The many Minhagim involved in fulfilling the commandment of Brit Milah greatly enrich and enhance our observance of this vital Mitzvah. In fact, Rishonim use the phrase "Minhago Shel Yisrael Torah He," the customs of the Jewish People constitute Torah. Rav Hershel Schachter quotes Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik as explaining this phrase as an obligation not only to abide by Minhagim, but also an obligation to study Minhagim. Minhagim, Rav Soloveitchik said, are Torah even to the extent that we must study them in order to understand them and discover the basis for them in the Gemara and Rishonim. Indeed, Rav Schachter recounts that Rav Soloveitchik devoted much time in his Shiurim at Yeshiva University to the explanation of the basis of Minhagim. In this essay, we seek to explain the source and reason for some Minhagim of Brit Milah. We will discuss the chair set aside for Eliyahu Hanavi, the institution of the Sandek, the question of whether Tefillin should be worn during a Brit, the recitation of Aleinu after a Brit, and the Seudat Brit Milah.
Eliyahu Hanavi's Chair
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 265:11) records the celebrated custom to designate a chair for Eliyahu Hanavi at a Brit. The Vilna Gaon (Biur Hagra Y.D. 265:43) writes that the source for this practice is the Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer chapter 29. This Midrash relates that the Jewish People faithfully kept the Mitzvah of Brit Milah until the Kingdom of Israel split into two halves. The wicked leaders of the Northern Kingdom, Achav and Ezevel, forbade their subjects to practice Brit Milah. Eliyahu Hanavi, in response, announced that it would not rain until Achav and Ezevel rescinded the anti-Milah decree. Ezevel ordered Eliyahu killed for this, and Eliyahu was forced to flee. Hashem appeared to Eliyahu and told Eliyahu that He will reward him for his zealotry in this situation and in killing Zimri ben Salu (Bemidbar chapter 25 - recall that Chazal identify Pinchas with Eliyahu Hanavi, see Seforno to Bemidbar 25:13). Eliyahu's reward will be having a seat of honor designated for him at every Brit Milah.
This Midrash conveys a very powerful message. We repeat at the Brit a Pasuk from Yechezkel (16:6) "In your blood live," which emphasizes the vital importance of dedication and sacrifice for Torah. We cannot survive, much less thrive, without our willingness to expend maximal effort in our observance of Torah. We must be willing even to risk or give up our lives for Torah. Eliyahu Hanavi serves as a powerful role model of unswerving devotion to Hashem and His Torah and willingness to risk one's life for Torah and the Jewish People.
The famous Mohel, Rav Zvi (Harry) Bronstein zt"l is a modern day example of incredible dedication to Brit Milah. Rav Bronstein traveled to the Soviet Union on his American passport and clandestinely performed large numbers of Brit Milah until the KGB caught him and placed him in a Soviet prison. The Soviets released him after he suffered a serious heart attack and American leaders pressured Premier Brezhnev for Rav Bronstein's release. Due to Rav Bronstein's heroic efforts, many Jews established a connection to Judaism. Indeed, the Gemara (Shabbat 130a) notes that Jews have traditionally risked their lives in the face of government decrees forbidding Milah.
The Rama (Y.D. 265:11) records the practice of the Sandek holding the baby on his thighs. The Biur Hagra (Y.D. 265:44) cites the Midrash Shochar Tov that explains that this is based on the Pasuk (Tehillim 35:10) that states "All of my limbs shall say 'Hashem who is like you.'" The Midrash outlines how every body part is used in the service of Hashem. Our thighs participate in the service of Hashem, explains the Midrash, by placing the baby on our thighs during the Brit.
The Rama records a custom that a father should not honor the same individual twice with being the Sandek for his children. The reason is that the Sandek is compared to a Kohen offering the Ketoret (incense offering) in the Beit Hamikdash. The procedure regarding the Ketoret is that a Kohen does not perform this Mitzvah more than once in his lifetime. Hashem rewards the Kohen who offers the Ketoret with wealth. Thus, we want to afford the opportunity to as many Kohanim as possible to become wealthy (Yoma 26a). Similarly, we wish to afford to as many people as possible the opportunity to serve as a Sandek and receive Hashem's blessing to become wealthy.
The Vilna Gaon (Y.D. 265:45) expresses some skepticism regarding this Minhag. First, based on its reasoning, the Minhag should have been that one should not serve more than once as a Sandek for any child, not just two different children of one family. Second, the Vilna Gaon writes that we have never seen someone become wealthy because he served as a Sandek. Nevertheless, the Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 265:34) concludes, we should abide by the custom recorded by the Rama. The Aruch Hashulchan notes, though, that the custom in many locales is that the Rav of the city serves as the Sandek for all the baby boys. The Aruch Hashulchan justifies this practice by comparing the local Rav to the Kohen Gadol, who had the right to offer a Korban or Ketoret any time he desired (see Yoma 14a). Indeed, it is related that the Chazon Ish served as the Sandek for innumerable baby boys. Rav Yissochor Frand relates that Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman (the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel) also served as the Sandek for countless baby boys.
