’er’eich misboseses bedamayich va’omar loch ‘bedomayich chayi’ va’omar loch ‘bedomayich chayi,’” “And I passed over you and I saw you wallowing in your blood. And I say to you, ‘By your blood, live!’ And I say to you, ‘By your blood, live!’”
Reading this pasuk presents us with the question: Why is the clause “And I say to you, ‘By your blood, live!’” repeated?
The Targum explains this pasuk to be quoting Hashem: “When you, the Jews, were deeply enslaved in Mitzrayim, I remembered the covenant made with the Forefathers. I saw your suffering and told you that I will have mercy on you because of the blood of Bris Milah and will redeem you because of the blood of Korban Pesach.” Thus, according to Targum, the two statements “By your blood, live!” refer to the blood of two different mitzvos, Bris Milah and Korban Pesach. (Because of the latter reason, this pasuk is also quoted in the Pesach Hagadah.)
A similar interpretation of this pasuk appears in a Midrash: “When the Jews exited Mitzrayim, they had Bris Milah performed. They took the blood of the milah and mixed it with the blood of Korban Pesach and placed it on the lintels of their doors. For this reason, the pasuk repeats, “By your blood, live!” one reference to blood of milah, and the other to blood of Korban Pesach (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 29).
WHEN SHOULD ONE DRINK FROM THE CUP?
The custom is that one places a bit of the wine in the baby’s mouth when reciting the words, “bedamayich chayi.” However, when does the person reciting the berachos drink the wine?
According to some opinions, one should drink the wine immediately after completing the beracha of “Asher Kideish,” in order to avoid an interruption (a hefsek) between the beracha of “HaGafen” and drinking the wine (Tur, Yoreh Deah 265). Although the beracha of “Asher Kideish” intervenes between HaGafen and drinking, this is not considered a hefsek, just as reciting the berachos of kiddush or havdala between “HaGafen” and drinking the wine are not interruptions. However, naming the baby constitutes an interruption, since it is not a beracha. Others contend that naming the baby is not considered an interruption between the beracha and the drinking of the wine, since it is part of the procedure (Itur). To avoid this shaylah, the most common practice in Chutz La’Aretz is to honor one person with reciting the berachos and someone else with naming the baby. This way, the honoree who recited the berachos can lick the wine off his fingers in a discreet way, thus avoiding the hefsek. In Eretz Yisrael, the prevalent custom is to honor one person with both kibbudim; some follow the Tur’s approach, that he drinks from the cup before he names the baby, whereas others follow the Itur’s approach, that he does not drink the wine until the baby is named.
WHO DRINKS THE WINE ON A FAST DAY?
Since one may not drink the cup of wine, can one recite a beracha on the wine if it will not be drunk? Indeed, many poskim rule that making Borei Pri HaGafen on the wine constitutes a beracha levatalah, a beracha recited in vain (Itur; Shu’t Ran #52; Mordechai, end of Yoma). Others contend that reciting Borei Pri HaGafen without drinking the wine is not a beracha levatalah, since the beracha is part of the procedure (Rabbeinu Tam). There are numerous opinions among early Rishonim as to the correct procedure to observe.
Some contend that one should not make the beracha of HaGafen at all on a fast day (Itur; Shu’t Rashba 7:536). (There are poskim who distinguish between Yom Kippur, when the mother may not drink the wine, and other fast days, where the mother might be available to drink the wine.) In their opinion, when no adult will drink the wine, Borei Pri HaGafen should not be recited. (This follows the first opinion quoted above.)
Others go one step further, contending that one cannot even recite the beracha of Asher Kideish. In their opinion, since the wine cannot be drunk, it is not permitted even to pour a cup of wine for a mitzvah without drinking it subsequently (Mordechai, end of Yoma, quoting Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Shimshon). Furthermore, they contend that Asher Kideish may not be recited in the absence of the wine.
This last point is disputed by a prominent Rishon, Rav Yitzchok ibn Giat, who contends that one recites the beracha Asher Kideish without any wine (quoted by Abudraham and Beis Yosef 265). In his opinion, it is only preferential, but not essential, to recite Asher Kideish over a cup of wine.
Others rule that one recites a a beracha on the cup of wine on a fast day, and drinks the wine after the fast is over (Rav Tzemach Gaon, quoted by Itur). This opinion contends that when reciting “Borei Pri haGafen” on a mitzvah, it is not necessary to drink the cup of wine to avoid a beracha levatalah. The reason we drink the cup of wine is that it is not a kavod for a “kos shel beracha” to be left un-drunk. However, this requirement is fulfilled when the cup of wine is drunk in the evening after the bris.
WHAT DO WE DO WITH THE FORESKIN AFTER THE BRIS?
The foreskin is placed in some sand or earth to remind us that the Jews in the desert buried the foreskins from the milah in the earth (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 265:10 from Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 29). It also reminds us that the Jews will be as plentiful as the dust of the earth (Bereishis 28:14).
If there are two milos (plural of milah) to be performed on the same day, such as when there are twins, should one repeat all the berachos when performing the second bris, or should one perform the bris on the second child without repeating the berachos? There is a dispute among poskim which to do: some poskim rule that when performing two mitzvos that cannot be performed simultaneously, one should recite two separate berachos (Itur). Others contend that one should recite separate berachos because of “ayin hora” that could result (Rama, Perisha, and Beis Shemuel, Even HaEzer 62:3). Although Shulchan Aruch rules that one should recite only one set of berachos (Yoreh Deah 265:5), the widespread practice is to make separate berachos for each bris, and to interrupt between the two brisos by going outside, in order to require a new beracha (Shu’t Darchei Noam, Yoreh Deah #27, cited by Rabbi Akiva Eiger and Pischei Teshuvah to Yoreh Deah). (It should be noted that the Mishnah Berurah [8:34 and 639:48] rules that changing one’s location after performing a mitzvah does not require a new beracha.)
BRIS MILAH AND ATONEMENT
The Midrash tells us that Avraham Avinu’s bris took place on Yom Kippur on the place where the Mizbayach of the Beis HaMikdash was later built. Thus, the atonement both of Yom Kippur and of korbanos is combined in the observance of Bris Milah. In the words of the Midrash, “Every year, HaKodosh Boruch Hu sees the blood of the Bris of Avraham Avinu and He atones for all our sins.” Thus, Bris Milah guarantees the future redemption of the Jewish people, and the kaparah (atonement) from all sins (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, Chapter 29).