SHEMOS (Exodus, 1:1-6:1) — “Mrs. Moses: Certified Mohelet??!”

Several years ago I was driving in the car listening to a discussion on the radio about circumcision.  Being a Mohel myself, I was, of course, very interested in the conversation.  I listened with curiosity and apprehension.

I get very uncomfortable when religious Jews call radio shows.  It is very difficult to explain a profound religious concept in a cogent and articulate manner when the host has his own ideas and can cut you off in mid-sentence.  Yet, the calls were coming in, and the host maintained that circumcision is done for health reasons.

Then an Italian lady called and said that she had her boys circumcised for health reasons, and was glad she did.  He said, “Thank you, dear,” and hung up.  Then he asked, “Hey, I wonder if a lady is allowed to be a Mohel.”

I braced myself for the responses.  A short time later, the host said, “Our next caller, from Rockland County, is Moysheh.  Hello, Moysheh.”

“Hello, Mr. Grant.  This is Moishe-the-Moyel from Monsey!”  (I recognized the voice immediately.  His name is not Moishe, but he is from Monsey.)

“First of all,” said “Moishe”, “I have to take issue with your statement that we circumcise for health reasons.  We circumcise our children because the Bible tells us to.”

“Well, of course,” responded Bob Grant, “the reason it says that in the Bible is that the ancient Hebrews figured out that it is healthy to circumcise.”

Oh-oh.  Here comes the debate between the host and the caller where the host will get the last word and go to a commercial.

“Moishe” held his own.  “Well, Mr. Grant, I happen to disagree with you on that point, but this is neither the time nor the place to debate it.  I also wanted to respond to your question as to whether a woman is allowed to be a Mohel…”

“Yes?”

“Well, let me put it this way, Mr. Grant.  I’ll tell you what I tell people who ask me that question.  I wouldn’t put a child though something I myself had not gone through!  Thank you!”

And with that, he hung up.

Cute.

Well, Moishe-the-Moyel survived the crucible known as being a caller on the Bob Grant Show.  And he got to hang up on his own terms rather than being hung up on.

But he didn’t answer the question.

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I am often asked that question.  I must confess that I have occasionally borrowed Moishe-the-Moyel’s answer.  It gets a laugh, but it really doesn’t cut it.  (pun intended)

What, in fact, is the rule?  We find today a large number of women, usually doctors, advertising their services as “Mohalot.”  One of the reasons for their popularity is the claim that the nurturing nature of a woman lends itself to calming a newborn who has just undergone minor surgery.  (While this article is not meant to be an advertisement for my own professional services, I would humbly suggest that you ask parents who have used me if they would agree that a 51-year old slightly overweight guy singing Carlebach to a crying baby is just as nurturing as some MD Mohelet! 🙂  )

Typically, people like to point to this week’s Torah Portion.

Moses and family were on their way to Egypt.  Their newborn son was as yet uncircumcised.  Moses had decided, for various reasons (see “Pain in the Ukraine” and  “Mrs. Moses Goes Home to Father”) to postpone Eliezer’s Bris.  It was an almost-fatal decision

When he was on the way, at the inn, G-d encountered him and wanted to kill him.  So Zipporah took a sharp stone and cut off the foreskin of her son and touched it to his feet; and she said, “You are a husband of blood to me.”  So He loosened His hold on him; then she said, “A husband of blood because of circumcision.”  (Exodus, 4:24-26)

There we have it.  Zipporah, the world’s first Mohelet.

Must be ok, right?  After all, you don’t get much more religious than Mrs. Moses, do you?  Zipporah saved Moses from G-d’s wrath by performing her son’s Bris.  We see here Divine endorsement of a woman’s role in performing circumcision.  Right?

Well, not really.  First of all, this was obviously an emergency.  Moses was supposed to do it.  He didn’t.  This was a miracle situation where G-d stepped in and demanded an immediate Bris for Moses’ son.  There was no one else to do it.  You can’t prove Jewish Law on the basis of a precedent that was obviously a miraculous and emergency event.

In addition, it is important to keep in mind that this incident occurred before the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.   While we have plenty of evidence that pre-Sinai Jewry observed many of the Commandments, it is equally clear that many of the rules changed at Sinai.  For example, Cain and Abel married their sisters.  (Not much choice there!)  Jacob married two sisters.  (Some commentaries say he married FOUR sisters!)  Moses’ parents were aunt and nephew.  After the Torah was given, these relationships were off-limits.  You can’t prove Jewish Law on the basis of pre-Sinai events.

So what is the law?  May a woman perform a Bris?

Actually, it is a matter of dispute.  This question is not addressed directly in the Talmud.  However, the commentaries extrapolate upon another discussion in the Talmud. (Avodah Zarah, 27a)  The dispute hinges upon the reason that one may not use a non-Jewish Mohel.  The Talmudic Sage Rabbi Yochanan states that the reason a Gentile may not circumcise is based upon the requirement that a Mohel be part of the “Nation of Circumcisers.”  On this basis, it would be permitted for a woman to circumcise.  Rav, on the other hand says that the circumcision is to be done by those to whom the Mitzvah directly applies.  Hence, someone who is not descended from Abraham may not do a Bris.  As well, a woman, who is not obligated to have a Bris, may not do the Bris either.  (Maybe Moishe-the-Moyel wasn’t so wrong after all!!)

