[With the current controversy surrounding the Jewish practice of circumcision, and in particular the tradition of metzitzeh b’peh—by which the mohel draws a small amount of blood from the site of the circumcision—we at the Jewish Voice would like to offer our readers a Torah scholar’s perspective. For that, we turn to renowned lecturer and author Rav Moshe Zuriel, from whom we received the following.]
It is always sad to see dispute and bickering amongst brethren. It is even more aggravating to see anger and emotional outbursts, bitter accusations and personal attacks in the public domain. The present controversy regarding how to do the metzitzah of blood during Bris Milah, if by mouth or by tube, is a case in point.
If we check the Gemara source, the Rambam, and the Shulchan Aruch, we see no mention of the “peh,” the mouth. The Hebrew word for suction is “motzetz” and this can be performed also by the use of a tube using mouth suction. It is important to precede all discussion on this topic by “putting everything on the table.” We are not discussing a Biblical Commandment, nor are we referring to a rabbinical enactment from the Gemara’s time. We are referring to a hallowed minhag (custom) from days of yore to use the mouth only. Certainly the withdrawal of blood is a rabbinical enactment, but the direct application of the mouth is only a minhag. Beyond that, using a tube by mouth suction is also a utilization of the mouth and should not to be considered as abolition of the use of the mouth. This understanding is important to know before we clarify what a parent should decide in cases of doubt.
The world-famous Chasam Sofer wrote a responsum to permit using other methods than the mouth (“Bris Olam”, page 216). The great Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsh permitted the use of a short tube (Shemesh Marpeh, page 70). Rabbi Yitzchok Herzog wrote that since the medical experts claim that there is a danger of infection in many cases, it is advisable to use a tube. He adds that those who insist adamantly that the withdrawal should be done by direct application of the mouth “are mistaken and so too cause others to make a mistake.” The illustrious Rabbi Avraham Kook permitted the use of a tube when in doubt of infection (Da’as Kohen, 142) [also, see the words of the Aruch Hashulchan and Rabbi Chaim Berlin]. Rabbi Zvi Pesach Frank claimed that since the entire purpose of the rabbinical enactment of withdrawing the blood from the wound is to avoid infection, this act being done by the tube is part and parcel of that healing process. May we add that this would even be a “hiddur mitzvah” since this is even safer that the personal physical contact of the mohel to the open wound.
But why is there such a vehement outcry against the usage of the tube? The answer is that for nearly two hundred years there is fear of Gentile government intervention making the essential circumcision ritual illegal. This started in Paris in 1843, reached Germany and Poland and today in California a small group of “humanists” appealed to the state legislature to ban the practice. This move was defeated. The fear is that if we ourselves admit that this mitzvah could be damaging to the child, the Department of Health might make capital of our admission. The second cause of the great emotional outbursts of resistance to any change in the ceremony is the worry to keep intact all of Jewish way life, to stay as close as possible to the customs of our forefathers; to forestall all reforms.
But as intelligent human beings we must always weigh the pros and the cons. Many medical doctors claim that there is a danger of delivering the Herpes virus to an infant. As of now, one out of six Americans bears in his body the latent virus of Herpes. True the potential risk of life endangerment to an infant from metzitzah b’peh is exceedingly low. However, for the particular parents that this tragedy occurs to their child it is a tremendous torture. Must not every parent do his best not to enter this potential risk? If we are dealing with a Torah law, or at least a rabbinical enactment, certainly it is chassidus [an act of piety –ed.] to be stringent and rely on “Shomer Mitzva Lo Ye-da Davar Ra.” But we are referring here not to religious law but to medical advice tendered by our sages, calculated to save the child from danger. This is not a “mitzvah” per se. If as per modern medical advice we are doing the opposite, we are exposing the child to danger, how is this in any way chassidus? True we should perform metzizah, but why by direct contact with the mouth?
Beyond the life or death question, there is another moral problem. Five out of six of Americans do not bear in their bodies this painful Herpes virus. How are we justified to expose this infant to that one-sixth of the population who will eventually suffer painful skin eruptions, twice thrice or four times during their life? True religiosity is to be extra careful not to cause chagrin unnecessarily to any fellow creature.
I am aware that knowledgeable doctors have claimed that without absolute verification, such as DNA tests, we cannot be certain that it is the mohel who has transmitted the virus to the infant. Especially so since there are varied types of the Herpes virus. However this does not mean that we cannot take into probability, into plausible consideration, that immediately following the circumcision these infants came out with the disease. The doubt is still there.
I would suggest that every conscientious father or mother take every true consideration for the benefit of the newborn infant, and ask the mohel in advance to use the tube. And if he denies or objects, they should find another mohel willing to accede to the psak of the Chasam Sofer, Rabbi Kook, of Rabbi Herzog, or Rabbi Frank. True chassidus is not to be belligerent but to be intelligent and thoughtful, to be precautious within the limits of Torah Law.
Why is it that when taking blood samples to be tested in the medical laboratory, the nurses don nylon gloves so not to be endangered? Why is it that dentists before treating another patient take off the previous gloves and exchange for a new pair of nylon gloves? Why be backwards? What is the religiosity involved to make a creed of being against anything that is modern, to stand stubbornly against any medical advances? How is it that when someone needs medical attention he chooses the best medical advice, price being no object, yet when it comes to metzizah, which according to Chazal was only enacted due to worry for medical health, there he will stand with fierce antagonism and wish to remain as we were years ago, using a “no-no” exclamation as a standard way of life?
The paramount question is, is that what G-d wants?
It must be emphasized that the resolution of this controversy will not be achieved by government involvement or regulation. Any government entanglement with the manner in which bris milah is performed, would be a severe blow to the foundation of religious rights and freedom which is a cornerstone of the magnificent beacon of liberty, The United States of America. The arguments and facts cited above are directed to the parents of the infants to be able to decide for themselves, and to explain why they should not be concerned on a halachic level to use a tube (if done with a proper suction), since for 180 years, the greatest Torah authorities [from the time of the Chasam Sofer] have already permitted it.
Rav Moshe Zuriel Shlit”a currently resides in Bnei Brak, Israel. Rav Zuriel was a close talmid of Rav Ruderman ZT”L when he learned in Ner Yisroel, and has since written well over 30 seforim on a wide variety of Jewish topics. After Rav Zuriel left the United States to move to Eretz Yisrael, Rav Zuriel learned b’chavrusa, and became very close with many Rabbanim, Mekubalim, and Gedolei Torah including Rav Sraya Deblitzky, Rav Shmuel Toledano, and Rav Friedlander (the famed mashgiach of Ponovich Yeshiva). He also learned with Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, and was the Mashgiach Ruchni of Shalavim. Curently, Rav Zuriel spends his days learning, writing sefarim, giving shiurim, and continuously answering questions on all areas of the Torah including Shas, Halacha, and Mussar.