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I have recently come upon historical evidence of the mothers of baby boys serving as the sandek(et) during the brit milah.

From page 18 of The Orthodox Jewish Woman and Ritual: Options and Opportunities (Put out by the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance)

A second major figure at a brit is the sandek, or baal habrit, the per- son who holds the baby while the mohel performs the circumcision. Usually this honor is given to a grandfather, great-grandfather, or impor- tant community figure. Can a woman act as sandeket? The first halachik objection to this custom was voiced by Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg in the thirteenth century. Before this time, a woman was able to act as a sandeket or baalat brit. Later Ashkenazi authorities disapprove of a woman acting as sandeket out of fear of intermingling of the sexes. Today, when women and men do interact at both secular and religious events there is room to be lenient with this objection. However, Rabbis may be more stringent with laws regarding intermingling of the sexes when the brit is set in a synagogue, and some mohalim may be uncom- fortable with the idea of a female sandeket.

In the final analysis, the role of sandek is honorary and symbolic and does not affect the status of the child. Certain Orthodox Rabbis today do permit a woman to act as sandeket, and individual Rabbis should be consulted regarding syna- gogue policy. Clearly it would be very meaningful if a grandmother or another significant female figure could act as sandeket.

Does anyone have any knowledge of this practice and a mohel that would perform a brit milah with the mother holding the baby? I know it is rare, but any help would be appreciated!

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rachael cohen, welcome to the site and thanks for the great question. I hope you stick around and enjoy the site. You may wish to register your username for a better site experience. –  msh210 Jan 24 '12 at 18:40
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Just because the earliest evidence against it is in the 13th century doesn't say anything about normative practice before then and certainly does not set historical precedant. I don't how they conclude that "Before this time, a woman was able to act as a sandeket or baalat brit" but it certainly is not from the information you provided here. Also, fyi when you do find the appropriate information, you should edit it directly into the question. –  Double AA Jan 24 '12 at 23:10
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@DoubleAA, The relevant writing of Maharam of Rothenburg is found in section 397 of the Tashbatz that GershonGold linked to in his answer. It is made clear that it was a prevalent custom for a woman to be sandeket, which he admits from the start is a "minhag kasher" (which I will take to mean "technically permitted"). Even the Tashbatz continues that he promoted this "ruling" (not really a ruling) of the Maharam, but to no avail, which implies that it was being done still a couple hundred years later. –  jake Jan 24 '12 at 23:40
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@jake, I think you meant "not a minhag kasher"? –  YDK Jan 25 '12 at 1:05
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@rachaelcohen, regardless of what the halacha is, isn't or should be, the conclusion of your source that "The first halachik objection to this custom was voiced by Rabbi Meir of Rotenburg in the thirteenth century. Before this time, a woman was able to act as a sandeket or baalat brit" is dishonest scholarship . It could be many voiced their objections over the time frame (which is unclear how long), but no one had a student that wrote a book quoting it. There is no evidence in the Tashbatz that the practice was ever acceptable. –  YDK Jan 25 '12 at 2:00

3 Answers 3

The Tashbatz in Siman 397 writes that it is inappropiate for a lady to be the Sandak even if her husband is the Mohel. The Rama in Yore Deah 265:11 writes that if a man is available a lady should not be Sandak as it is Peritzus.

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A Bris in the past was not like the Bris we make today. Often it was done at home with only the parents present and therefore there was no other option other than the mother being Sandak. However due to modesty it is not proper in today's settings. –  Gershon Gold Jan 24 '12 at 18:43
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@rachaelcohen, The fact that it was done in the past (which, as you indicated, there is historical evidence of) by no means implies that it was permitted. Case in point: there is historical evidence that many Jewish women in Europe post-WW1 did not cover their hair. Yet this does not stop an overwhelming majority of poskim from claiming that hair-covering for married women is absolutely obligatory. Just because something was practiced in the past, not necessarily was it correct. –  jake Jan 24 '12 at 18:46
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@avi - maybe a lot of what is called "peritzus" today is just chumra and minhag, but there certainly are forms of peritzus that are halachically problematic. One example of many: Women counting as part of a zimun with men. –  Dave Jan 24 '12 at 18:52
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@avi - correct, technically. Women with men is classified as אין חברתן נאה (see MB 199:12), which is not quite peritzus, but the same idea. –  Dave Jan 24 '12 at 19:38
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@Dave I strongly take issue with the idea that something that is not considered appropriate (even universally) out of a sense that it isn't quite Tzanua' is identical to "Peritzus". The latter is far stronger than that which falls outside of the bounds of the former. –  Seth J Jan 24 '12 at 19:41

The Divrei Malkiel writes (Vol 4, siman 86) that it is forbidden for a woman to be the sandek because being sandek is tantamount to being the mohel (because both assist in the actual performance of the bris), and a woman cannot be a mohel. see also responsa Mishna Halachos from the recently deceased Rabbi Menashe Klein (Second edition, vol 2, siman 162)

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Hey - last week's Parsha Tziporah was the Mohel. Perhaps if a female would do the Milah then you can have a female Sandak. –  Gershon Gold Jan 24 '12 at 18:59
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Who says a woman can't do circumcision? (I know I'm opening myself up here to attack; I'm just bringing some light to the situation, not saying it is permissible.) See here, where it seems pretty clear that it's not so clear: parsha.blogspot.com/2006/01/… –  Seth J Jan 24 '12 at 20:00
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It is not all clear whether a woman can be the mohel. Sources: books.google.com/… –  rachael cohen Jan 24 '12 at 22:04
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See Avoda Zara 27a which explains that Zipporah herself did not actually do the milah, she called someone else (a man) to do it or she started it and Moses finished it. –  Reb Chaim HaQoton Jan 25 '12 at 0:56
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@RebChaimHaQoton So we see that Tzippora helped with the Milah and that was OK. Certainly she is no worse than a sandeket. –  Double AA Jun 14 '12 at 7:09

A couple of other pertinent sources not cited here:
- The Chida (Yosef Ometz 85) allows the MOTHER of the child to be a sandeket;
- The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Peilim Helek 4, Sod Yesharim, 11) notes that the Zohar equates being a sandak with the bringing of the ketoret - a job reserved for men – such that, "l'hathila", a man should be the Sandak, but implying that, bidieved, a woman could be the sandak.

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