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The Berakhot on the Brit Mila (1)

Rav David Brofsky
Last week we discussed the various customs leading up to the circumcision itself, concluding with the placement of the child on the sandak's knees as he awaits the procedure. In addition, we dedicated numerous shiurim to the brit mila itself, including the mila, peri'a, and metzitza. This week we will begin our discussion of the blessings said during the brit mila. We will discuss each berakha, its nature, and when and how it is recited.
            The Talmud (Shabbat 137b) teaches that there are three blessings recited at a brit mila: al ha-mila, le-hakhniso le-verito shel Avraham Avinu, and koret ha-brit.
The Sages taught: One who circumcises a child recites: Who has made us holy through His commandments and commanded us concerning circumcision (al ha-mila).
And the one who recites the additional blessing says: Who made the beloved one holy from the womb, marked the decree in his flesh, and gave his descendants the seal and the sign of the holy covenant. Therefore, as a reward for this, the living God, our Portion, commanded to deliver the beloved of our flesh from destruction, for the sake of His covenant that He set in our flesh. Blessed are You, Lord, Who establishes the covenant (koret ha-berit).
What is the nature of these blessings? When are they said, and by whom?
Birkat Al Ha-MilaBirkat Ha-Mitzva
The first blessing, as is evident by its nosachasher kideshanu be-mitzvotav ve-tzivanu,” is clearly a birkat ha-mitzva, a blessing said before the performance of a mitzva. The Talmud (Pesachim 7b) teaches that the birkat ha-mitzva always precedes the performance of the mitzva (over le-asiyatan).
When should the birkat ha-mitzva over the circumcision be recited? The Chokhmat Adam (149:19) writes:
One should not perform the circumcision until he has completed the blessing, as the entire blessing must be said over le-asiyatan (before performing the mitzva), unlike those mohalim who show their sharpness by beginning to cut as immediately after beginning the blessing; this is an act of ignorance.
The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Yoreh De’ah 265:1) notes the Chokhmat Adam’s objection to those who begin cutting before concluding the blessing, yet defends this practice. He maintains that as long as the blessing is concluded as he finishes cutting, circumcising in this manner is considered to be over le-asiyatan. Furthermore, since the blessing is said before the peri’a, this is further considered to be over le-asiyatan. He cites the Tashbetz (2:277), who suggests that it is even preferable to finish cutting the foreskin, then recite the blessing, and then perform the peri’a.
The Arukh Ha-Shulchan presents the common practice to start cutting before completing the blessing as the “middle way, predicated upon legal foundations, and it is thus the appropriate way to perform [the circumcision].”
Birkat Le-Hakhniso Be-Verito shel Avraham Avinu
The Talmud teaches that in addition to the classic birkat ha-mitzva, i.e., al ha-mila, the father of the child recites the berakha of lehakhniso be-verito shel Avraham Avinu. While the first blessing is clearly a birkat ha-mitzva and the third blessing, as we shall see, is certainly a birkat ha-shevach (or a prayer for the welfare of the child), the Rishonim disagree as to the nature of this berakha.
Some Rishonim suggest that this blessing does not align with the familiar categories of birkot ha-mitzva and birkot ha-shevach. Rather, it is most similar to the blessing of she-hakol bara le-khevodo said at a wedding. Rashi (see Machzor Vitry 505) explains that the blessing is meant to publicly welcome the child into the covenant of Avraham. He describes how as the child is brought into the room, the congregation says “barukh ha-ba,” and the father takes the child and recites the le-hakhniso blessing, like any other birkat ha-mitzva that is said before the mitzva is performed. After the child is welcomed into the brit, he is circumcised. Similarly, R. Yehoshua Ha-Nagid (1310–1355), the last of the Rambam's descendants in Egypt, writes in his Teshuvot R. Yehoshua Ha-Nagid:
He should say the le-hakhniso blessing as he brings the child to be circumcised … and then Shehechiyyanu, and afterwards the mohel says the blessing al ha-mila, and afterward the blessing asher kidash yedid mi-beten.
