This essay continues our discussion of the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. We will discuss the three, or possibly four, Brachot that are recited at a Brit Milah. We will focus on two controversies regarding these Brachot – the timing of the second Bracha and whether the Bracha of Shehechiyanu should be recited.
Gemara Shabbat 137b
The Gemara (Shabbat 137b) outlines the procedure for the Brachot to be recited at a Brit Milah. The Gemara states:
The one who performs the Brit states ‘Asher Kiddeshanu… Al Hamilah.’ The father of the boy recites ‘Asher Kiddeshanu…Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu’ (Who has commanded us to bring him into the covenant of our father Abraham). Those present respond ‘just as he entered the Brit so too should he enter into Torah, the Chuppah, and good deeds.’ Then one recites Baruch Ata…”Who sanctified the beloved one from the womb and placed the mark of the decree in his flesh, and sealed his descendants with the sign of the holy covenant. Therefore, as reward for this, Living God, our Portion, our Rock, may You command to rescue the beloved soul within our flesh from destruction, for the sake of his covenant that He has placed in our flesh.” Baruch Ata Hashem, Koreit Habrit (Who establishes the covenant).
We presented one text of this Bracha. For the variations of this Bracha, see Rav Moshe Pirutinsky’s classic work on Brit Milah, Sefer Habrit pp.270-271.
Analysis of the Berachot
The first Bracha is a Birkat HaMitzvah, a blessing recited upon performing a Mitzvah. This Bracha is recited before the Brit, as the Gemara (Pesachim 7b) teaches: all blessings recited on a Mitzvah are said “Over Leasiyatan,” immediately before performing the Mitzvah. However, Acharonim argue whether the Mohel recites the Bracha before the cutting (Chochmat Adam 149:19) or during the cutting (Aruch Hashulchan Y.D. 265:10).
The third Bracha is either a Birkat Hashevach, a Bracha that expresses praise to Hashem (Rashba to Shabbat 137b s.v. Avi Haben), or a Tefillah, a prayer (Shach, Yoreh Deah 265:5). According to the Shach, it is a prayer that the merit of Brit Milah should protect the soul from being punished in Gehenom (purgatory; see Eruvin 19a). A ramification of this question is the proper vocalization of one of the words of this Bracha. Rav Yaakov Emden (Teshuvot Sheailat Yaavetz 1:146) rules that the proper vocalization of the word is “Tzivah,” that Hashem commanded. He believes that this Bracha is praise to Hashem. We praise Hashem for issuing the command to spare the circumcised from the punishment of Gehenom. The Shach, though, writes that the proper vocalization is “Tzaveh,” because this Bracha constitutes a prayer to Hashem. We ask Hashem to issue the command to spare the circumcised child from the torture of Gehenom. The prevalent Minhag among both Ashkenazim (see Aruch Hashulchan Y.D.265:17) and Sephardim (see Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch p.896) is to pronounce the word “Tzaveh.” Interestingly, the Aruch Hashulchan (ibid.) writes that this Bracha is both a Birkat Hashevach and a Tefillah.
The Second Bracha – Before, After, or During the Cutting – Rashbam, Rabbeinu Tam, and the Rosh
There is a celebrated dispute among the Rishonim regarding when the second Bracha, “Lehachniso Livrito Shel Avraham Avinu,” is recited. The Rashbam (cited in Tosafot Shabbat 137b s.v. Avi Haben) champions the belief that we recite this Bracha before the cutting. He argues that the second Bracha is a Birkat HaMitzvah and thus we must recite it “Over Leasiyatan,” before the Mohel performs the Brit. He also points out that the Gemara (Pesachim 7a) specifically states that a Bracha that uses the liturgical formula “Le,” such as “Lehadlik Nair Shel Chanukah” or “Lehaniach Tefillin,” is recited before the Mitzvah is performed. Thus, we recite “Lehadlik Nair Shel Chanukah” before lighting the Chanukah Menorah and men recite “Lehaniach Tefillin” before they fasten and wind the Tefillin on their arms. Similarly, argues the Rashbam, since the Bracha is “Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu,” we should recite it before the cutting.
The Rashbam was so convinced of his view that he changed the practice of French Jewry regarding this question. Traditionally, French Jews had recited the second Bracha after the cutting. Moreover, he even emended the aforementioned Talmudic text. The traditional text indicates that the father recites the second Bracha after the cutting, because first the Mohel recites his Bracha and then the father recites the Bracha of Lehachniso. The Mohel cuts immediately after reciting his Bracha. This implies that the cutting is complete by the time the father recites his Bracha (recall that the Milah is performed very quickly). The Rashbam emended the text of the Gemara to state that the father’s Bracha is recited before the Mohel recites his Bracha of Al Hamilah.