Tefillin and Brit Milah
The Shach (Y.D.265:24) and Magen Avraham (25:28) record the Minhag that men do not remove their Tefillin until after the Milah. The reason, the Shach explains, is that the Torah describes both Tefillin and Brit Milah as an "Ot," a sign. However, Rav Moshe Pirutinsky in his Sefer Habrit (265:133) cites a number of Acharonim who object to this practice. They argue that the Tefillin are a "competing" Ot to Milah and thus wearing Tefillin during a Brit detracts from the Ot of Brit Milah. Moreover, these authorities note that the Gemara (Zevachim 19a) states that Kohanim do not wear Tefillin during the Avodah. This is a relevant point because Chazal compare a Brit Milah to a Korban (see, for example, the Biur Hagra Y.D. 265:40).
Indeed, Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef p.895) rules that it is preferable not to wear Tefillin during the Brit. Moreover, the Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 265:38) notes that the Minhag has emerged for men to remove their Tefillin before the Brit. In my experience, the generally accepted Minhag today is that men remove their Tefillin before the Brit, except for the father of the baby and the Sandek. However, the Mishnah Berurah (25:55) writes that it is "proper" not to remove the Tefillin until after the Brit Milah. Indeed, I once met Rav Reuven Feinstein (the son of Rav Moshe Feinstein) at a Brit and noticed that he did not remove his Tefillin until after the Brit. He told me that this is proper practice for all to follow. Rav Moshe Snow reports that Rav Dovid Feinstein also does not remove his Tefillin until after the Brit.
Aleinu after the Brit
The Shach (ibid.) also mentions the Minhag to recite Aleinu after the Brit and all of its accompanying Brachot and Tefilot. The Pri Megadim explains that Aleinu emphasizes our separation from the rest of the world and the Brit celebrates the unique relationship between Hashem and the Jewish People. Another reason might be that in Aleinu we note our mission "to perfect the world through Hashem's kingdom." Similarly, the Brit signifies the need for us to improve ourselves as noted by the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 2). The Sefer Hachinuch notes that males are not born with perfect bodies because Hashem wants us to perfect our bodies in the service of Hashem. Similarly, the Sefer Hachinuch writes, Brit Milah should inspire us to perfect our souls and spiritual life. The Aleinu prayer sounds this theme.
The Seudat Brit Milah
The Rama (Y.D. 265:12) notes that one who does not participate in the Seudat Brit Milah is excommunicated from Hashem. This comment is based on Gemara (Pesachim 113b) and Tosafot (Pesachim 114a s.v. Ve’ein). Tosafot explain that the Midrash states that one who eats at a Seudat Brit Milah is spared from Gehenom. In fact, the Pitchei Teshuva Y.D. 265:18 and Aruch Hashulchan 265:37 note that we do not invite people to a Brit due to concern that the people will be excommunicated from Hashem if they do not attend. Rather, we merely inform people of the Brit's time and location.
We might suggest another reason for the seriousness of this matter. We mentioned that Chazal compare a Brit to a Korban. Accordingly, we may compare eating at a Seudat Brit Milah to eating a Korban. Sharing a meal is a bonding experience. When we eat a Korban we celebrate our relationship with Hashem (see Rav Joshua Berman's "The Temple," which develops this point at length). Similarly, when we participate in a Seudat Brit Milah we celebrate the covenant between Hashem and the Jewish People. This also may be the reason why some insist on serving meat at a Seudat Brit Milah, even though meat is not particularly appetizing early in the morning. Since Korbanot were meat, the Seudat Brit Milah should consist of meat.
Indeed, attendance at a Brit Milah and its subsequent Seudah is of great significance. A ruling issued by Rav Hershel Schachter emphasizes this point. A group of Rabbeim wished to attend a Brit Milah of a child of their friend. However, the Brit was scheduled to take place at a somewhat distant location and the Rabbeim would have to miss teaching some of their Torah classes if they would attend the Brit. The Rabbeim asked Rav Schachter if attending the Brit enjoys preference over teaching the Shiur. Rav Schachter ruled that the Rabbeim should attend the Brit. Rav Schachter explained that the Rabbeim would be setting an example for their Talmidim to attend the Brit of their friends' children in the future.
Many more Minhagim are associated with Brit Milah that we have not discussed. An excellent resource for investigating the reasons and applications of the many Minhagim is Rav Moshe Pirutinsky's Sefer Habrit. It is hoped that this essay serves as inspiration to follow Rav Soloveitchik's exhortation to explore in depth the customs of the Jewish People.