Monday, November 21, 2011

Including Women in the Ceremony

At a recent bris, some members of the family approached me afterwards to ask why (in that particular case) women are not included in the ceremony. The circumstances were, for me, far less than ideal, because I usually have a chance to talk with people in advance, to discuss with the baby's parents how they would like to have their ceremony. In this case, I was called in the late evening on the day before the bris, because the family found themselves without a mohel. The baby's grandfather called and made the arrangements.

I was not privy to any conversations they had with the mohel who cancelled on them, so I don't know what transpired - except in the end, the ceremony included the baby's uncle and his two grandfathers, and no one else.

Here are my thoughts on the subject - please read all before rushing to conclusions or judging.
1. There is no single rule that will work for everyone. For example, some mothers want to be up front during the bris, some want to be with friends or family in the middle or back of the room, and some don't even want to be in the room at all.
2. There are different protocols and sensitivities which must be adhered to depending on the venue where the bris is taking place. The rules of a synagogue, for example, are different than rules of one's private home.
3. Until relatively recently, women did not usually come to the bris.
4. In recent times, the sensitivity to be more inclusive of all grandparents in the ceremony has become a predominant concern for a significant number of people.
5. The Sandak (who holds the baby during the bris) must be male.

I could be chauvinistic and say that the bris is a mitzvah observed on a particularly male anatomical feature, and therefore the ceremony should involve males. [There is such a passage in the Talmud regarding who serves as the mohel. Since Avraham was told המול ימול - it is derived that המל ימול, that one who is circumcised will circumcise...]
On the other hand, I could say "Yeah? Well without women, there would not be any baby?!"

If you are looking for a traditional answer, the answer is that the kvatter is the traditional honor in which women are included.

If you are looking for a modern answer, the answer is that women should absolutely be involved when the protocol of the bris venue allows for it. In a traditional synagogue sanctuary (especially right after the morning services), you'd be out of luck. But in an egalitarian institution, and certainly in a neutral catering facility or at home, things would be different. I have been to and presided over brisses in which a grandmother either placed the baby on the chair of Elijah the Prophet or held the baby after the bris - sometimes alone or sometimes together with her husband. I've even done "hatafat dam" while the baby's mother held him.

In short, I don't think the right attitude is to say "NO." I personally go for the traditionalist viewpoint, but I also live in the real world. Some people feel very strongly about these things, while others are more open to seeing a different side. [Though I do think that claiming a "bris ceremony is paternalistic" is a little insensitive in the other direction - Would you want men to be involved in a ceremony that celebrates something related to female anatomy? I wouldn't!]

Bottom line: I think a conversation is in order. I think the baby's parents should have the final say as far as what they want their ceremony to look like.

And I think that all the relatives and friends who get offended by others' choices need to look at the bigger picture. Not being involved in the five minutes of the ceremony is, in the grand scheme of things, not that big of a deal. You can take all the pictures you want before and afterwards, and you can cherish the new baby in your family every waking minute you have the chance to be with him. Giving a guilt trip to those who "excluded you" (even though they meant no offense in it) will only strain a relationship, and is entirely not worth it. Remember that the new parents are going through a lot (especially with a first baby), and may not be thinking of every permutation. Cut them a little slack, cut the mohel a little slack, and just enjoy the day.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Been Updating Photos


That was before I created my Facebook page.

Since creating the page on Facebook, I've been asking people to send photos from their brisses (I obviously can't take photos while working), and some people have been very gracious and generous with their offerings. [The photo here is with the 90+ Holocaust-survivor great-grandfather serving as Sandak. His grandson is assisting him, holding the baby]

I've uploaded some recent ones to my facebook page.

Check 'em out!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

וכרות עמו הברית - Bris Morning Davening

There is a custom that on the morning of the bris, the segment in ויברך דוד (Vay'varekh David) that talks about the relationship between God and Avraham, and how it was forged through the bris, is recited responsively. (It is from Nehemiah 9:6-11. The Vay'varekh David part is from Divrei Hayamim I 29:10-13) Ideally by the mohel and the sandak, but otherwise by the mohel and the congregation. Everyone should, of course, recite all the words along quietly when they are being recited aloud by mohel, sandak, chazzan, etc.

This custom is recorded in a number of places. The Artscroll book on Bris Milah elaborates on this subject in the notes on pages 110-111, and Yossele Weisberg Z'L also quotes a number of sources to this effect in the first volume of his 4-volume "Otzar Habris", in footnote 22 on page 181.

