Since the beginning of parshas Tazria discusses the mitzvah of bris milah, it is certainly an appropriate week to discuss:
Must I Keep the Mohel?
A Case of Mistaken Identity
Yehudit and Yehuda Newparents decided which mohel they intended to employ, but did not know his telephone number. At the hospital, they asked someone for his phone number, and called to make arrangements. However, when the mohel came to check the baby before the bris, Yehuda realized that this was not the mohel he had intended to use. Could he now use a different mohel?
Billy Rubin’s Bilirubin
Zev Rubin, whose old friends still sometimes call him Billy, asked Reb Leizer Izmil to be the mohel for his son’s bris. However, Billy Rubin’s newborn son had a borderline high bilirubin count, high enough that some mohalim would postpone the bris, whereas others would consider it safe. Billy’s posek ruled that the bris should be performed on the eighth day, but Reb Leizer would not perform the bris until the count drops. May Billy forgo Leizer the razor and instead ask a different mohel to perform the bris on the eighth day?
The Busy Mohel
Avraham has used Reb Moshe as the mohel for his previous sons, and would like to use him for his newborn. However, Reb Moshe is already booked by other families and will not be available until later in the day than Avraham would like to make his bris. Should he wait for Reb Moshe, or use a different mohel who is available earlier?
Although all the names have been changed, each of the above situations is an actual case that I know of. The critical issue in all these questions is whether someone who asked one mohel to perform his son’s bris may then ask a different mohel to do so. Of course, the immediate question is why should one not be able to do so? Isn’t one permitted to switch one’s lawyer, doctor, or accountant, if one chooses?
To introduce our discussion, let me chronicle an event that transpired almost eight hundred years ago. A newborn baby was ill, and it was obvious that the bris would be delayed for several weeks. The father promised the local mohel, Rabbi Levi, that he would be honored with performing the bris. Rabbi Levi, who was responsible for certain regional communal matters, left on a trip to attend to these responsibilities, assuming that he would return by the time the baby would be ready for the bris. Thank G-d, the baby recuperated faster than expected, and now the father wanted to perform the bris, but had no way of reaching Rabbi Levi. (Remember that cellular phone technology was not that advanced in the thirteenth century.) In order to guarantee that his son’s bris would take place as soon as possible, the father brought a mohel from a different town, promising the second mohel that he would perform the bris whether the first mohel returned on time or not. On the day that the baby was healthy enough for the bris, both mohalim showed up in town, and the question was: Which mohel should be awarded with the mitzvah, the mohel who traveled specially for the bris, or the mohel who had earlier been promised the mitzvah?
Which Mohel should I use?
This question was referred to the Maharam of Rottenberg (the famed “captive rabbi,” who was the posek hador at the time) for a decision. The Maharam quotes Rabbeinu Tam who ruled that once someone asked a mohel to perform a bris, he may not switch and offer the mitzvah to another mohel. Before explaining the basis for Rabbeinu Tam’s ruling, we need to introduce two halachic factors:
Don’t Charge for a Mitzvah
According to halacha, one may not charge for performing a mitzvah (Bechoros 29a; Nedarim 37a). (One may charge for the loss of time from one’s livelihood that resulted. A full treatment of this topic is beyond the focus of this article.) Therefore, since a mohel may not charge to perform milah, he is performing it for the sake of the mitzvah. (The prevalent custom is to provide the mohel with a gift for his services.)
Keep your Word
The Torah says Moznei tzedek, avnei tzedek, eifas tzedek, vehin tzedek yihyeh lachem — You must have honest weights, honest weighing stones, an honest eifah [a unit of dry measure] and an honest hin [a unit of liquid measure] (Vayikra 19:36). The word used by the Torah, hin, however, is similar to the word hein, which means yes. The Gemara understands this to allude to: Your “yes” should always be honest, meaning that one should be true to one’s word, even when no contract was created (Bava Metzia 49a). This is an extension of the idea conveyed by the Navi: She’eiris Yisrael lo yaasu avlah velo yedabru chazav velo yimatzei befihem leshon tarmis — The remnant of Israel does not perform corruptive deeds and does not speak falsehood, nor will you find in their mouths a deceptive tongue (Tzefaniah 3:13). This concept is often shortened in halachic reference to She’eiris Yisrael lo yaasu avlah¸ and refers to the ethical responsibility to be true to one’s word.
The Gemara’s conclusion is that someone who offered a second person a small gift is required to be true to his word. Nevertheless, should the giver renege, the proposed recipient has no claim. A Jew is obligated to keep his word, but this mitzvah does not create a liability against him.
The halacha is different if someone promised to provide a major gift. When one offered a major gift, the potential recipient does not necessarily expect that he will receive it; it is therefore not considered a violation of halacha to reconsider what one wants to do, should circumstances change.
Changing the Mohel
Putting both ideas together, Rabbeinu Tam concludes that once I offered a mohel the opportunity to perform the mitzvah, I cannot change to a different mohel. From my perspective, choosing one mohel over another qualifies as a “small gift,” that I am required to honor. As explained above, although the father may not change mohalim, should he do so, the first mohel has no claim against either the second mohel or the father, even though the father did the wrong thing by changing mohalim.
The Maharam concludes that since the first mohel has now returned, the father is required to ask him to perform the bris, since the second mohel was authorized to perform the bris only should the first mohel be unavailable (Teshuvos Maharam quoted by Beis Yosef, Yoreh Deah 264). The Gra explains that since one is not supposed to change mohalim, the second mohel is only being asked if the first mohel would not be available.
Where is Yossele?
At this point, we can address Yehudit and Yehuda Newparents’s predicament, in which the mohel they had called was a perfectly competent mohel, but he was not the mohel they had intended to use. The story that happened was a bit humorous. I attended the bris of people I knew, and asked them how they knew the mohel that they had used. Yehuda told me that he would tell me the story about their choice of mohel after the bris.
