Modern Brit Milah Issues – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Jewish people have been observing the Mitzva of Brit Milah for approximately 3700 years.  Nevertheless, Poskim have been forced to grapple with many new challenges posed by newly discovered medical and technical knowledge.  In the following weeks we will discuss five of these issues; performing Brit Milah on a jaundiced baby, the Metzitza controversy, using anesthetics at a Brit, using new implements such as shields and clamps at a Brit, and performing Milah on Shabbat for boys conceived by artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization.

Jaundice – Gemara, Rishonim, and Acharonim

The Gemara (Shabbat 134a) states that we should not circumcise a baby boy who is yellow until the yellowness recedes.  The Gemara recounts a story about a woman who gave birth to three boys each of whom subsequently died from their Brit Milah.  Rabbi Natan advised the woman to delay the Brit of her fourth son until the yellowness of the baby recedes.  The family heeded the Rabbi’s advice and the boy recovered from the Brit without difficulty. 

The Rambam (Hilchot Milah 1:117) and Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 263:1) rule in accordance with this Talmudic passage.  They both write (probably based on the Gemara’s anecdote) “One should be exceedingly careful about these matters,” and, “Danger to life is always cause to delay a Brit because the Milah may always be performed later, but we are incapable of restoring a Jewish soul.”  They both write that we do not perform the Brit until the baby’s appearance resembles other healthy baby boys.

The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, however, differ about a very significant point.  The Rambam writes that we should postpone the Brit if the baby is “exceptionally yellow” but the Shulchan Aruch omits the word “exceptionally.”  The Chochmat Adam (149:4) rules in accordance with the Rambam.  He notes that the Smag and Rabbeinu Yerucham also write, “exceptionally yellow” in this context, and the Chochmat Adam is puzzled why the Shulchan Aruch omits the word “exceptionally.”  The Aruch Hashulchan (Y.D. 263:3) rules in accordance with the Shulchan Aruch.  He adds “even if the yellowness appears only on one region or limb on the body, we postpone the Brit until he appears like the other children.”  A major ramification of this dispute is whether we should postpone a Brit if the boy exhibits a mild form of jaundice.  This issue has not been resolved.  Some will postpone the Brit in case of mild jaundice, and others will not. 

Another dispute is whether one must wait seven days after the jaundice has receded before performing the Brit.  The Halacha requires that one wait seven days after a boy recovers from an illness before performing a Brit (Shabbat 137a and Shulchan Aruch Y.D. 262:2).  The Aruch Hashulchan (ibid) and Maharsham (Daat Torah Y.D. 38) rule that a seven-day wait is unnecessary for a jaundiced baby and Rav Shlomo Kluger (Teshuvot Tuv Taam Vedaat Y.D.1:220) and Yad Ketana (Hilchot Milah 8:18) require the seven-day wait.  

Jaundice – Contemporary Poskim

Modern medicine distinguishes between pathologic jaundice and physiologic jaundice.  Generally speaking, modern medicine views a mild case of jaundice to be physiologic, i.e. part of the normal course of development for many babies.  Thus, from a modern medical perspective there is no reason to postpone the Brit of a baby experiencing physiological jaundice.  Accordingly, Halacha and modern medicine seem to conflict regarding this matter.  This is no simple problem to resolve.  On one hand, cannot endanger a child and on the other hand, we cannot unnecessarily delay a Brit.

Three basic approaches to this dilemma are presented by contemporary Poskim.  Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 8:88) rules that we must heed Chazal’s view that it is dangerous to circumcise a jaundiced baby, notwithstanding current medical knowledge.  He rules that we should postpone the Brit if the child displays even a mild case of jaundice and even if the child has a low bilirubin count (the degree of jaundice is determined by measuring the amount of bilirubin in the blood).  A group of prominent Rebbeim who are associated with the Hitachdut Harabbanim (Satmar, cited in Rav J. David Bleich’s Contemporary Halachic Problems 2:237-238) rule that one may not circumcise a child whose bilirubin count is five or higher.  Moreover, they require a seven-day wait if the baby experienced a bilirubin count of ten or above.  Rav J. David Bleich (Contemporary Halachic Problems 2:235) subscribes to this approach.  He argues, “There does exist a distinct possibility that the jaundice is, in fact, the effect of a liver or other disorder and is misdiagnosed as physiologic jaundice.”

On the other hand, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Nishmat Avraham 5:84-85) argues that the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch are speaking only of pathologic jaundice.  Rav Shlomo Zalman rules that if a competent doctor establishes that the baby is completely healthy then we may perform the Brit even if the baby appears yellow.  In fact, Dr. Abraham (ibid) relates that Rav Shlomo Zalman once permitted a circumcision of a child who had a bilirubin count of fourteen and a competent doctor declared that the baby was healthy. 

Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Teshuvot Tzitz Eliezer 13:81 and 83) presents a nuanced approach to this issue, which has emerged as normative practice in many observant circles.  Rav Waldenberg writes that we may not ignore Chazal’s teaching that performing a Brit on a jaundiced baby is dangerous.  On the other hand, we must consider the assertion of modern medicine that circumcising a jaundiced baby is not dangerous.  Rav Waldenberg rules that we may rely on the opinions of the Aruch Hashulchan and the Maharsham that we need not wait seven days after the jaundice disappears before performing the Brit.  Moreover, he rules that if we observe that the jaundice is in the process of dissipating and that the signs of jaundice have disappeared from most of the body, then we may perform the Brit.  Modern medical knowledge seems to motivate Rav Waldenberg to rely on the Chochmat Adam’s opinion to perform a Brit on a baby that is experiencing only a mild case of jaundice.  Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin and Rav Yaakov Kaminetzsky (Emet Leyaakov p.355) adopt a similar approach to this issue.  They rule that one may perform the Brit if the bilirubin count indicates that the jaundice is in the process of receding.  Dr. Abraham (Nishmat Avraham 4:119) records the practice in many circles to perform a Brit if the bilirubin count is twelve or less.  In fact, some have even suggested (see Techumin 19:335-340) that one may ask non-Jewish medical personnel to perform a bilirubin test on Shabbat to determine if we may circumcise the baby on that Shabbat.

When a family is confronted with this dilemma, one should consult with his Rav, a competent Mohel, and pediatrician. 

The Metzitza Controversy

A similar dilemma has emerged in modern times regarding Metzitza, the squeezing of the blood after the Brit.  Chazal (Shabbat 133b and Shulchan Aruch 264:3) regard Metzitza as a medical necessity.  Some Acharonim (Ketzot Hachoshen 382 and Chochmat Adam 149:14) believe that Chazal require Metzitza only due to health considerations.  Other Acharonim (Teshuvot Maharam Schick Y.D. 338 and Teshuvot Avnei Neizer Y.D. 338) insist that Metzitza constitutes an integral component of the Milah process and is not merely a health concern.  The Avnei Neizer emphasizes the significance of Metzitza from the perspective of the Kabbalah.  The Acharonim also debate whether Metzitza must be performed orally (Teshuvot Binyan Tzion 1:24) or may be done manually (Chatam Sofer cited in Rav Pirutinsky’s Sefer Habrit pp.216-217).  A summary of this debate appears in Sdei Chemed 8:Kuntress Hametzitza. 

On the other hand, modern science believes that Metzitza is not a medical necessity and is dangerous if performed orally.  Health concerns regarding Metzitza have increased greatly since AIDS has become a relevant issue. 

Three approaches to this dilemma appear in the nineteenth and twentieth century responsa literature.  Teshuvot Avnei Neizer adopts a particularly strong stand and requires the performance of Metzitza orally despite the danger.  He applies the Gemara’s (Pesachim 8a) assertion that, “No harm will befall those involved in a Mitzva,” in this context.  Indeed, Chassidim have vigorously abided by this ruling even since AIDS became a serious concern.  This author witnessed a Satmar Mohel perform Metzitza Bepeh at a Brit in 1990.

On the other hand, the aforementioned Chatam Sofer writes that the Halacha does not demand that the Metzitza be performed orally.  He writes that Metzitza is done orally only because of Kabbalistic concerns.  The Chatam Sofer writes that we should overlook Kabbalistic considerations, when performing Metzitza orally poses a health concern.  Similarly, Rav Hershel Schachter (Nefesh Harav 243) writes that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik reports that his father Rav Moshe Soloveitchik would not permit a Mohel to perform Metzitza Bepeh.  It is reported that Rav Moshe Feinstein also adopts the Chatam Sofer’s approach.  Some Mohelim follow this approach in their practices.

Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor (cited in the aforementioned Sdei Chemed) and Rav Zvi Pesach Frank (Teshuvot Har Zvi Y.D. 214) adopt a compromise approach.  These authorities permit performing Metzitza orally by using a glass tube.  Rav Zvi Pesach, though, cautions that this technique is not simple and requires training to perform properly.  On the other hand, the Avnei Neizer objects to using a glass tube.  He notes that the Rambam (Hilchot Milah 2:2) and Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 264:3) write that Metzitza must extract the blood from the “furthest places.”  The Avnei Neizer contends that this cannot be accomplished when using a glass tube.  Nevertheless, many Mohelim perform Metzitza using a glass tube because of health concerns.  Indeed, Dr. Abraham (Nishmat Avraham 4:123) reports that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach permits performing Metzitza with a glass to avoid concern for AIDS.


Regarding the jaundice and Metzitza issues we find different approaches in the various Torah communities.  Some do not take modern medical concerns and insights into account, while others incorporate modern medical concerns without compromising the Halacha.  Next week, Bli Neder and God willing, we will discuss the use of anesthetics at a Brit and the use of shields and clamps at a Brit.

Modern Issues in Brit Milah – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Minhagim of Brit Milah by Rabbi Chaim Jachter