(More details on this discussion may be found here.)

Some authorities rule like Rabbi Yochanan.  (Shulchan Aruch. Y.D. 264:1) Others rule like Rav, or at least prefer to be strict and avoid the dispute by using a man, which is acceptable according to all opinions.  (Rema, Ibid)

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However, when all is said and done, this is a moot point.

A Bris is a Covenant.  It is a contract between G-d and the children of Abraham.  Our contract with G-d is about a lot more than removing a little sleeve of skin from the male anatomy.  Our contract is to observe the Sabbath (also called a Bris), Kashruth, and every Mitzvah that applies.

A young Jewish boy’s first Mitzvah is supposed to introduce him to a life of Torah, living according to the dictates given to Abraham and his progeny.  It is the Mohel’s job (actually the father’s job) to induct this young man into our clan of Mitzvah observers.  It is only appropriate the person who initiates the child into the Covenant should be a person who respects and honors that Covenant.

A Mohel serves as the agent of the father.   Before I start a Bris, I inform the father that the Mitzvah of circumcision is his personal obligation, but that he has the option of appointing me as his agent to do the Mitzvah in his behalf.  On rare occasions, fathers ask me to set up the Bris and for them to do the actual cut.  While I discourage this idea for many obvious reasons, there have been rare situations when I have agreed.

One father who asked me if he could do the Bris was not a Sabbath observer.  I consulted with a Halachic authority who told me that although performing the Bris is his personal Mitzvah, he was not qualified to do it because he does not live his life in accordance with our Bris, our contract, with our Creator.  Therefore, he had no choice but to appoint an agent to do it for him.

A person who is not totally devoted to Halacha, Jewish Law, is not considered to be an upholder of the Covenant.   If a baby is circumcised by a non-Jew, he has to have blood drawn by a religious Jew as a symbolic “repair.”  Similarly, if the family uses a Mohel, man or woman, who does not fully respect and embrace the full gamut of Jewish Law and philosophy, it is quite possible that the same repair must be done.

The reason the question of using a woman Mohel is a moot point is that there is no such thing as a Halachically observant Mohelet.  The ladies out there are not disqualified because of their gender; they are disqualified because of their philosophies.

Yes, I have painted with a very broad brush.  Surely, you may say, there must be SOME lady out there who is religious enough to be acceptable.  I doubt it.  When the Rema, cited above, who is basically the last word in Ashkenazic Jewish practice says to use a male Mohel to avoid a questionable Bris, and someone chooses to ignore that ruling, he/she has already identified oneself as someone who shows little respect for Halachic authority.

To be sure, we could isolate some far-fetched “desert island” situation where the only one who can do the Bris is an orthodox woman.  But certainly in 99+ percent of the situations this is not a necessity.  (It is interesting to note that there are commentaries who state that even in the emergency when Zipporah supposedly circumcised her son, she actually handed the sharp stone to a man and he did the Bris.)

 Here is the bottom line.  Don’t use a Mohel, male or female, who does not observe the highest standards of Jewish Law and integrity.  I sometimes get calls from people who think about using me and decide to use one of my colleagues.  And that’s ok.  But I often tell them, “Whether you use me or not, make sure you use a Mohel who is totally observant.  Even if you are not so religious.  Don’t you want to do it right?  Don’t you want to make sure that your son doesn’t some day ask questions, and then wonder about whether he needs a ‘redo’?”

Some of my non-orthodox and/or feminist readers may take issue with my column.  This is a simple issue.  This is not about women’s issues in Jewish Law.  This is about every Jew having a Bris that is acceptable according to all opinions.

No one disallows a Bris done by a religious man.  Just ask Moishe-the-Moyel!

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.

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 From the Archives 

“My Grandson’s Bris – 2” (2010) 

Read More.

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“My Grandson the Priest” (2009) 

… Jethro recognized that Moses was an Israelite; he proposed a match with one of his daughters.

But there was a catch…Jethro would only agree to allow Moses to marry his daughter on the condition that the oldest son would be raised to be a priest of idol worship.

Pretty amazing, no?  Want to hear something even more amazing?  Moses agreed!! …

Read More.

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“Mrs. Moses: Certified Mohelet??!” (2008) 

Several years ago I was driving in the car listening to a discussion on the radio about circumcision.  Being a Mohel myself, I was, of course, very interested in the conversation.  I listened with curiosity and apprehension.

I get very uncomfortable when religious Jews call radio shows.  It is very difficult to explain a profound religious concept in a cogent and articulate manner when the host has his own ideas and can cut you off in mid-sentence.  Yet, the calls were coming in, and the host maintained that circumcision is done for health reasons.

Then an Italian lady called and said that she had her boys circumcised for health reasons, and was glad she did.  He said, “Thank you, dear,” and hung up.  Then he asked, “Hey, I wonder if a lady is allowed to be a Mohel.”