He agrees with the Machzor Vitry in viewing the blessing as a public initiation into the covenant.
It is interesting to note that the Seder Rav Amram (Seder Mila) writes that when the father is not present, the entire congregation recites the le-hakhniso blessing. Apparently, the blessing is not a birkat ha-mitzva or a birkat ha-shevach, but rather a public welcoming of the child into the brito shel Avrahama Avinu.
Most Rishonim do not accept this interpretation and instead attempt to align this blessing with other berakhot. For example, the Rashbam (Tosafot ibid. s.v. avi ha-ben) maintains that this blessing is a birkat ha-mitzva. In accordance with the principle, mentioned above, that the birkat ha-mitzva always precedes the performance of the mitzva (over le-asiyatan), the Rashbam insists that the father should recite the blessing of le-hakhniso before the mohel says the blessing of al ha-mila. Furthermore, the Rashbam amends the standard text of the Talmud and places the passage describing the father’s blessing before the mohel’s blessing, which is recited immediately before the act of cutting. This is also the view of the Rif (Teshuvot Ha-Rif 293).
Aside from the textual difficulties, this approach raises a more fundamental question. The Hagahot Maimoniot (Hilkhot Mila 3:3) cites Rabbeinu Simcha, who asked, “What is the nature of this le-hakhniso blessing? And why is it not sufficient that his [the father’s] agent, the mohel, says the al ha-mila blessing?” Interestingly, the Rema (Yoreh De’ah 265:2) rules that if the father circumcises his own son and only says the le-hakhniso blessing, he has fulfilled his obligation. The Gra (ibid. 14) explains that the le-hakhniso blessing is similar but broader than the al ha-mila blessing; therefore, if the father only said the le-hakhniso blessing, he does not need to say al ha-mila. We will return to this question shortly.
Rabbeinu Tam (ibid.) rejects the view of the Rashbam, his older brother, and restores the original text of the Talmud, as well as the custom of French communities. He asserts that the blessing should be said after the circumcision. Rabbeinu Tam apparently maintains that the le-hakhniso blessing is a birkat ha-shevach, recited by the father as his son enters the “covenant of Avraham Avinu,” and is therefore recited after the act. Indeed, the Rosh (Shabbat 19:10) explains that according to Rabbeinu Tam,
This blessing is not for this specific mila that is being performed now; rather, he thanks and praises God, who has commanded to perform this mitzva when he has the opportunity, and they instituted that this is the place to reveal and declare that the mitzva is performed for God, and not for murna (i.e., medicinal reasons).
Similarly, the Ran (Shabbat 55b s.v. avi ha-ben) explains that “this blessing is praise and thanksgiving for being able to enter [the child] into the covenant of Avraham.”
The Rosh (Shabbat 19:10, Kiddushin 1:40, and Teshuvot Ha-Rosh 26:1) appears to disagree with Rabbeinu Tam. He proposes that the blessing be recited immediately after the mila (i.e., the cutting of the foreskin), but before the peri’a (i.e., the removal of the thin membrane covering the glans). Assuming that the peri’a is part of the mitzva, the le-hakhniso blessing is therefore said before the completion of the mitzva.
The Rambam’s position regarding this matter is unclear. The Kesef Mishneh (Hilkhot Mila 3:1) assumes that the Rambam holds that the le-hakhniso blessing is said after the mila. The Rambam himself, in two responsa (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam 331 and 332), rules that one may say the le-hakhniso blessing before or after the mila, “as its nosach is not ve-tzivanu.” This is also the position of a number of Geonim (see Shaarei Tzedek 3:5:4). However, the Rambam’s son, R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam, attests that his father maintained and ruled in practice that the blessing should be recited before the mila (see, for example, Maharam Alshakar 18, who cites R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam).
The Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De’ah 265:1) rules in accordance with the Rosh, that the father should say the le-hakhniso blessing after the mila and before the peri’a. Interestingly, the Taz and the Shakh both view this practice as a “compromise,” but for different reasons.
