Rabbi Zvi Elon
Former Rosh Kollel in Urugauy


Parshat Lech Lecha contains the first mention of the mitzvah of brit milah. As we all know, this mitzvah is highly significant, and its many taamim (reasons) have been widely discussed. Nevertheless, I think that a review of some of the relevant halachot is in order.

In this article, I will focus on the mohel, rather than the milah itself. Indeed, we must differentiate between a brit and a circumcision. Today, over 55% of Americans circumcise their sons when they are a few days old. Clearly, this does not constitute abrit milah; rather, it is simply a circumcision. Here are a number of differences between the two:

· Milah shelo b’zmanah (not at the appointed time)

If a baby is circumcised before the eighth day or at night, the procedure is not milah.

· Milah in a forbidden fashion

We should begin by noting that milah comprises two elements: milah and priah. Milah is the removal of the orlah (the foreskin), and priah is the removal of the thin membrane which covers the flesh underneath.

The Shulchan Aruch rules, in accordance with the Gemara:

“If milah was performed but not priah, it is as if milah was not performed.”

The Rishonim and Achronim, in turn, wonder if milah and priah may be performed “as one”. In other words, may the mohel – either by hand or with a special instrument – hold the two skins together and cut them simultaneously? Many poskim are stringent in this regard, and most contemporary authorities hold that, l’chatchilah, milah and priah should be performed separately. However, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l disagreed, and many mohalim rely on his opinion. (A related question is whether or not the mohel may wear gloves during the milah.)

Nonetheless, there are a number of instruments which definitely invalidate the milah. For example, the so-called “clamp” essentially kills the orlah before the cut, and hence, no blood is involved. But the dambrit (the blood of the brit milah) is one of the main components of the brit, and therefore, mohalim may not use this instrument. Interestingly, several studies have shown that the baby endures more pain with this type of instrument. In any event, when such an instrument is used, the brachah is abrachah l’vatalah (“a wasted brachah”).

· Milah with a mohel who is not shomer mitzvot

The Rama (Yoreh Deah 264) rules:

“A mumar (apostate) for the whole Torah or a mumar for orlot is considered to be an oved kochavim (idolator) [for milah].”

The Shulchan Aruch writes:

“But an oved kochavim, even if he is mahul (has had a brit milah), should not perform milah. But if he did perform milah, there is no need to repeat the milah (i.e. hatafat dam brit – drawing dam brit).”

The Rama continues:

“And some say that the hatafat dam brit must be repeated.”

As a mohel in a country which has not had a local mohel who is shomer Shabbat for at least ten years, I must say that this issue is particularly complicated and problematic. On one hand, it says much about Am Yisrael that such a large percentage of parents – even those who are distant from shmirat Torah u’mitzvot – wish to give their sons a brit milah. As the Gemara (BT Shabbat 130a) promises:

“Every mitzvah which they accepted upon themselves with joy, such as milah… they continue to perform it with joy.”

Yet, on the other hand, many Jews are unaware of the halachic issues involved. As a result, due to medical considerations, they have surgeons, who are either not shomrei mitzvot or – in some cases – not even Jewish, circumcise their sons. Sadly, a number of families have told me that they were shocked to discover that that a milah performed by a mechalel Shabbat b’farhesya is not valid. In my humble opinion, we must – as a minimum – strive to educate the public about the matter’s severity.

L’halachah, as we noted above, according to the Rama, the hatafat dam must be repeated, but the Shulchan Aruch holds that it is not repeated. Some commentaries explain that the Shulchan Aruch’s reasoning is based on the fact that the brit was performed for the sake of the mitzvah (since that was the parents’ intention). However, the Shaagat Aryeh has a harsher interpretation. According to him, the Shulchan Aruch says hatafah is not repeated, because there is no way to correct the original brit.

Summary: Milah performed by a non-observant doctor is extremely problematic because of two primary reasons:

  1. Is a milah performed by a mohel who is a mechalel Shabbat b’farhesya valid?
  2. Was the milah performed in a permitted fashion, or were impermissible instruments used?

I will conclude with a story about something which occurred in my community a few weeks ago.

One of the guys who I am B”H privileged to learn with each day told me sadly that his sister and brother-in-law, who were expecting a son, had decided to use a Reform mohel for the brit. I called them up and asked if they would be willing to come speak to me. They readily agreed, and when they arrived, we spoke about brit milah’s significance and deeper meaning.

I told them that I did not want to perform the brit myself; instead, I would ask a more experienced Argentinean mohel to come. I wanted to show them that I had no personal stake in the matter; I was only acting L’Shem Shamayim.

However, they were not interested. I said that the mohel in question had performed thousands of britot. I noted that the “clamp” causes pain to the baby, but to no avail. I could not convince them.

Finally, the wife asked, “Where does it say that a brit has to be performed as you say it does?”

“In the Shulchan Aruch,” I responded and went to get a Shulchan Aruch from the beit midrash. I opened the sefer and showed her the Rama’s opinion.

Astonishingly, as soon as she saw what was written in the sefer, she turned to her husband and declared, “It was written 500 years ago. That’s it! The matter is closed. We’re going to have a mohel who is shomer mitzvot!”

And so, as planned, the Argentinean mohel arrived and performed the brit. I received the honor of naming the baby, and since then, we’ve remained in close contact with that couple and their family.

“Great is the mitzvah of milah, because thirteen covenants were made upon it.”