This essay will be the first of three essays to discuss the topic of the Mitzva of Brit Milah. In this issue, we will discuss the three, or possibly four, Berachot that are recited at a Brit Milah. We will focus on two controversies regarding these Berachot – the timing of the second Beracha and whether the Beracha of Shehechiyanu should be recited.
Gemara Shabbat 137b
The Gemara (Shabbat 137b) outlines the procedure for the Berachot to be recited at a Brit Milah of a baby boy. The Gemara states:
The one who performs the Brit states ‘Ashair Kiddeshanu… Al Hamilah.’ The father of the boy recites ‘Ashair Kiddeshanu…Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu’ (Who has commanded us to bring him into the covenant of our father Abraham). Those present respond ‘just as he entered the Brit so too should he enter into Torah, the Chuppa, and good deeds.’ Then one recites Baruch Ata…”Who sanctified the beloved one from the womb and placed the mark of the decree in his flesh, and sealed his descendants with the sign of the holy covenant. Therefore, as reward for this, Living God, our Portion, our Rock, may You command to rescue the beloved soul within our flesh from destruction, for the sake of his covenant that He has placed in our flesh.” Baruch Ata Hashem, Otzer Habrit (Who establishes the covenant).
We presented one text of this Beracha. For the variations of this Beracha, see Rav Moshe Pirutinsky’s classic work on Brit Milah, Sefer Habrit pp.270-271.
Analysis of the Berachot
The first Beracha is a Birkat Hamitzva, a blessing recited upon performing a Mitzva. This Beracha is recited before the Brit, as the Gemara (Pesachim 7b) teaches: all blessings recited on a Mitzva are said “Over Leasiyatan,” immediately before performing the Mitzva. However, the Acharonim argue whether the Mohel recites the Beracha before the cutting (Chochmat Adam 149:19) or during the cutting (Aruch Hashulchan Y.D. 265:10).
The third Beracha is either a Birkat Hashevach, a Beracha that expresses praise to Hashem (Rashba to Shabbat 137b s.v. Avi Haben), or a Tefillah, a prayer (Shach, Yoreh Deah 265:5). According to the Shach, it is a prayer that the merit of Brit Milah should protect the soul from being punished in Gehenom (see Eruvin 19a). A ramification of this question is the proper vocalization of one of the words of this Beracha. Rav Yaakov Emden (Teshuvot Sheailat Yaavetz 1:146) rules that the proper vocalization of the word is “Tzivah,” that Hashem commanded. He believes that this Beracha is praise to Hashem. We praise Hashem for issuing the command to spare the circumcised from the punishment of Gehenom. The Shach, though, writes that the proper vocalization is “Tzaveh,” because this Beracha constitutes a prayer to Hashem. We ask Hashem to issue the command to spare the circumcised child from the torture of Gehenom. The prevalent Minhag among both Ashkenazim (see Aruch Hashulchan Y.D.265:17) and Sephardim (see Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch p.896) is to pronounce the word “Tzaveh.” Interestingly, the Aruch Hashulchan (ibid.) writes that this Beracha is both a Birkat Hashevach and a Tefillah.
The Second Beracha – Before, After, or During the Cutting – Rashbam, Rabbeinu Tam, and the Rosh
There is a celebrated dispute among the Rishonim regarding when the second Bracha, “Lehachniso Livrito Shel Avraham Avinu,” is recited. The Rashbam (cited in Tosafot Shabbat 137b s.v. Avi Haben) champions the belief that we recite this Beracha before the cutting. He argues that the second Beracha is a Birkat Hamitzva and thus we must recite it “Over Leasiyatan,” before the Mohel performs the Brit. He also points out that the Gemara (Pesachim 7a) specifically states that a Beracha that uses the liturgical formula “Le,” such as “Lehadlik Nair Shel Chanukah” or “Lehaniach Tefillin,” is recited before the Mitzva is performed. Thus, we recite “Lehadlik Nair Shel Chanukah” before we light the Chanukah Menorah and we recite “Lehaniach Tefillin” before men fasten and wind the Tefillin on their arms. Similarly, argues the Rashbam, since the Beracha is “Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu,” we should recite it before the cutting.
The Rashbam was so convinced of the correctness of his view that he changed the practice of French Jewry regarding this question. Traditionally, French Jews had recited the second Beracha after the cutting. Moreover, he even changed the Talmudic text that we cited. The traditional text indicates that the father recites the second Bracha after the cutting, because first the Mohel recites his Bracha and then the father recites the Bracha of Lehachniso. The Mohel cuts immediately after reciting his Beracha. This implies that the cutting is complete by the time the father recites his Beracha (recall that the Milah is performed very quickly). The Rashbam “solved” this problem by emending the text of the Gemara to state that the father’s Beracha is recited before the Mohel recites his Beracha of Al Hamilah.