The Shakh (1) explains that since some require that the blessing be said before the mila and some say that it should be said after the mila – lest the mohel change his mind and not perform the mila, in which case the blessing would be in vain – it is best to say the blessing before the peri’a. This is still considered to be over le-asiyatan, but after the mila, as the mohel can no longer change his mind. The Taz (1), in contrast, implies that this practice fulfills the views of both the Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam: It is still over le-asiyatan, but it is after the mila. The Taz adds that if the father himself performs the mila, he should say both blessings before cutting, as he will be too preoccupied with performing the mila to say the blessings properly. R. Ovadia Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, Yoreh De’ah 7:21) claims that Sephardic practice is to say the blessing before the mila, in accordance with the views of the Rif and Rambam (see above).
The Rishonim disagree regarding another aspect of this blessing. The Rambam (Hilkhot Mila 3:1) writes:
[At the circumcision,] the father of the child recites another blessing: Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to have our children enter the covenant of Avraham Avinu.
[This blessing was instituted because] it is a greater mitzva for a father to circumcise his son than for the Jewish People as a whole to circumcise the uncircumcised among them. Therefore, if a child's father is not present, this blessing should not be recited. There are those who have ruled that the court or one of the people [in attendance should recite this blessing in the father's absence]. [Nevertheless,] this ruling should not be followed.
The Rambam maintains that this blessing is uniquely the father’s and should not be recited by anyone else. The Raavad (ibid.), however, agrees with the view rejected by the Rambam and insists that the blessing may be recited by the beit din or another person. He relates that in practice, it is customary for the sandak to recite this blessing. The Rema (YD 265:1) writes that another person may recite the blessing if the father is not present; he notes that it is customary for the sandak to say the blessing.
How are we to understand this debate between the Rambam and Raavad?
Some propose that this debate relates to different understandings of the relationship between the father’s obligation and the beit din’s obligation. For example, we might suggest that the father’s obligation differs from that of the community, as he is actually obligated to circumcise his son, while the community is merely charged to ensure that the boy is circumcised, as we have discussed elsewhere. Thus, we can understand why the blessing of le-hakhniso is only said by the father, whose obligation is unique and distinct from that of the beit din.
R. Yosef Rosen, known as the “Rogatchover Gaon" (1858 – 1936), in his commentary to the Rambam, Tsafnat Pa’aneach (ibid.), suggests that this disagreement reflects a broader debate regarding the obligation of beit din in brit mila. He explains that while the Rambam maintains that beit din is charged with the responsibility to ensure that the Jewish People are not “arelim,” in which case the berakha that celebrates entering the covenant of Avraham is irrelevant, the Raavad believes that the beit din’s obligation is to ensure that each and every Jewish male is circumcised, in which case the le-hakhniso blessing is certainly appropriate.
Alternatively, some suggest that this debate hinges on the different understandings of the le-hakhniso blessing discussed above. The Raavad may agree with Rabbeinu Tam, who views this blessing as a birkat ha-shevach, in which case it may be recited by anyone. The Rambam, however, maintains that the le-hakhniso blessing is a birkat ha-mitzva, like the Rashbam, and therefore may only be recited by the father. Of course, this leads us once again to the difficulty raised above: Why would the rabbis institute two separate birkot ha-mitzva for brit mila?
It appears that in addition to the general mitzva of brit mila, the father fulfills an additional, unique mitzva when circumcising his son, related to the very essence of his role as a parent – le-hakhniso le-verito shel Avraham Avinu. Indeed, the Ittur (Hilkhot Mila 53a) explains:
Since the father it commanded to circumcise, redeem, and to teach his son Torah, and to marry him off, he says the blessing, as from the child’s birth the commandment to enter his son into the covenant, and [to teach him] Torah and mitzvot, and to marry him off, the father’s blessing for his son includes all of this.
The Ittur explains that ultimately, the father is responsible for the religious welfare of his child, and therefore the blessing is both unique and distinctly his.
Next week we will continue our discussion of the blessings said over the brit mila

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