Friday, November 15, 2019

Can’t We Agree on the Blessings over Brit Milah?

Parashat Vayera contains the story of the circumcision of Isaac (Genesis 21:4), the first person to undergo the ritual of circumcision on the eighth day of life.

At a Brit Milah, the mohel (individual who performs the circumcision) recites a blessing:

Ba’ruch Ah’tah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu ahl ha’milah. 
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding circumcision.

Immediately after the removal of the foreskin, a second blessing is reciting by the father of the baby: Ba’ruch Ahtah Ah’do’nai, Eh’lo’hay’nu melech ha’o’lam, ah’sher kidishanu b’mitz’vo’tav v’tzee’vanu l’hach’nih’so bi’vri’to shel Avraham ah’vi’nu. 
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to bring him into the covenant of Abraham our father.

After the father completes his blessing, those congregated respond:
Amen. K’shehm she’nich’nas lah’brit, keyn yi’kah’nes le’Torah, uh’le’chupah, uh’le’ma’ah’seem toh’veem Amen. 
Just as he [the child] has entered the covenant, may he too enter into Torah, the marital canopy and to good deeds.

Some have the custom to recite a third blessing, which is recited in contexts of joy and newness.

Ba'ruch ah'tah Ah'do'nai, Eh'lo'hay'nu melech ha'o'lam, sheh'heh'cheh'yanu v'kee'manu v'hee'gee'anu la'zman ha'zeh. 
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this occasion.

The She’he’cheh’yanu blessing is generally recited when one wears new clothes for the first time, when one fulfills a mitzvah for the first time (such as lighting Chanukah candles or waving the four species on Sukkot for the first time that year), and upon the birth of a baby girl. Generally, there is unanimity as to when to recite the She’he’cheh’yanu blessing. In the case of brit milah, Sephardic Jews recite it while Ashkenazic Jews do not. However, another anomaly exists in this context. Ashkenazic Jews in Israel do indeed recite She’he’cheh’yanu. Why the controversy in the case of Brit Milah?

Maimonides rules (Laws of Brit Milah 3:3) that the father of the baby boy recites the she’he’cheh’yanu blessing. Since the commandment to circumcise is fulfilled only on relatively rare occasions, he felt the blessing ought to be recited. Many disagree with Maimonides’ ruling. The Tosafists (Talmud Sukkah 46a) rule that since the Talmud only mentions the first two blessings, no other blessings are added. Others argue that since the baby is enduring a brief painful episode, we can’t classify the moment as fully joyous. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 265:7) comments that she’he’cheh’yanu is recited only when the father himself circumcises his son, and then explicitly quotes Maimonides’. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis ruled that Ashkenazim do not recite the blessing. This is indeed the custom among all of Ashkenazic Jewry in the diaspora.

However, many Ashkenazic Jews living in Israel have accepted the custom to recite the she’he’cheh’yanu blessing. Perhaps this anomaly can be explained as many modern day Ashkenazic customs in Israel derive from the practices of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, known as the Vilna Gaon (Sage), whose disciples were among the early settlers in modern day Israel (early 19th century). The Vilna Gaon advocated reciting the blessing, since the joy is felt upon performing of the mitzvah, not on the body of the baby.

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