The highest honor at the circumcision ceremony for Jewish baby boys is that of the sandek. The Hebrew word for this person means “companion of child”. He holds the baby on his knees or thighs while the mohel performs the bris, or hands the baby to the mohel. The sandek is rooted in tradition and plays an incredibly important role in this solemn ceremony.
The circumcision of Jewish baby boys goes back over 4000 years and is an integral part of welcoming them into the greater Jewish family. It represents a covenant and the brit milah is the continuation of that promise God made to our ancestor Abraham that through him and his offspring, the world would be blessed. The bris is a physical reminder that this beautiful boy is destined for good works.
Who is Chosen?
Grandparents are often chosen for the role of, and usually not more than once per family. They assume the role of Jewish godfather in the life of the child. For instance, for a first child, a couple might seek out the paternal grandfather. Upon the arrival of a second boy, they may seek the services of the maternal grandfather. It is such an honor to participate in the bris as a sandek that it is often shared. After both grandfathers have participated in this way, the role is sometimes given to others close to the family.
While a sandek bris can be translated as something akin to a Jewish godfather, the role of Jewish godparents is specific to individual families. Unlike in the Christian world, there are no obligations and expectations attached to godparents within the Jewish tradition. If calling the sandek at your child’s brit milah his Jewish godparent is something that you wish to do, that is wonderful. This is entirely up to each family.
What Does the Jewish Godparent Do?
Traditionally, on the morning of the bris, the sandek immerses in a ritual bath, the mikvah. He puts on his finest outfit and wears his prayer shawl, known as the tallit. He will also fast that morning and avoid eating a full breakfast. Once the sandek sits, his hands will be sanitized and the mohel will instruct him on the best sitting position and remind him to avoid any movement during the bris. This is a very practical consideration that should be remembered if the grandparent you would like to fill the role has difficulty keeping his hands still.
Often the sandek bris gives a gift to the boy or his mother, and it is customary for the Jewish godparents to cover the cost of the meal following the circumcision. This is a joyous occasion and a celebratory meal usually follows the proceedings.
The high honor of being the sandek bris is traditionally given to a pious person. It is not something that historically has been taken lightly and given to any old friend of the family, but to someone who is deemed worthy. It has been thought that the qualities of the sandek are passed to the child, further emphasizing the importance of a worthy candidate. Being one is considered a blessing for a long life.
After the circumcision is performed, the sandek will hand the baby to a standing sandek. This is when the naming ceremony is conducted and the child receives his new, prophetic name. This is such a beautiful part of the event, so take a minute and just enjoy it.
While the physical requirements of filling the role of sandek in the bris are not particularly demanding, maybe a strong stomach and steady hands, the honor that goes along with it is immeasurable. You will be playing the key role in bringing a new boy into the Jewish covenantal community.
Preparing for the Role of a Jewish Godfather
Spending some time with the mohel before the ceremony starts is always a good idea. It will take no more than 5 minutes and it can greatly increase your comfort level as you get ready to start. He can show you where he will have you sit, go over the best way to hold the baby, and maybe even give you a few tips on how to ensure your stomach stays strong. If this is your first time as a sandek bris, the sights and sounds of it all can be a little overwhelming. The mohel has done this many times, and he will be happy to help you and get you ready for the big day.
Along the same vein, ensuring that you fully understand the expectations of the parents will go a long way in making sure this is a memorable day for everyone. They may want you to say or do something that the family feels is very important, and their wishes should be honored. As the sandek, you have a big impact on how well this ceremony plays out, and you should do everything in your power to make it a wonderful memory for all those in attendance.
The Big Day Has Arrived
There have been many millions of Brit Milah ceremonies performed over the millennia, this one will likely go as smoothly as most of them have. Take some time to relish the role of Jewish Godparent that you are privileged to play in the life of this beautiful baby boy. This will only ever happen to him once, and you are lucky enough to be right there with him, supporting him and his family as they take this first step. Feel confident that you have prepared and that you have taken this role seriously. With that in mind, you can relax and take in all the wonder of the Brit Milah.
Hopefully, this introduction to who and what a sandek is has been helpful. While we have stressed the importance of the role, and it is in fact the position of highest honor, you cannot have a bris without a mohel. This person is religiously ordained and certified to perform the ceremonial medical procedure of circumcision. With such a deep-rooted religious ceremony for a newborn boy, it’s important to have a mohel that will perform the ceremonial circumcision safely and as painlessly as possible for the newborn boy in the bris that you are assisting in.
This is a serious matter and worthy of time and research into who is best fit to perform this operation on the baby. There are important considerations, not least of which is if you would like your mohel to also be a practicing physician. There are different methods and different choices when it comes to anesthetic, so investigating your options is always a good idea.
Dr. Andrew Krinsky of South Florida Mohel is a board-certified surgeon and a religiously ordained mohel with more than three decades of circumcision experience. Dr. Krinsky personalizes each bris ceremony to ensure it’s a special experience for you and your loved ones. He allows personalized and scripted readings from family members during the experience and performs ceremonies at your home or other location of choice. Dr. Krinsky embraces interfaith couples and works with Rabbis and Cantors.
If that special day is approaching and you are in need of a caring and compassionate mohel, Contact our office for more information about a safe and meaningful circumcision for the family’s son.
Does your family have any unique traditions when it comes to the brit milah? What has been your experience participating as a sandek? Leave a comment below and share with us.