I found your recent article on the Brit Milah ceremony very informative and interesting. There you mention the role of the “sandek”. Could you please elaborate on the meaning of that word, the source for the honor, who the honor is given to, and what is its significance?
As you recall, sandek is the traditional term referring to the person who holds the baby in his lap during the circumcision, and usually assists the mohel by holding the child’s legs.
According to one commentator (Otzar Dinim u’Minhagim, p. 222) the term sandek is related to a Greek word which implies “representative”, suggesting that the sandek is an agent of the father. Thus, in the German-Jewish tradition, this person was called the gefater, the “godfather”. It has also been suggested that the term sandek is derived from the Greek word sunteknos (‘syn’ – plus; ‘tekno’ – child), which would mean “companion of the child”.
Rabbi Moses Isserles (Rema) records this practice of the sandek holding the baby on his thighs (Y.D. 265:11). The Biur HaGra (Y.D. 265:44) cites the Midrash Shochar Tov which bases this on the verse, “All my bones shall say: ‘G-d who is like you?’ (Ps. 35:10)”. This Midrash states that every body part is used in the service of G-d, and that our thighs do so when supporting the baby during the brit.
The sandek must be a Jewish male, and every effort should be made to honor a pious person with this mitzva. Mystical sources teach that the good qualities possessed by the sandek are passed to the baby (Maharil, Hilchot Milah). For this reason, the honor should be given to someone whose thoughts are pure and who is worthy to sit next to Elijah the prophet (Migdal Oz, ch. 9). Many observe the custom that the two grandfathers, particularly when they are observant and G-d fearing, are given the honor of sandek for the first two children. Usually, the paternal grandfather is honored first, then the maternal grandfather.
The circumcision is compared to a sacrifice in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Accordingly, the sandek is compared to the sacrificial altar. Alternatively, the circumcision is compared to the ketoret, the daily incense brought before G-d in the Temple. As such, the sandek is compared to the pure-golden altar upon which the incense was offered.
Since the priest who would bring the incense on the altar was blessed with riches, in order that every priest be given a chance to receive this special blessing, no priest performed this ritual more than once (Yoma 26a). In a similar vein, and also because being sandek is considered a blessing for long life, one does not serve as sandek for the same family for two of their children. This is in order that the merit of being sandek can be shared by many individuals (Rema 265:11, Maharil).
However, the Vilna Gaon (Y.D. 265:45) questions this custom. First, based on this reasoning, one should not serve as sandek more than once in general, not just regarding one family. Second, the Gra writes that even if the sandek is compared to one who offers incense, it does not necessarily follow that one who serves as sandek will become wealthy such that he should be limited to being sandek only once.
Nevertheless, the Aruch HaShulchan (Y.D. 265:34) concludes that we should abide by the custom recorded by the Rema. Still, citing the custom that the Rav of the city serves as the sandek for all the boys of the town, he justifies the practice by comparing the rabbi of the community to the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), who was entitled to offer sacrifices or incense at any time (Yoma 14a).
On the morning of the brit, the sandek refrains from eating a regular meal. He immerses in the mikvah (ritual purity bath), dresses in his finest clothing, and dons his tallit prayer shawl during the ceremony. It is customary for the sandek to give a gift to the child or to the mother of the child, as a token of appreciation for being given the honor. Similarly, there is a custom for the sandek to sponsor the celebratory meal in honor of the brit (Orchot Chayim, Hilchot Milah).
Since the brit is considered as a sacrifice and as an incense offering, the day of the brit for both the father and the sandek is considered a Yom Tov holiday. Thus, the community in which they pray is exempt from the tachanun penitential prayers until the brit is performed. After the brit, the community would recite tachanun, but the father and sandek are personally exempt for the remainder of the day.