Se'udat Brit Mila The Festive Meal Held in Honor of the Circumcision

  • Rav David Brofsky
            It is customary to hold a festive meal to celebrate the performance of the brit mila. This week, we will discuss the source and nature of this practice, as well as the custom of not explicitly inviting guests to the meal.
A number of sources indicate that a se'udat mitzva is held in honor of the child's circumcision. For example, the Talmud (Ketubot 8a) discusses whether the blessing of "she-hasimcha be-me'ono" should be said at the se'udat mila.
The midrash (Midrash Tehillim 112; see also Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 29) teaches:
When Yitzchak was born, [when] he was eight days old, he [Avraham] brought him to be circumcised, as it is said, "And Avraham circumcised his son Yitzchak when he was eight days old" (Bereishit 21:4). From here you may learn that everyone who brings his son for circumcision is considered as though he were a high priest bringing his meal offering and his drink offering upon the top of the altar. Hence, the sages said: A man is bound to make festivities and a banquet on that day when he has the merit of having his son circumcised, like Avraham our father, who circumcised his son, as it is said, "and Avraham held a great feast on the day that Yitzchak was weaned (higamal)."
Although the verse is clearly referring to a meal held after the child has been weaned from his mother, the midrash understands that this may be understood as referring to the meal held for a brit mila. Tosafot (Shabbat 130a, s.v. sas) explains that the word "higamal" should be understood as alluding to the letters heh and gimmel – which together equal eight – “mal” – circumcision – thus referring to the eighth day after the brit mila.
            Some Acharonim cite a different Talmudic passage (Nidda 31b):
R. Shimon b. Yochai was asked by his disciples: … And why did the Torah ordain circumcision on the eighth day? In order that the guests do not enjoy themselves, while his father and mother are sad.
Rashi explains that the guests "are eating and drinking at the festive meal while his father and mother are sad," as the mother is still prohibited due to tume'at leida (the impurity rendered after birth for seven days after the birth of a male child). R. Yaakov Emden (Hagahot, Nidda 31b) explains that this is an "additional" source for the festive meal held on the day of the circumcision.
            Interestingly, Rabbenu Bachayei (Bereishit 17:13) explains that just as a sacrifice is following by a festive meal – the eating of the shelamim – the brit mila is similarly followed by a se'udat mitzva.
            The Shaarei Teshuva (OC 551:32) cites the Ohr Ne'elam (9), who asserts, based on Rashi (above) that the se’udat mitzva held in honor of a brit mila is a Biblical obligation. The Shaarei Teshuva disagrees, however, and insists that the obligation is rabbinic. Many authorities, including the Shulchan Arukh (YD 265:12), refer to this meal as a "minhag" (custom).
The Nature and Requirements of the Se'udat Brit Mila
            The meal held in honor of the brit mila is considered a se'udat mitzva. The Rema (ibid. 12) writes that it is customary to hold the meal in the presence of a minyan.
            The Chokhmat Adam (149:24) relates that the Vilna Gaon would rebuke those who are financially capable of serving a meal but offer cake and coffee instead. Some sources indicate that bread should be served at this meal (Raavia 3:751; see also Divrei Yatziv 2:163:2), and some insist that the meal should include meat (Magen Avraham, OC 249:6). Other relate that it is customary to eat dairy food at a morning brit mila (Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot 2:485).
The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (YD 265:37) relates that in his time, it was uncommon to hold a meal due to widespread poverty; rather, people would each fruit and cake. To this day, in many communities, it is customary not to spend large amounts for the se'udat mitzva, in order not to cause hardship to those who cannot afford a large meal.
Inviting to a Brit Mila
It is customary to "inform" people of the festive meal held for a brit mila, instead of formally "inviting" them. What is the origin of this custom?
The Talmud (Pesachim 113b) teaches that "there are seven people are considered to be ostracized by Heaven." In addition to these seven – which includes one who does not teach his children Torah, one who does not wear tefillin on his head and arm, and one who does not wear tzitzit or place a mezuza on his doorway – the gemara adds "one who does not sit with a group that is partaking of a feast in celebration of a mitzva (chabura shel mitzva)." Rabbeinu Chananel identifies this "chabura shel mitzva" as "Kiddush." Rashbam (s.v. bechaburat; see also Tosafot, Pesachim 114a, s.v. ve-ein) explains that the gemara refers to a celebration held in honor of a brit mila or the marriage of a Kohen to the daughter of a Kohen. The Rema (YD 265:12) cites this in the laws of the brit mila. He adds, based on Tosafot (ibid.), that this applies only if there are "upright" people at the meal (anashim mehuganim).
Regarding this issue, the Pitchei Teshuva (ibid. 265:18) cites the Makom Shmuel, who quotes R. David ben Aryeh Leib of Lida (c. 1650 – 1696). In his Sharvit Zahav, R. David relates that his teachers would criticize the practice of local shamashim to go house to house inviting people to a brit mila, lest those who do not attend will be considered to be "ostracized by Heaven." Rather, it is customary to "inform" people of the brit mila. This concern appears in other sources, such as the Me'am Lo'ez (Bereishit 17:9) and R. Yaakov Emden's Migdal Oz (9:16:5).
What is the scope of this custom? As mentioned above, the Rashbam mentions the festive meal held in honor of a brit mila and the wedding of a Kohen and a bat Kohen. Tosafot (ibid.) includes the wedding meal (se'udat nisu'im) of a Torah scholar, and the Levush (Minhagim 34) cites this as well.
However, the Acharonim note that there is no custom to "inform" people of a wedding. R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 2:65) notes that Rema only applies the Talmud's concern of being "ostracized by the Heaven" to a brit mila. He explains that while all are obligated to attend a wedding in order to rejoice with the bride and groom, only the father of the child is obligated to celebrate the circumcision of his son. However, those who are invited to the circumcision and do not participate are belittling the mitzva of brit mila, for which they deserve being "ostracized by Heaven."
Alternatively, R. Moshe Shternbuch, in his Teshuvot Ve-Hanhagot (2:649), suggests that the gemara only criticizes one who refrains from attending a festive meal because he feels it is beneath his dignity. However, if he chooses not to attend because he is involved in another matter, he is not "ostracized." This may be a concern at a brit mila, which does not take much time. In contrast, it is understandable why a person would be unable to attend a wedding, due to its length, and there is no concern that if he does not attend it is due to his ego.
The Acharonim offer numerous justifications for the invitees not to attend a brit mila.
For example, R. Moshe Teitelbaum, in his comments to the Shulchan Arukh (ibid.), notes that the gemara criticizes one who "does not sit" – in other words, one who attends the festive meal but does not partake of the meal. The Talmud never meant to criticize one who does not intend to attend the brit mila at all.
Alternatively, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan notes that in his day, this concern was not common, as there are often "unworthy" people attending festive meals. The Mishna Berura (Bi'ur Halacha 170, s.v. lo) explains that Tosafot's concern relates to a regular, non-festive meal, however, at a se'udat mitzva, the presence of an upright person may positively influence the other guests.
Sefer Noheg KeTzon Yosef (Hilkhot Mila) suggests that if the father or mother personally invite a person, he is indeed obligated to partake. Similarly, some suggest that if the father or mother invited a person more than once, he should attend.
R. Yisrael David Harfenes (Va-Yevarekh David, YD 113) writes that the Talmud criticizes one who belittles the se'udat mitzva of the brit mila. However, one who cannot attend the circumcision because it is too difficult does not violate the Talmud's teaching.
This is the final shiur of our series on the laws of brit mila. We will dedicate next year to the study of the laws of conversion (giyur).