Question: May a woman serve as a sandak at a bris milah?
Short Answer: A woman should not serve as a sandak where there are men available. Different reasons are suggested for this custom.
I. The Tashbeitz
The Tashbeitz (Rav Shimon Duran, d. 1444, Siman 397) has a fascinating t’shuvah where he cites his rebbe, Rav Meir ben Baruch (the Maharam MeiRuttenberg), who lambastes the “prevalent custom” of a woman “holding the baby in her arms” as the bris milah is performed. Rav Meir notes that this custom is problematic even where the mohel is her husband, father, or son, as it is improper for a woman, dressed in her finest, to enter the men’s section, among the men and the Sh’chinah. Rav Meir cites a proof from the Gemara in Kiddushin (52a) that women should not enter the Azarah of the Beis HaMikdash. Further, since only a man, and not a woman, is obligated in the mitzvah of bris milah, why should we allow a woman to “take” part of a man’s mitzvah. Rav Meir concludes that such a custom should be abolished.
The Tashbeitz himself adds that this custom leads to improper thoughts and immorality, and thus the bris milah is essentially a mitzvah that stems from an aveirah. Indeed, he concludes that anyone who attends a bris milah where a woman serves as a sandak should walk out, lest he be perceived as supporting such a custom.
II. Practically Speaking
The Rama (Yoreh Dei’ah 265:11), citing the Maharil, adopts this Tashbeitz. The Rama states that a woman should not serve as a sandak where there is an available man, because of pritzus (immorality). Nevertheless, the wife of a sandak can help her husband by bringing the baby to shul and handing the baby off to her husband who will then serve as the sandak. However, the Rama concedes that a woman’s involvement is unnecessary.
Notably, the Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dei’ah 265:35) writes that the minhag is not for a woman to serve as a helper to her husband the sandak. Rather, a woman carries the baby until the doorway of the men’s section and hands the baby off to her husband, who subsequently passes him to the sandak.
III. The Divrei Malkiel
The Divrei Malkiel (4:86), on the other hand, suggests a novel approach for why a woman should not serve as a sandak. Because the sandak participates in the bris milah in a semi-active fashion, i.e. helping position the baby during the bris milah, the sandak should preferably be a man, just as the mohel should preferably be a man. A similar concept is found by sh’chitah: Even if one merely puts the head next to a knife, that constitutes performing a kosher sh’chitah. The Divrei Malkiel notes that the Chasam Sofer appears to agree to his p’shat.
The Divrei Malkiel supports this p’shat by noting that a sandak takes precedence ahead of the mohel when receiving aliyos. The reason is because while the mohel only does one mitzvah, the bris milah itself, the sandak performs two: the bris milah and the special mitzvah of being sandak.
IV. The K’tores
The Rav Poalim (4: Sod Y’sharim 11) suggests another reason why a woman should not serve as a sandak, based on the Maharil’s comparison of the sandak to the offering of the k’tores, the incense, in the Beis HaMikdash. Since women do not bring these offerings, they should not serve as a sandak.
Interestingly, Rav Mordechai Gross (sefer B’Damayich Chayi, p. 106) suggests that the Rama doesn’t bring this reason because, according to this reason, women can serve other roles in the bris milah process, such as Kisei shel Eliyahu. Therefore, the Rama chose a reason, immorality, that excludes women from the entire process (that takes place in the shul).
On the other hand, the sefer M’or HaMilah (p. 58) points out that according to the Rama, it is possible for a woman to serve as sandak where the bris milah takes place with just a few people, as there is no issue of pritzus in such a situation. According to the Rav Poalim, this would presumably still be a problem, as being a sandak is always comparable to the incense, regardless of whether it is performed publicly or privately.
Next Week’s Topic: May the same person serve as sandak for two children in the same family?