This is the reason why just about every siddur makes a space in the middle of a verse (which should really not be done) to indicate that this is when the recitation for a bris begins. It is because this recitation was included in the siddur that we now - virtually everywhere - distinguish between "Vay'varekh David" and "V'charos Imo HaBris." Even though this break should only take place at a minyan where participants in a bris taking place that day are in attendance - the demarcation was made, and a 'minhag ta'us' (mistaken custom) is the run of the mill in just about every shul I have ever attended.
נחמיה פרק ט 
ז) אַתָּה הוּא יְקֹוָק הָאֱ-לֹהִים אֲשֶׁר בָּחַרְתָּ בְּאַבְרָם וְהוֹצֵאתוֹ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים וְשַׂמְתָּ שְּׁמוֹ אַבְרָהָם
ח) וּמָצָאתָ אֶת לְבָבוֹ נֶאֱמָן לְפָנֶיךָ       וְכָרוֹת עִמּוֹ הַבְּרִית לָתֵת אֶת אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי הַחִתִּי הָאֱמֹרִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי לָתֵת לְזַרְעוֹ וַתָּקֶם אֶת דְּבָרֶיךָ כִּי צַדִּיק אָתָּה

I mention all this because I davened at a shul recently, on a morning when I was to be the mohel for the bris, and I went up to the Bimah to do this recitation at the appropriate time in the davening. (for the record, I only say two verses responsively - some say the entire אז ישיר (Az Yashir - Song of the Sea) responsively) When I was finished, a few people were waiting for me to tell me (one of them was visibly mad upset that I had done this) "That is not the minhag (custom) in our shul."

I apologized and chose not to ask why every siddur in the shul has the break in the middle of the verse, if not to leave open the possibility of marking one of the references to the covenant of circumcision that appears in the daily prayers that this person says every day, which happens to be appropriate to note in mornings like this one when we will be celebrating the bris at the conclusion of the morning service. 

[In his defense, it's probably not the custom because it happens to be that this shul doesn't have a bris every day of the year. It couldn't be because of ignorance, could it?! I highly doubt that the ritual committee voted against this "responsive reading on mornings when there is a bris in shul."]

It is a harmless minhag, and even helps get people in the mood of what will be taking place that day. There is no reason not to do it. And there is certainly no reason to get upset about it.

May all of us be blessed to achieve a greater appreciation for the bris, its significance, and the role it plays in our lives. And if a tiny inconvenience in davening can help us at least on the morning of a bris, I think it's worth it.

Post Op Bleeding - The Myth of the Bleeding Vein

When done properly (and barring extremely rare circumstances), a mohel should never be faced with a situation in which he requires medical intervention to help stop bleeding post-op.

Between the various coagulating bandages which are available, and the never-fail "if you put enough pressure on it it will stop bleeding" method, with a little time and patience, bleeding can be put under control.


It is important to me (for obvious reasons) that the baby not be bleeding when he is turned over to his parents after the bris. This is why I always check and change the bandage immediately after the bris, so I can give the baby the proper attention. For better or worse, the bris takes a very small amount of time. Some babies clot very quickly and my bandage-change takes 2 minutes. With some babies it takes a little longer. A Five-Minute-Pressure-Application usually does the trick on more seemingly-difficult cases. [It's never pleasant for a mom to be in the room, unless she is totally calm and collected, during this time. Some choose to stay in, some choose to stay outside. But the baby is usually crying during this time (unless someone is putting a pacifier in his mouth), until I let go and close up his diaper.]

Because I put so much care into this, and know that some babies bleed more and some bleed less, and also that much of the aftereffects are heavily influenced by the bandaging, the amount of time doesn't affect me. Of course I would love for all babies to be a "chick-chock" case with no extra time. But we are all human and imperfect, so we do our best.

Which leads to the myth. I have had some fathers call me after their son's bris, clearly concerned that something went wrong. These always happen when I did not do the bris, which I would venture to suggest is the reason they are calling me instead of the mohel they used. In some cases the father himself did the bris (which I offer as an option to fathers, but most decline), and in some cases the mohel did the whole thing. 

Note: when "the father does the bris" it is set up for him by the mohel, leaving him with the relatively simple task of excising the foreskin by cutting along a metal plate (see the photo in method #2). 
Also Note: The first time anyone does a circumcision, there might be a feeling of "how did I just do what I did?" which accompanies a feeling of "I ruined this child for life." Which isn't true, but it might feel that way.

So the father says to me, "It took a lot of time for the mohel to stop the bleeding. He said I cut a vein."

Well, let's see. There are veins in that section of anatomy. When otherwise healthy skin tissue is excised, it stands to reason a vein will be cut. But not a major vein, whose repercussions could be quite disastrous. Unless, when the mohel in question set things up, he set up a circumstance, where the father (who does not know otherwise) removed too much skin from the shaft!

The way I see it, there are two possibilities:
1. The mohel set things up improperly and did not guide the father properly in the act of the circumcision excision.
2. The mohel had a difficulty with the bandaging (possibly related to previous point, though not necessarily), and felt the best way to explain his challenges was to blame the father for the mohel's mistake.

The bottom line is this:
Problems arise when too much shaft skin is removed (the original shaft skin should be as close to the corona of the glans as possible - give or take a couple of millimeters). Bleeding challenges can arise in any circumstance. It is the skilled mohel who knows to remove the proper amount of foreskin, and who can then get the bleeding under control - sometimes in very little time, and sometimes with a little more time and patience. I have seen what look like open "bigger veins" in a freshly circumcised penis, but with pressure (like with the rest of it), the bleeding stops. I do believe God would not have given us this commandment, to be done in this manner, if complications would arise on a regular basis. A mohel should own up to his own inadequacies (if he has them) and should not fault a vein, a father, or anything other than himself if not everything goes smoothly.