Rabbeinu Tam vigorously opposed his brother’s approach (Rabbeinu Tam is the younger brother of the Rashbam). He restored the original practice of French Jewry and the traditional text of Shabbat 137b. He presents a number of arguments (quoted in Tosafot Shabbat 137b s.v. Avi Haben and Pesachim 7a s.v. Belevaer) to prove that the Beracha of “Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu” should be recited after the cutting. One argument is as follows: The congregation’s response of “just as he entered the Brit etc.” is a response to the father reciting the Beracha of “Lehachniso Bivrito Shel Avraham Avinu.” The Gemara indicates that we recite this response after the Brit because the text reads, “Just as he entered the Brit,” which implies that the Brit has occurred. Rabbeinu Tam argues that just as we recite the response to Lehachniso after the Brit so too the Beracha that the audience is responding to is recited after the Brit. The core of Rabbeinu Tam’s arguments is his belief that the Beracha of Lehachniso is a Birkat Hashevach (a blessing of praise to Hashem), rather than a Birkat Hamitzva. Thus, there is no requirement to recite this Beracha before the Brit.
The Rosh (Shabbat 19:10) offers a compromise approach that Ashkenazim have accepted as normative practice (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 265:1). The Rosh believes that if the father recites the Beracha of Lehachniso in the middle of the cutting, he will satisfy both the opinion of Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam. Since the Mitzva of Milah is not complete until the Mohel performs Priyah (basically, the removal of the entire foreskin), one is considered to be reciting the Beracha “Over Leasiyatan.” Since Milah is typically performed very quickly, the father should hurry to recite Lehachniso immediately after the Mohel finishes reciting his Beracha of Al Hamilah. Sephardim recite this Beracha before the Brit in accordance with the Rashbam and the other Rishonim who subscribe to his view.
There is no consensus regarding the recitation of Shehechiyanu at a Brit. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 265:7) notes that practice in Eretz Yisrael is to recite the Beracha of Shehechiyanu at a Brit. This custom persists today. This practice has taken very strong root in Eretz Yisrael, as the Vilna Gaon (Biur Hagra 265:36) strongly endorses reciting the Shehechiyanu at a Brit. Many of the Vilna Gaon’s opinions have emerged as universally accepted practice in Israel (such as omitting the Baruch Hashem Leolam blessing during the Maariv service and not putting on Tefillin on Chol Hamoed). This happened because a number of the Vilna Gaon’s students were among the first Ashkenazic Jews to move the Eretz Yisrael. Thus, the ruling of the Gaon to recite Shehechiyanu at a Brit became the accepted practice in Israel. Sephardic Jews recite the Shehechiyanu Beracha at a Brit (Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch p.896). Ashkenazic Jews outside of Israel do not recite the Shehechiyanu at a Brit, following the ruling of the Shach (265:17).
The Vilna Gaon recounts the various arguments against reciting Shehechiyanu at a Brit and he refutes each argument. First, he quotes that some argue that since a Brit is not an event that occurs at regular intervals (such as the Yamim Tovim, for example), then the Shehechiyanu should not be recited. The Vilna Gaon responds by pointing out the fact that we recite a Shehechiyanu at a Pidyon Haben.
Another argument is that we are concerned perhaps the child is a Nefel (defective) and unable to survive even thirty days of life and it is inappropriate to recite a Shehechiyanu on such a baby. The Vilna Gaon responds that the fact that we perform a Brit Milah on Shabbat demonstrates that we are not concerned with the small possibility that the child is so defective that it cannot survive thirty days (see Shabbat 135b-136a).
The last argument that the Vilna Gaon cites is that since the baby is experiencing pain it is inappropriate to recite a Shehechiayanu. He responds by citing the Gemara (Berachot 59b) that when one hears the news of his father’s death he should recite both a Baruch Dayan Emet and Shehechiyanu, if his father left him an inheritance. This Gemara teaches that it is appropriate to recite a Shehechiyanu on a very sad occasion if it is tinged with an aspect of happiness. Certainly, argues the Vilna Gaon, one should recite Shehechiyanu upon a very happy occasion even if it is tinged with a sad aspect.
A final difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic practice is that many Sephardim take a Hadas and recite a Beracha on it and Ashkenazim do not (Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 265:1 and Yalkut Yosef, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, p.896).
There are a variety of disagreements regarding the Berachot recited at a Brit Milah. Some of these disputes have been resolved, but some of these disputes have never been resolved, and a variety of practices exist.