One of the highest honors at a brit milah (Jewish circumcision) is holding the baby on one’s lap while the actual circumcision takes place. This person is sometimes referred to as the baal habrit or sandek. The word sandek may be etymologically related to the Greek word for “lawyer” or “representative,” i.e., the representative of the father.1

On a basic level, the sandek is assisting in the mitzvah of circumcision.2 But there is greater significance to being a sandek.

The honor bestowed on the sandek is greater even than that of the mohel. Thus, for example, if the circumcision takes place on a day when the Torah is read, the sandek gets precedence when being called up to the Torah.3

The History of the Sandek

The custom of honoring someone with holding the child is based on the verse in Psalms: “All my bones shall say, O Lord, who is like You . . .” The Midrash expounds: “King David said to G‑d, ‘I praise G‑d with all my limbs and do a mitzvah with them . . . with my knees, I am a sandek for holding the child during the brit milah.’ ”4

According to one explanation in the Targum, this is the meaning of the verse “. . . Also the sons of Machir, the son of Manasseh, were born on Joseph's knees.” In other words, Joseph served as sandek for his great-grandchildren.5 According to another Midrash, G‑d Himself was the sandek at the very first circumcision, Abraham’s brit milah.6

Altar of Incense—Only Once Per Family

Circumcision is compared to bringing an offering to G‑d.7 More specifically, it is compared to bringing ketoret, the incense that was offered twice daily on the inner Golden Altar. Accordingly, the sandek, upon whom the child lies during the brit, is compared to the Golden Altar.8

The priest who brought the incense on the altar was blessed with riches and long life, and therefore the rule was that no priest could offer the ketoret more than once, thereby giving every priest the chance to receive this blessing.9 Similarly, a sandek also merits riches and long life, and therefore only serves as sandek one time per family.10

An exception to this rule would be the rabbi, who is compared to the High Priest, as he is charged with the spiritual welfare of his community. As such, just as the High Priest was allowed to offer the ketoret more than once, so, too, the custom is that a rabbi may be sandek for more than one child per family.11

Fitting to be Elijah’s Neighbor

Our sages tell us that Elijah the Prophet visits every circumcision. The sandek in a sense “sits next to Elijah” during the brit, and therefore one should choose as sandek an upright individual who follows the ways of the Torah and is worthy of sitting next to Elijah the Prophet.12 Furthermore, having a righteous individual as the sandek has a positive spiritual influence on the baby.13

That said, many have the custom of honoring the grandparents of the child with being the sandek (provided that they are upstanding individuals). There is a common custom of honoring the father’s father at the first brit of the family and the mother’s father at the second son’s brit.14