QUESTION: I am the father of a newborn beautiful baby boy. The bris is coming up in a few days. Since I have a mitzvah to give my son a bris, and the mohel is just an agent, is it better that I do the bris myself (after the mohel sets everything up, of course)?
ANSWER: Mazal Tov to you, your wife, your new son, and your whole family.
A good way to approach your question is to start by looking at the blessing that the father makes during the bris ceremony, while the mohel is performing the circumcision. “Blessed are you Lord… who has commanded us to bring him – my son – into the bris – the covenant – of Avraham our father.”
The covenant of Avraham that this blessing refers to is, of course, the covenant of circumcision as we read at the end of our parasha:
And God said unto Abraham: Thou shalt keep my covenant, you and thy seed after thee for all generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep… every male among you shall be circumcised.
The blessing over bringing the child into the covenant that the father makes is distinct from the blessing that the mohel makes, “… Who has commanded us on the milah.” The need for, and wording of, these two blessings highlight the two distinct components of every bris milah: the bris – the covenant of which it is a sign, and the milah – the actual circumcision itself.
When we speak about a father’s obligation to circumcise his son, the question that we have to ask is – is this an obligation to perform the circumcision itself, or is it rather an obligation to bring his son into the covenant by ensuring that a circumcision is done by a competent and qualified person?
Rishonim are divided on this point. Ramban, Tosafot, Tosafot Rid, and Maharch Or Zarua all state that it is only the father’s responsibility to see that his son get a bris, not to do it himself.
They infer this from the discussion in the Gemara (Kiddushin 29a) about whether the mother is obligated as well. The Gemara rules that she is not, based on the verse “as God had commanded him (Avraham)” (Gen. 21:4). The obligation, says the Gemara, is only on him not on her. These Rishonim question why such a verse is needed, since women are anyway exempt from a time-bound mitzvah. They answer that what is at issue here is not the mother’s obligation to personally circumcise her son; which she is clearly exempt from, as it is a time-bound mitzvah. What is at stake, rather, is whether she is obligated, as the father is, to ensure that the circumcision takes place. This obligation of responsibility, rather than of ritual performance, does not follow the normal rules of time-bounded exemptions (Tosafot Rid elaborates on this by stating that the handling of the arrangements is not limited to any time of the day!).
It emerges that according to these Rishonim, the obligation that rests on the father is that of seeing that the circumcision is performed, not of doing the circumcision himself. As such, Maharach Or Zarua states that even if the father is a mohel, there is no need or value in his doing the bris himself.
Against this, Rema (Darkhei Moshe, YD 264:1) quotes a ruling in the name of the Or Zarua (the father of Maharach Or Zarua) that if the father can do it himself, it is forbidden for him to have someone else do the milah. Or Zarua is saying that it is the father’s personal mitzvah to do the circumcision.
This position is supported by Rosh. In a discussion regarding a fine that is levied on someone who steals a mitzvah from another person, he states that if the father was planning to do the milah and someone else did it, he must pay the father this fine. Rema in Choshen Mishpat (382) rules likewise. Shakh agrees and states that from this we can conclude that if the father is a mohel, it is forbidden for him to allow someone else to do the circumcision, as this would be giving his mitzvah to someone else.
This latter approach is what informs the practice of the father appointing the mohel as an agent, although poskim seriously question whether this is of any value. If it indeed is the father’s mitzvah to do the act of circumcision, he should not be able to have anyone else do it for him, just as he cannot have someone sit in a sukkah or listen to a shofar for him. I tend to agree with this approach, and do not see much halakhic value in appointing the mohel as one’s agent, although it does help to ritually concretize the father’s responsibility to oversee the process.
The practice that you have asked about – where a mohel sets everything up, and the father does the actual cutting himself, is also based on the poskim who state that it is primarily the father’s mitzvah. However, even those poskim were only ruling that that the father should do it if he is a mohel, and did not say that this applies to an amateur. Besides concerns for the child’s well-being, there is also a question whether someone can be obligated in something if he is unable to do it himself. Moreover, poskim say explicitly that if there is someone better available, then the father should have the more competent person do it.
I am more persuaded, both logically and textually, by those who rule that the father’s obligation is only to see that the circumcision takes place. This, as we have seen, is also reflected in the two blessings. The father must bring the child into the covenant, the mohel (or any competent person) must do the circumcision.
The congregation’s response also demonstrates this. After the father makes his blessing, the community responds: “ki’shem she’nikhnas labrit...”, just as he has entered into the covenant, so should he enter into Torah, chuppah, and good deeds. This is not the original wording of this declaration, however. The original version was – “ki’shem she’hikhnasto la’brit, ken takhni’seihu l’Torah li’chuppah u’li’ma’asim tovim.” “Just as you have brought him into the bris, so should you bring him into Torah, chuppah, and good deeds.” Their response was a blessing to the father to fulfill his other obligations to his son – to teach him Torah, to see that he gets married, and to teach him a trade and make him a responsible member of society. In this context, it is clear that the obligation is to see that the bris be performed, and not that he do it himself, just as it is not his obligation to personally teach him Torah and a trade and to find him a wife, but just to ensure that all of these are done.
In my opinion, the textual evidence and logic all dictate that it is not the father’s responsibility to do the circumcision himself. There is an infant and his well-being at stake here, and being “machmir” for this approach could be a chumrah at the expense of others and should not be done. At the same time, I respect those mohalim who insist that there is no danger in having the father doing the cutting. And I know some fathers who have said that it was a powerful experience for them to do this. As a matter of halakha, however, I just don’t see the point in it, and personally, I wouldn’t want to take the risk, no matter how small.
Two final notes:
- The reason that the blessing of the community was changed to the passive tense (“just as he has entered into the covenant, so he shall enter into, etc.”) was because of cases of babies who fathers had died, and thus there was no father to whom to give this blessing. In such cases, the text was changed to refer to the baby and not the father, and so as not to make such families feel different and possibly embarrassed, the revised text was adopted in all cases. This is a very important lesson for all of us regarding the sensitivity that we must have in general, and in particular around lifecycle events.
- Whether the mother has an obligation to take care of the bris if the father is not available is debated in the poskim. On the basis of the Gemara in Yevamot (71b), Maharach Or Zarua concludes that the mother does have such an obligation before the obligation reverts to beit din. Others disagree. An important ramification of this debate is whether, in such a case, the mother could make the brakha “li’hakniso” .The current practice in such a case is to have a male relative make the brakha as a representative of the beit din.