Contemporary American Reform Responsa

30. Role of a Godfather in the Circumcision Ceremony

QUESTION: What is the role of the godfather in the circumcision ceremony? Is it possible for a godfather to withdraw his consent for this act some years later? (Rabbi J. Folkman, Columbus, OH)

ANSWER: The primary role of godfather is that of helping at the time of the circumcision. Among oriental Jews where a table was not used for the circumcision, someone specially designated simply held the child upon his knees. The Midrash (to Ps. 36.10) stated that each portion of the body was designated for a mitzvah, and the knees were for holding a child during circumcision (Roqeah 108). This was the practice during the many centuries when the circumcision was held at home and also subsequently when the ceremony was moved to the synagogue, which seems not to have occurred before the ninth century in Persia, and probably reflected an imitation of the Muslim custom to circumcise in the mosque. This custom was then followed by both rabbinic and Karaite Jews (L. Löw, Die Lebensalter in der Jüdischen Literatur). From there the custom was introduced to Europe and is mentioned in northern France in the eleventh century and in Germany in the thirteenth.

The Hebrew term used for godfather, sandeq, is from the Greek and later Latin syndicus. (French, comprère, German or Yiddish, gevatter, Spanish, padrino, Hungarian, koma, Hebrew, baal berit). Various midrashim refer to the sandeq, as did Or Zaruah Hil. Milah in the thirteenth century (for example, Midrash to Gen. 18.1; Ps. 35.10; Neh. 9.8). The office was discussed by Isserles at length in a note (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 65.11).

As the office is considered an honor, the individual fulfilling it has to be of good character and pious. He, in turn, possesses certain rights, as that of being called to the Torah on the day of the circumcision if it fell on the day when the Torah is read (Maharil 84a). He, of course, sits in the special chair provided in many synagogues if the circumcision is customarily held there.

It seems that the sandeq was also responsible for certain financial contributions to the festivities of the circumcision. Usually the meal connected with it was prepared at his expense. In order to prevent this from becoming an unusual burden, the Tosafists, Peretz De Corbeil and Judah, the Pious, stated that an individual was only permitted to serve in this capacity once (Maharil Hil. Milah). Ezekiel Landau (1713-1793) disagreed with this and stated that the same individual could be asked a number of times. He also reported that in Poland in his time the rabbi was often appointed as the permanent sandeq and participated in this fashion in each berit (Nodah Biy'hudah, Vol. I #86). Moses Sofer rejected Landau's interpretation and cited astrological reasons for having a sandeq officiate only once in this role (Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayim #158, 159.) Various opinions were cited by Elijah Gaon (Beer Hagrah to Yoreh Deah 265).

It is possible for women to participate in this role, although Isserles suggested that this not be done (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 265.11). Women participated among German Jews, while other Jewish communities discouraged it. Christians also have assisted in this fashion, as for example, in 1484 in Castrogiovanni, Sicily (L. Zunz, Zur Geschichte und Literatur, p. 499). Several medieval councils tried to prohibit such Christian participation (Council of Terracinana in 1330). Similar prohibitive statements are found in Protestant ordinances.

In modern times, the role of sandeq and godfather has sometimes been separated, but there is no basis for this in the earlier tradition. In all the traditional material there is no discussion whatsoever of any additional responsibility on the part of the sandeq beyond the circumcision. In other words, his privileges and his responsibilities end with the ceremony. Therefore, it would not be possible for the individual to withdraw his participation at a later time.

July 1978

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.