The Newparents had decided to use the international renowned “Yossele the mohel” of Yerushalayim (now, zt”l, of blessed memory), but, like most people, did not know Yossele’s family name (Weisberg). Yehudit asked one of the observant nurses at the hospital if she knew the phone number of “Yossele, the mohel,” and, knowing how busy Yossele can be, she immediately called and reserved Yossele. When the mohel arrived to check the baby before the bris, Yehuda realized that this was not the mohel he had expected. Before the mohel left, Yehuda asked if he had a business card, and his perusal confirmed his suspicion. Indeed they had called a mohel named Yosef, but he was not the famous “Yossele, the mohel.”
Now, a bit flustered that he had arranged for an unknown mohel to circumcise his son, Yehuda made inquiries and determined that, indeed, Yosef the mohel appeared to be qualified. Still, Yehuda was faced with a halachic question. Could he change mohalim, since he had never intended to ask this Yosef to be his son’s mohel?
Yehuda called his rav to ask whether he would be permitted to change the mohel. The rav ruled that although Yehuda could change the mohel, since Yosef the mohel was indeed a qualified mohel, he should not change mohalim, as this might offend the mistaken mohel.
By the way, the original Yossele the mohel wrote a four-volume encyclopedia on bris milah, called Otzar HaBris, in which he quotes that one may switch to a different mohel if the second mohel is more expert or a bigger tzadik (Volume 3, page 188, quoting Migdal Oz). So, according to Yossele the mohel, the Newparents could have used Yossele the mohel instead of Yosef the mohel whom their rav told them to use. Obviously, their rav disagreed, and they did the proper thing by following his directions.
Dad surprisingly shows up at his own son’s bris
The Yaavetz discusses the following case: The father of the newborn is himself a mohel, but he thought that he would not be able to be at his own son’s bris, and therefore arranged for a different mohel to perform the mitzvah. In the end, the father was able to attend. Is it a violation for him to perform the bris himself? The Yaavetz rules that performing the bris himself is a major gift, and that he may perform the mitzvah himself (quoted in Sefer HaBris of Rav Moshe Bunim Pirutinsky, page 4). The idea is that someone who cannot perform the mitzvah himself will anyway need to ask a mohel to perform it for him, so which mohel he chooses is a “minor” gift. However, when he is able to perform the mitzvah himself, having someone else perform it instead is the loss of a major gift on which halacha permits him to renege.
Zeide surprisingly shows up at his grandson’s bris
Dovid is learning in kollel in Eretz Yisrael in an area where it is not easy to procure a mohel for a Shabbos bris. His father, who lives in America, is a mohel with a very busy practice. When Dovid’s son was born on Shabbos, his father told him that he would be unable to arrive for the bris because of other commitments, so Dovid arranged for a local mohel to be available. Subsequently, Dovid’s father made arrangements to come for the bris. Is Dovid permitted to switch mohalim and have his father perform the bris?
The rav who ruled on this shaylah held that it is considered a fulfillment of kibud av for the baby’s father to have his own father perform the bris, and therefore, switching mohalim is permitted.
At this point, we can discuss Billy Rubin’s bilirubin shaylah. The Gemara rules that if a baby is somewhat jaundiced, a common and not serious condition among newborns, one should delay performing the bris until the baby is well (Shabbos 134a). A dispute among contemporary rabbonim is: at what point does one consider the child to be mildly jaundiced. The diagnosis involved is based on certain physical symptoms and the measure of bilirubin in the blood. (Bilirubin is the pigment [or chemical] that causes jaundice. A higher bilirubin score results in a greater degree of jaundice.) Chassidisha rabbonim and mohalim tend to require a lower bilirubin score until they feel the child is ready for the bris, whereas Litvisha rabbonim and mohalim often feel that the threshold for safety to allow the performance of the bris is higher, and that babies whose bilirubin is in the middle range should not be deprived of having a bris in the correct time.
Billy Rubin follows Litvisha practices, but had asked a well respected chassidisha mohel, Reb Leizer, to perform the bris. A day before he was expecting the bris, the mohel examined the baby and felt that the bris should be delayed until all symptoms of jaundice disappeared.
Billy mentioned this to his posek, who was not convinced that the bris should be delayed, and instructed him to bring the baby to a different mohel, a well respected Litvisha mohel, to check whether the bris could be performed on the eighth day. The second mohel saw no problem with performing the bris on the eighth day, but to be on the safe side, had them take the baby for a bilirubin test. The second mohel felt that the results of the bilirubin test also did not warrant delaying the bris.
This placed Billy in an uncomfortable position, since his original, chosen mohel still felt that the bris should be postponed. Should Billy use a different mohel so that he can make the bris on the eighth day? Did this not make Billy violate she’eiris Yisrael lo yaaseh avlah, by going back on his word to honor Reb Leizer with wielding the razor?
The posek held that changing mohalim in order to perform the bris on the eighth day is a “major gift” for which one does not violate she’eiris Yisrael lo yaaseh avlah.
Similarly, in case #3, where the mohel who was used for the older sons will not be available until later in the day than one wants to perform the bris, I know rabbonim who ruled that this provides adequate reason to switch mohalim. Since one should perform a bris milah as early in the day as possible, because of the idea of zerizin makdimim lemitzvos, one should perform a mitzvah with alacrity, performing it with zerizus is a valid reason to switch mohalim.
Sometimes when a person is involved in performing a mitzvah, he forgets that other considerations, such as keeping one’s promise or offending someone, may be more important. In this particular mitzvah, we see the interplay of both factors, and how the poskim of the generations dealt with these issues.