Monday, January 25, 2010

The Late Mohel

There is a fascinating exchange of letters from the summer of 1865 between two grandsons of R. Akiva Eiger (the letters are published in Iggeros Soferim, section 4 pp. 43-51.)

I. Delaying A Circumcision

R. Leibele Eiger was a chassid who served as a mohel in Lublin. His practice was to engage in intense meditative practices for many hourse before a circumcision, effectively delaying the ceremony until the afternoon. Some residents of his city complained about this and R. Leibele felt it necessary to receive approval from local rabbinic authorities (which he did) and from a prominent rabbinc authority from elsewhere. Therefore, he wrote a letter to his cousin, R. Shimon Sofer (son of the Chasam Sofer and grandson of R. Akiva Eiger), asking for his approval.

Click here to read moreAfter explaining the circumstances, R. Leibele pointed out that the rabbinic saying is "zerizin makdimin LE-mitzvos -- the zealous begin early FOR mitzvos." He argues that this does not mean that we have to perform the actual mitzvah early because then it would say "zerizin makdimin HA-mitvos -- the zealous begin the mitzvos early." Rather, the formulation we have means that we begin preparing early for a mitzvah. He adds that he has other proofs but chooses not to elaborate so as not to belabor the point.

II. Spiritual Preparation

R. Leibele notes that the "chassidim ha-rishonim -- the early pious ones" of the Talmud would prepare for an hour before praying. Nowadays, when we are on such a low spiritual level, we have to prepare that long for every mitzvah.

These long spiritual preparations before a circumcision are, he claims, an established custom in his region. Therefore, even though R. Shimon Sofer's custom is to the contrary, R. Leibele asks his cousin to recognize the differing practices and to validate his.

III. Do Not Delay a Circumsion

R. Shimon Sofer replied within days. He writes that the concept is correct -- it is appropriate to delay a mitzvah in order to perform it better, as the Terumas Ha-Deshen (Responsa, no. 35) and Chakham Tzvi (no. 45) ruled. However, how is the mitzvah enhanced by having a more holy mohel perform it? The parents should just use a different mohel who takes less time to prepare.

Furthermore, R. Sofer argues that there is a good reason for rushing to perform a circumcision. The foreskin is considered offensive and must be removed as soon as possible. R. Leibele needs to bring a source that spiritual preparation is sufficient to delay removing the offensive foreskin for hours.

In fact, the universal custom, R. Sofer states, is to perform the circumcision as early as possible. R. Sofer ignored R. Leibele's claim that his region had a different custom, perhaps because he assumed that it was a relatively recent (Chassidic?) innovation.

IV. The Holier Mohel

R. Sofer then quotes a midrash that Moshe and Aharon performed circumcisions in the Sinai Desert, which presumably delayed circumcisions by hours. There must have been someone else who could have done it but people still waited for Moshe and Aharon. Evidently, this is a proof that one may delay a circumcision for hours in order to utilize an important and holy person as a mohel.

R. Sofer cautions that not everyone can claim to be sufficiently holy to be compared to Moshe and Aharon, but his cousin is surely one who can. Therefore, his practice is acceptable.

V. Keep Your Holiness to Yourself

R. Sofer later added an addendum. In the age in which they lived, when so many people were improperly claiming to be great Jews and accepting upon themselves inappropriately pious practices, we need to be extra-cautious and not appear to be sanctioning such a misguided approach by acting similarly. While the early pious ones of the Talmud prepared for an hour before prayer, it seems clear that the later pious ones did not.

The reason for this later practice is that the generations have declined yet false pious ones pretend to be greater than they really are. To stop them, the true pious ones abandoned all extra-pious practices in public, keeping them only for privacy when no one would see. R. Sofer wrote that this was what his father, the Chasam Sofer, would do -- when in public he followed the same practices as everyone else but in private he would follow certain kabbalistic practices.

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