By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
Warning: The article found below is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, the author himself needed to recover twice while writing it.
“You did WHAT?”
“I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want to get you nervous. And besides, it is my mitzvah . . .”
“It’s your mitzvah if you are a mohel! But you aren’t a mohel! I can’t believe that you would . . .”
The above conversation, in one form or another, has taken place thousands of times in recent years, as more and more fathers are having the mohel set up the b’ris milah for them. The fathers believe that it is halachically preferable to do the cut themselves, based upon the Gemara in Kiddushin (41a) that it is better to perform the mitzvah oneself than through a messenger. In this article we will examine how it is possible for untrained people to perform the cut and whether it is, indeed, halachically preferable.
The magen. The idea of a father who is not a mohel being able to actually perform the cut was made possible because of a device called the magen, or shield. The magen was introduced in Europe in the 1700s in order to protect against accidental excess cutting. The Pri Megadim in his commentary on the Magen Avraham (A.A. Y.D. 75:8) approves of its use. The circumcision shield, however, has gone through many different incarnations, some of which are halachically acceptable, unacceptable, or debatable.
When doctors perform circumcisions, they generally use a device called a Gomco clamp or a Plastibell clamp, which has been rejected as a valid method of b’ris milah by the majority of poskim (see, for example, Igros Moshe Y.D. II #119; Tzitz Eliezer VIII #29). The main reason the Gomco clamp is unacceptable is that it does not involve the drawing of blood, a necessary component of the mitzvah. The Gomco and Plastibell clamps require multiple incisions and cause the baby more pain as well.
In contemporary times, many mohalim use something called the Bronstein magen or a similar device, which provides protection yet allows for the flow of blood. This clamp was invented in 1954 and received the approbation of Rav Eliezer Silver, zt’l (HaPardes Vol. XXX #1) and Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l (Igros Moshe Y.D. Vol. III #98).
The various magens allow mohalim to “set up” the cut for the father, who performs the cut. More on this later.
Different from a standard b’ris. The b’ris performed with a Bronstein magen, however, is different from one performed without it. The b’ris milah involves another process called priyah, which means the removal of the under-layer of skin found beneath the foreskin. When the Bronstein magen is used, the priyah is performed with an instrument, not the fingernail. Many poskim hold that although it is permitted to perform the priyah with an instrument, it is preferable to use a fingernail and not an instrument (see responsa of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, zt’l, Achiezer Vol. III 65:12 and responsa of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l, Yabia Omer Vol. VII #22).
Another issue is that with the Bronstein magen, the milah and the priyah happen simultaneously, which, although permitted, is not how the Shulchan Aruch describes the procedure. In Shulchan Aruch, the priyah is a second procedure, which follows the milah.
Mohalim who use a shield other than the Bronstein magen can allow the father to perform the cut and then they do the priyah and metzitzah afterward. It is a debate among poskim whether, when one has just performed the first act, he has accomplished half of a mitzvah at all. The Maharshal (Yam shel Shlomo Yevamos 8:3) and the Tashbatz (Vol. II #277) both hold that even half a mitzvah has not been performed. The Beis Yosef 264, however, holds that one has indeed fulfilled half of the mitzvah here. The Rema as well considers it a mitzvah.
The Sefer Milah K’hilchasa (pp. 64–65) lists four requirements that are a prerequisite for a father who is not a trained mohel to perform the cut himself:
1. The father must know, definitively, exactly where the cut must be made.
2. The father must know how to hold the knife and the exact angle so that tzitzin will not remain.
3. There cannot be any additional delays from the fact that the father is performing the cut that would cause further pain and agony to the infant (see Igros Moshe YD Vol. III #99).
4. The father must inform the mohel at the outset that he is inviting him only to perform the mitzvah of priyah. If he just hires him without specifying, the indication is that it is for the mitzvah of milah and he would not be able to undo this without violating the halachic issue of going back on one’s agreement (mechusar amanah).
The author of Sefer Milah K’hilchasa also writes that a father may not do this on Shabbos if he has never performed a b’ris before.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach is cited in the Nishmas Avraham (260) as believing that “it requires further analysis whether there is a mitzvah for the father to circumcise his son when it will cause any further pain on the infant.”
There may also be an issue of the biblical prohibition of tza’ar ba’alei chaim in regard to causing excess pain to the infant. The Rashba (Vol. I #252) and the Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos Lo Saaseh 270) write that the prohibition applies not just to animals but to human beings as well. While it is true that the Radbaz’s opinion is that it is not applicable in regard to humans (Vol. II #728), most poskim hold that it does apply. The Shita Mekubetzes cites the view of Talmid Rabbeinu Peretz that it applies to humans on a rabbinic level.
Decency. One final thought: The mitzvah of z’rizin makdimin l’mitzvos means that alacritous people try to fulfill mitzvos at the very first opportunity. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, was once asked whether it is preferable to perform the mitzvah of b’ris milah immediately after a neitz ha’chamah Shacharis (i.e., shortly after sunrise) in order to perform the mitzvah at the first opportunity. Rav Shlomo Zalman answered that one should also be a mentsch (in regard to making the b’ris convenient for relatives.)
This concept may also be germane to our issue here regarding fathers performing a b’ris. This author would like to add a fifth condition to the four mentioned above in light of this idea expressed by Rav Shlomo Zalman, zt’l: One should only embark upon this with the full support of his spouse and parents. This is especially true in light of the opinions that performing half of the b’ris may not be considered a mitzvah and in light of the fact that some other b’dieveds are taking place.
May the z’chus of performing mitzvos in their ideal manner bring the Geulah speedily in our days. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.