Rabbeinu Tam vigorously opposed his brother’s approach (Rabbeinu Tam is the younger brother of the Rashbam). He restored the original practice of French Jewry and the traditional version of Shabbat 137b. He presents a number of arguments (quoted in Tosafot Shabbat 137b s.v. Avi Haben and Pesachim 7a s.v. Beleva’er) to prove that the Bracha of “Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu” should be recited after the cutting. One argument is as follows: The congregation’s response of “just as he entered the Brit etc.” is a response to the father reciting the Bracha of “Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu.” The Gemara indicates that we recite this response after the Brit because the text reads, “Just as he entered the Brit,” which implies that the Brit has occurred. Rabbeinu Tam argues that just as the response to Lehachniso is said after the Brit so too Lehachniso is recited after the Brit. The core of Rabbeinu Tam’s arguments is his belief that the Bracha of Lehachniso is a Birkat Hashevach (a blessing of praise to Hashem), rather than a Birkat HaMitzvah. Thus, there is no requirement to recite this Bracha before the Brit.
The Rosh (Shabbat 19:10) offers a compromise approach that Ashkenazic Jews have accepted as normative practice (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 265:1). The Rosh believes that if the father recites the Bracha of Lehachniso in the middle of the cutting, he will satisfy both the opinion of Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam. Since the Mitzvah of Milah is not complete until the Mohel performs Priyah (basically, the removal of the entire foreskin), one is considered to be reciting the Bracha “Over Leasiyatan.” Since Milah is typically performed very quickly, the father should hurry to recite Lehachniso immediately after the Mohel finishes reciting his Bracha of Al Hamilah. Sephardic Jews recite this Bracha before the Brit in accordance with the Rashbam and the other Rishonim who subscribe to his view.
There is no consensus regarding the recitation of Shehechiyanu at a Brit. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 265:7) notes that practice in Eretz Yisrael is to recite the Bracha of Shehechiyanu at a Brit. This custom persists today. This practice has taken very strong root in Eretz Yisrael, as the Vilna Gaon (Biur Hagra 265:36) strongly endorses reciting the Shehechiyanu at a Brit. Many of the Vilna Gaon’s opinions have emerged as the accepted practice in Israel (such as omitting the Baruch Hashem Leolam blessing at the Maariv service and refraining from donning Tefillin on Chol Hamoed). This happened because a number of the Vilna Gaon’s students were among the first Ashkenazic Jews to move the Eretz Yisrael. Thus, the ruling of the Gaon to recite Shehechiyanu at a Brit became the accepted practice in Israel even among Ashkenazim. Sephardic Jews recite the Shehechiyanu Bracha at a Brit even outside of Israel (Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch p.896) but Ashkenazic Jews outside of Israel do not recite the Shehechiyanu at a Brit, following the ruling of the Shach (265:17).
The Vilna Gaon recounts the various arguments against reciting Shehechiyanu at a Brit and he refutes each argument. He quotes the argument that since a Brit is not an event that occurs at regular intervals (such as the Yamim Tovim), then the Shehechiyanu should not be recited. The Vilna Gaon responds by pointing out the fact that we recite a Shehechiyanu at a Pidyon Haben even though it does not occur at regular intervals
Another argument is that we are concerned perhaps the child is a Neifel (defective and unable to survive even thirty days of life) and it is inappropriate to recite a Shehechiyanu on such a baby. The Vilna Gaon responds that the fact that we perform a Brit Milah on Shabbat demonstrates that we are not concerned with the small possibility that the child is so sickly that it cannot survive thirty days (see Shabbat 135b-136a).
The last argument that the Vilna Gaon cites is that since the baby is experiencing pain it is inappropriate to recite a Shehechiayanu. He responds by citing the Gemara’s ruling (Berachot 59b) that if one, heaven forfend, hears the news of his father’s death he should recite both a Baruch Dayan Emet (Hashem is a truthful judge) and Shehechiyanu, if his father left him an inheritance. This Gemara teaches that it is appropriate to recite a Shehechiyanu on a very sad occasion if it is tinged with an aspect of happiness. Certainly one should recite Shehechiyanu upon a very happy occasion even if it is tinged with a sad aspect.
A final difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice is that many Sephardim take a Hadas and recite a Bracha on it and Ashkenazim do not (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 265:1 and Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, p.896).
There are a variety of disagreements regarding the Berachot recited at a Brit Milah. Some of these disputes have been resolved, but some of these disputes have never been resolved, and a variety of practices exist.