I braced myself for the responses.  A short time later, the host said, “Our next caller, from RocklandCounty, is Moysheh.  Hello, Moysheh.”

“Hello, Mr. Grant.  This is Moishe-the-Moyel from Monsey!”…

Read More.

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“Mrs. Moses Goes Home to Father” (2007)

… Moses was about to get a promotion.  He was about to become the Shepherd of Israel.   G-d assigned Moses the crucial task of leading his People out of Egypt.  There was, however, a problem.  There was the matter of his pre-nuptial agreement…

At one point, Zipporah decided to pack up the boys and go home.  There are various reasons given by the Commentaries.  The Chasam Sofer suggests that all was not well in the ben-Amram family…

Moses’ wife …went home.  … She would not accompany him to Egypt…

So what changed her mind? …

Read More.

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“The Secret Password” (2006)

What are the credentials of a savior of Israel? Imagine the scene:

The Sages of Israel have been summoned to a meeting. They have been enduring unspeakable horrors due to the agonizing slavery that his been placed upon them by their Egyptian taskmasters.  The meeting has been called by a fugitive, a wanted man.  Moses, the twelve-year-old son of Amram the Levite had absconded from Egypt to escape a murder conviction.  Now, as an eighty year-old man, he has returned to Egypt with an announcement…

Do we listen to Moses? Is he for real?  Is he on the level?  We haven’t seen this fellow in sixty-eight years! Suddenly he shows up with a Messianic proclamation, and he expects us to risk our skins by going to the Pharaoh with such an outrageous request!?

They bought it…

Read More.

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 “Pain in the Ukraine” (2004)

… A Mohel went to the Ukraine to usher Jewish men into the Covenant of Abraham.  As a fifteen-year-old Yeshiva student lay on the table, the Mohel read his medical chart.  The boy, as it turned out, was allergic to the anesthesia that the Mohel had brought from the U.S…  The Bris would have to be delayed… No, insisted the boy.  He wanted to have his Bris!  He would not get off the table.  He was adamant.  He was already fifteen years late; he would wait no longer!…The Mohel set out to do his holy work.  There was skin tissue to cut, and wounds to suture and cauterize.  The young man just lay there and endured it all.

He tried to be stoic and motionless.  Throughout the excruciating pain, he was silent.  But finally, he could be silent no more. It was just too painful.  He let out a blood-curdling scream…

Read More.

 ———————————————————————————

“Watch Your Step!” (2004)

… I walked into my Bible class at one of the facilities where I am a chaplain, and presented them with a provocative question.  “How do we know,” I asked, “that G-d gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai?”

I wasn’t quite prepared for the response.  A little lady with a kerchief on her head — I’ll call her “Mrs. Cohen” — who almost always sat quietly through my various classes, called out, in a very German accent, “Because it says so in the Tow-raw!” (For those unfamiliar with the German pronunciation: Tow-raw — “Tow,” rhyming with “now”, and “raw,” rhyming with “saw.”)

I was frustrated.  She broke my momentum.  Sure, I thought, SHE believes that, but what about every one else?

“Yes, of course,” I continued, “it says so in the Torah.  But how do we know that the Torah’s description is actually what happened?”

“Because it says so in the Tow-raw!”

I gave up…

Read More.

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“A Tale of Two Kings” (2002) 

[TORAH TALK IN THE JEWISH PRESS:  This message from 2002, updated for the 2007 political season, appeared as an Op-Ed in the Jewish Press.]

…The Egyptians were concerned about the growth of the Jewish population. The Israelites were increasing by leaps and bounds. … The Egyptian people demanded that their king address their “Jewish Problem.”

The king, who at first had demonstrated a bit of integrity, refused. He couldn’t bring himself to take action against Joseph’s people. Joseph had been so good to Egypt. The masses wouldn’t take no for an answer. They ousted the king.

Spending three months as an ex-king was more than he could bear. Thus, “a new king arose over Egypt, who didn’t know Joseph.” The “new” king with a new attitude conveniently “didn’t know,” or, at least ACTED as if he didn’t know Joseph. The persecution began…

Read More.

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“Mother Goose Lied to Us!” (2002)

Moses was pained over the status of his nation.  They were persecuted and afflicted.  The Israelites weren’t just slaves who were forced to work; they were treated like animals.  Moses couldn’t understand why the Children of Israel were suffering so greatly.  He couldn’t understand why G-d had not yet taken His People out of Egypt.  Was He angry with them?…

 Read More.

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“A Helping Hand” (2001)

…Bisya adopted the child and raised him in the palace.  She named him Moshe, “because I drew him (“MISHISIYHU” in Hebrew) from the water.”  (Exodus, 2:10) … the name “Moshe” seems to be grammatically incorrect.    A more accurate name would be “Mashui,” which would mean “one who is drawn.” …

Read More.

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This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2013 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.

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Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com)  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.

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Published in: on December 28, 2008 at 10:26 am  Leave a Comment  

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