Question: May women serve as Mohalot?
Yoreh Deah 264
At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” And when the Lord let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.”
The Sages viewed Tzipporah’s act with favor. In the midrash (Shmot Rabbah 5:8, ed. Shinan pp. 157-158) Tzipporah says: “for behold I have performed the mitzvah“. One could derive from this biblical story that women may always perform a brit or that a woman can do so b’di’avad, after the fact, when there is no choice, e.g. in order to save Moshe’s life.
III) The Rabbinic Period
1) A baraita which appears in Tosefta Shabbat (6:8, ed. Lieberman, p. 70 and parallel sources) (The parallel sources are Shabbat 134a; Hullin 47b; Yerushalmi Yevamot Chapter 6, fol. 7d and cf. Shir Hashirim Rabbah 7:3 quoted by Ziv, pp. 41-42). talks about a woman who gave birth to male children and they were circumcised and died. “She circumcised one and he died, she circumcised the second and he died” etc. “A story is told of four sisters in Tzippori – the first one circumcised and he died, the second [sister] circumcised and he died, the third [sister] circumcised and he died” etc. The third story is told by the tanna Rabbi Nathan about when he was in Cappadocia (Turkey). “[She] circumcised the first son and he died, the second one and he died” etc.
In all of these cases, it sounds like the mother herself performed the circumcision. Furthermore, these are all cases of l’khathila, before the fact, and not b’diavad, after the fact, as might have been the case in Exodus or in Maccabees.
2) The primary Talmudic source about women serving as mohalotis found in Avodah Zarah 27a:
It has been stated: Whence could it be deduced that circumcision performed by a non-Jew is invalid? Daru b. Papa said in the name of Rav: [From the words,] “And as for thee, thou shall keep my covenant” [Genesis 17:9]; while R. Johanan [deduces it from the words] “himol yimol” [ibid. v. 13 as if it says hamol yimol] – “he who is circumcised shall circumcise”. What is the difference between them?
We must therefore say that the case wherein they differ is that of a woman. According to the one who relies on “Thou shall keep my covenant” [i.e. Rav], the qualification is not there, since a woman cannot be circumcised, while according to the one who relies on “he who is circumcised shall circumcise” [i.e. Rabbi Yohanan], the qualification is there, for a woman is like one who is circumcised. But does anyone hold that a woman is not [qualified to perform circumcision]? Does not scripture say, “So Tzipporah took a flint” [Exodus 4:25]? Read it as if it says “she caused to be taken”. But it also says “And [she] cut off”? Read it as if it says “and she caused it to be cut off”, by asking a man to do it. Or you may say it means that she only began and Moses came and completed it.
Thus, Rav, a first generation Babylonian Amora, would forbid women to perform a brit milah while Rabbi Yohanan, a second generation Israeli Amora, would allow women to perform a brit milah.
Most of those who permit a woman to perform a brit milah base themselves on the well-known Talmudic principle (Beitzah 4a) that when Rav and Rabbi Yohanan disagree, the halakhah follows Rabbi Yonanan. Some also rely on the biblical precedent of Tzipporah.
One of the few sources which prohibits women from performing a brit milah (Tosafot to Avodah Zarah 27a s.v. ishah) says that Rav is correct because his verse is favored by the tanna Rabbi Judah the Prince earlier in the sugya when he forbids non-Jews from performing milah.
Yossi Ziv (pp. 46-49) tried to clear up the mystery by examining the customs of Ethiopian Jewry which he culled from 38 interviews conducted in Israel in the years 1999-2003. After an Ethiopian Jewish woman gives birth, she is ritually impure for 40 days for a son and for 80 days for a daughter. She leaves her home with the baby and lives outside the village in “a house of a woman in confinement”. Female relatives go with her to help her. Since she and her nursing baby are still impure on the eighth day, she or one of the other women perform the brit milah. It is never done by a man, because he would become ritually impure by touching the baby. On the 40th day for a boy or the 80th day for a girl, the mother and baby immerse in a river and become pure.
Ziv surmises that the Ethiopians preserved the original Palestinian customs of ritual purity, as reflected in the ruling of Rabbi Yohanan, that women may perform milah. In Babylon, the laws of purity had already disappeared, hence Rav ruled that a woman may not perform brit milah.
This is an interesting theory, but it does not hold up to careful scrutiny:
1) It is impossible to determine the origin of Ethiopian Jews, but many scholars agree that they were Ethiopians of Agau origin who adopted an Israelite identity at some point. Most of their beliefs and practices have parallels in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. They usually follow Biblical or Apocryphal literature as opposed to Talmudic or medieval Jewish custom (See Steven Kaplan in Michael Corinaldi, Jewish Identity: The Case of Ethiopian Jewry, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 152-160).
2) There is no hint in Avodah Zarah 27a that there is a connection between the laws of purity and women performing brit milah. Indeed, Rav and R. Yohanan were actually discussing whether anon-Jew can perform brit milah; it is the stam hatalmud or editor of the Talmud who transfers their argument to women and brit milah.
3) If the Ethiopian custom was related to R. Yohanan, the latter would have required women to perform brit milah, not allowed it.
4) Rather, the reason that most rabbis limited the performance of brit milah to women b’di’avad or forbade it seems to be the general tendency by medieval rabbis to prevent women from performingmitzvot which the Talmud allows or even requires them to do. Good examples are tefillin, tzitzit, kiddush on Friday night, and women as the sandak at the circumcision ceremony (Regarding tefillin, see my responsum in my book Ma’amad Ha’ishah Bahalakhah, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 23-45 = Conservative Judaism 50/1 (Fall 1997), pp. 3-18. Regarding tzitzit, see She’elot Uteshuvot Maharil Hahadashot, No. 7; R. Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe, Orah Hayyim, Part 4, No. 49; Aviva Cayam in Jewish Legal Writings by Women, Jerusalem 1998, pp. 119-142. Regardingkiddush, see Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz, Jewish Women in Time and Torah, Hoboken, 1990, pp. 92-100. Regarding women as thesandak see Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1989, pp. 60-66 and Baumgarten, pp. 65-77).
29 Sivan 5769
Baumgarten, Elisheva, Mothers and Children: Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe, Princeton and Oxford, 2004, p. 65
Grossman, Avraham, Hassidot Umordot, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 331-332
Rubin, Nisan, Reishit Hahayim etc., Tel Aviv, 1995, p. 91
Sperber, Daniel, Minhagey Yisrael, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1989, p. 66, note 18 and Vol. 4, Jerusalem, 2001, pp. 8-9
Spiegel, Yaakov, “Haishah K’mohelet”, Sidra 5 (1989), pp. 149-157
Ziv, Yosi, “Milah B’yedey Ha’ishah”etc., Netu’im 11-12 (Elul 5764), pp. 39-54
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.