Metzitzah and the Halachic Process
by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz
The Metzitzah controversy is nothing new.
In the 1800’s, in Germany, the elements of Reform sought to ban circumcision entirely, attacking the “barbaric” practice of Metzitzah b’peh (MBP), where a Mohel would suck the blood away from the circumcision site.
A little earlier history is in order. The Talmud requires that after a Bris is performed, the blood must be suctioned away from the wound. The reason given is for the safety of the baby. Presumably, the purpose of Metzitzah is to cleanse the wound area of any germs and prevent infection.
It is easy to understand the claim that using the Mohel’s mouth to clean the wound is counterproductive. Some children were becoming ill in the 1800’s and Metzitzah was being blamed. Due to the controversy over Metzitzah b’Peh, many of the Sages of that time permitted the use of a tube to suction the blood.
This innovation was controversial, but many of the greatest authorities of that time and more recent times accepted it.
The Chofetz Chaim quotes the opinion of the Yad Eliezer, who permitted blood to be pressed out of the wound with an absorbent cloth, such as a gauze pad. (Biur Halacha 331:1) This opinion has also been attributed to the Chasam Sofer. The Chazon Ish opposed that practice, preferring the use of a tube, which he considered to be the Halachic equivalent of MBP. (Told to me by Rav Eliyahu Glucksman, ZTZ”L, Dayan of K’hal Adas Yeshurun (Breuer’s), a student of the Chazon Ish, whose son was circumcised on the Chazon Ish’s lap, with the Mohel using a tube.) Rav Moshe Feinstein considered the tube acceptable. My colleagues and I have performed Brisses, using a Metzitzah tube, in the presence of many contemporary Halachic authorities, with their acceptance, and sometimes encouragement. The Rabbinical Council of America has encouraged its members to follow the rulings of those authorities who permit the use of the tube.
Over the years, my use of a tube has occasionally put me at odds with parents who had requested my services. When they have insisted upon actual MBP with direct oral suction, I have suggested that the father do it. Sometimes that has happened, and sometimes they have opted to use a different Mohel.
However, such cases represent the exception, rather than the rule. Most of my Bris clientele are Modern Orthodox or non-orthodox. Both of those groups are very happy to utilize the services of a Mohel who uses sterile instruments and gloves, and who doesn’t do MBP. As well, most “Yeshiva” families who ask me to be their child’s Mohel accept my policy of doing Metzitzah with a tube.
My use of a sterile tube is not a Halachic compromise. It is the tradition that I have received from my teachers, and it is acceptable to the Poskim — Halachic authorities to whom I turn for guidance. So for me, it is a non-issue. The use of the tube is 100% acceptable.
So why have I not joined the call for the abolition of Metzitzah b’peh? Why do I not congratulate the New York City Health Department for getting involved in Bris Milah? Why have I not contacted the non-Jewish and non-orthodox press to express my opposition to MBP? Why do I applaud the RCA and Agudath Israel in their opposition to the actions of the NYC Health department?
The reason is simple. Major Poskim support Metzitzah b’peh, and that reality is not going away.
Consider the following:
- Much has been written about MBP and herpes. Some medical experts, such as Dr. Daniel Berman, writing in the journal Dialogue, have disputed the findings, and claim that the studies have been inconclusive. (Full disclosure: I am not a doctor. I make no claim as to the accuracy of either side of this dispute.)
- In 1989 a proclamation appeared in various Orthodox publications in support of MBP. The proclamation was signed by many of the most respected authorities in the Yeshiva and Chassidic worlds. (Of course, the issue back then was HIV, not herpes. One can only speculate as to whether those authorities, many of whom are no longer living, would sign it today. I suspect that most of them would.)
- A few years ago, I attended a speech where a Mohel and Halachic authority who is well respected by the Yeshiva and Modern Orthodox communities stated that he had informed the NYC Health Department that if they ban MBP, he will give them the address and time when he is doing a Bris, “so you can come and arrest me.”
- The Chassidic world, by and large, rejected the original introduction of the Metzitzah tube over a century ago. They still reject it today. Whether you or I agree with that opinion is irrelevant; that is their position.
A word about “changes” in Jewish Law. Your average rabbi can’t just wake up one morning and decide to modify religious practice. Questions of this nature must be ruled upon by a Poseik – an expert in all facets of Talmud and Halachah. He must be a very learned person – recognized by his teachers and his contemporaries as qualified to rule on such complex matters. He must be able to insure that his ruling will be consistent with Halachic standards and values. He must carefully weigh every nuance against the backdrop of Jewish Tradition, going all the way back to Sinai. (“Don’t try this at home, folks.”)
It is well and good that many of us follow the rulings of those authorities who permit the use of the tube. But let us not forget that there are other Poskim who insist that only direct contact will suffice. It is easy for me to say that I have a policy not to do MBP. But do I have a right to tell someone who has a tradition from his teachers to only do MBP that he must follow the rulings of MY Poskim?
There is a Halachic process. Poskim take into account the original sources of Laws and Customs. They also take into account the facts on the ground. These factors led many 19th Century Poskim to accept an innovation; similar factors have led many contemporary Poskim to the same conclusion.
But other Poskim have come to different conclusions. And for people who are not qualified to act as Poskim to call upon these authorities to change their rulings is preposterous. And the unfortunate decision to publicly issue these calls in the secular press is ill-advised and not at all helpful.
By all means, let the debate continue. Rabbis who oppose MBP are free to insist that it not be done in their synagogues. Doctors should continue to make their case as to the health issues, and bring their concerns to the Poskim. And many Mohalim like myself will continue to use Metzitzah tubes.
But using newspapers and health departments to try to influence Halachic rulings is not the way of Orthodox Judaism.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (BrisRabbi.com) and a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. His observations on the Weekly Torah Portion can be read at TorahTalk.org