Tuesday, March 13, 2018

When the Mohel is also a Synagogue Rabbi

In old Jewish towns there was often one person who was a Jewish know-it-all. He was the sofer (Scribe), Shochet (ritual slaughterer), and Mohel. 

Despite the fact that this person held several positions, there is actually indication in Jewish law that the shochet shouldn't also be a mohel. Why? Not because anyone is afraid he'd do anything wrong to the child! It's actually something which is a serious concern to devout Jews, but not because of whatever you might be thinking.

The assumption is that any shochet will be busier than any mohel. Every family needs to eat daily, while even if a family might have had a baby once a year, it's not always a boy. And of course some have babies far less frequently than that.

So here's the reason: When a shochet finds himself in a situation where he has a knife in his hand (even though it's a much smaller knife than usual, and he is looking at a baby and not a bird or animal slated for slaughter), he might accidentally say the wrong blessing before commencing the job.

You read right. The wrong blessing. Now the blessing a shochet makes (Blessed are You God... Who has commanded us to slaughter animals) might not sound good before circumcising a baby. But no one thinks he'd go and slaughter the baby. Everyone is moi confident that the bris will go just fine.

I finally understood this on a very deep level this week. As I am also a rabbi of a synagogue, this time of year is somewhat dedicated to people appointing me to be their agent to sell their chametz in advance of Pesach. When we meet, I always tell them, "Please appoint me to be your shaliach/agent to sell your chametz."

As I do brisses a lot more often than I sell chametz, you can probably guess what happened. 

One night this week, I was a little distracted as a person came to make the transaction with me, and I told him, "Please appoint me to be the shaliach to do your son's bris!"

Like in the example above, I did not circumcise anyone at that time, and the error was quickly corrected and our transaction went without a hitch. But it just goes to show how we can train ourselves to say things. After all, every time the father is not doing the circumcision himself - which is his mitzvah - I remind him "You have to appoint me to be your shaliach to fulfill this mitzvah on your behalf."

AND THAT is an honor that I cherish anew every time I receive the call!

Thank you, as always, for your trusting your baby's bris needs to my hands. 

Friday, March 2, 2018

The Best and the Worst of Times

This blog post has two anecdotes from this week, each followed by the method of procedure I utilize in these circumstances. Like any religious milestone and lifecycle event, the only thing that gives it that flavor is when the rules are being followed. I didn't make the rules, so please (if your circumstance is described below) don't cast aspersions against things which have defined the Jewish people for millennia.

Shabbos Bris and Bilirubin/Jaundice
I got a call last night (Thursday night after Purim) from a couple whose son was born last Saturday morning. A baby born on Shabbos is supposed to have his bris on Shabbos.

Owing to a very mild case of jaundice (bilirubin count 15.3), their mohel told them that they could not have the bris on Shabbos, and it will be Sunday. Wanting to do things right, they found my blog post on the subject online and called me to see if I'm available. I'm not, which is fine. But there are two things going on here which, to me are a cause for concern.

1. As noted in the article recounted in that blog post, the craze over jaundice, and the fact that some mohels will delay brisses on account of it, is mostly based on a misunderstanding of halakha. Also, the medical concern is unfounded as most doctors will tell you that normal physiological jaundice (which is the most common type) need not delay a bris. Mohels need to drop the arbitrary bilirubin number of 12 and have brisses take place on time when the number is higher. I have never had a problem with babies who had a bilirubin count of 16 (or even lower than 18 when the numbers were descending).

2. To do a bris at the right time is a mitzvah. A Shabbos bris provides added stress to parents if the mohel they want to hire does not live in their neighborhood, as he needs to be housed for Shabbos, with all the arrangements that entails. Of course it's inconvenient for the mohel as well. But it is important to the family to do the bris on the 8th day. This is why I find the mohel jumping at excuses to delay the bris - for his own convenience - to be wrong.

Instead of saying "bilirubin is too high, so I'll do the bris on Sunday," the mohel should be honest and say this: "Your baby should have his bris on time. I am not available to come for Shabbos. If you find someone to do the bris that day, wonderful! Mazal tov! If not, I am happy to be available at the next opportunity, Sunday morning."

I have given that speech to many people. Some have found someone else. Others could not find someone for Shabbos. Others chose on their own to delay to Sunday because they wanted me to be their son's mohel, based on all the research they had done. Let us understand bilirubin and jaundice better, getting out of old-school methods of delaying brisses. And let us (mohels) be honest about what we can and can't do, and not delay a bris due to our (mohels') inconvenience. 

Non-Jewish Mother
I do feel badly every time this happens. But this is one place where the kind of Judaism I live draws a clear line. By birth, only a child born of a Jewish mother is Jewish. If his mother is not Jewish at the time of birth, he is not Jewish and needs at the very least to undergo some form of conversion. 

As I like to say, I'm not judging anyone. Heaven forfend I would ever suggest anyone is not a good person. All I'm saying is that a non-Jewish woman is not a Jewish personWhich, of course, has ramifications for her child.

While there might be a financial incentive, I made a decision a long time ago not to do "brisses" on babies born from non-Jewish women, even if the father is Jewish (because they usually want a Bris, and the baby doesn't even need to get circumcised! and is certainly exempt from a Bris!). I am not supervising a conversion in these cases. And I certainly don't want to mislead anyone into thinking all is good and kosher when it is not. The child would still need a conversion as the circ would not turn him into a Jew.

I don't know the rabbi who called me on their behalf earlier this week. But he certainly thinks differently. When I told him "The baby is not Jewish and doesn't need a bris," he said, "Now I know where we stand." [For what I sometimes offer people in these circumstances - which very few people have taken me up on - see the second half of this post. under "The Cases I Will Take."]

The continuation of the Jewish people is most possible through Jewish marriage, Jewish education, and a commitment from both parents to raise their children as Jews. While to the modern eye matrilineal descent might seem to be anachronistic, and the concept of "Jewish DNA" only passing through the mother might seem to be bigoted, the fact remains that that is the core definition of Jewish peoplehood (outside of proper conversion) which has defined us almost forever. 

I look forward to continuing to service Jewish babies in this holy mitzvah.