The mother is entrusted with the care of the child both before and after the brit. She begins the ceremony by handing the baby to the kvatterin, godmother, thus indicating her consent for what is about to happen.
Since Abraham is commanded by the Torah to circumcise his son, the obligation to fulfill this mitzvah lies with the father. Rambam teaches that unlike other mitzvot, the obligation continues indefinitely until it is accomplished. Therefore, if the father is unable or unwilling, the task falls to the mother, then to the Bet Din, rabbinic court of the community and finally to every member of the Jewish people.
The father stands next to the mohel and verbally designates him to act on his behalf. In doing so, and throughout the ceremony, he must have kavanah, the proper intent, inasmuch as he is participating in the fulfillment of God’s commandment.
The kvatterin and kvatter, loosely translated as godmother and godfather, are a woman and a man, often a married couple seeking to have a child, who carry the baby briefly during the ceremony. There are no legal or traditional responsibilities inherent in this honor. However, in Jewish folklore godparents are responsible for providing the child’s religious education if the parents are unable to do so. In some families, the baby is cradled by many people, each bringing him closer to the place where the brit will occur. Aunts, uncles and sometimes grandmothers are chosen. Parents who want to be inclusive often honor all their siblings and their spouses in this way.
The word sandak most likely derives from the Greek suntekos, companion of the child or sundikos, patron of the child. This is the highest honor at the brit, a role equated with that of the high priest who offered the daily incense on the Temple’s inner altar. The sandak holds the child during the actual circumcision. He should be a spiritual, righteous person who bridges the generations. This honor is often given to one of the grandfathers of the child. If there is more than one grandfather, he should be honored as standing sandak, the person who holds the baby during the giving of his name. It is said that if a sandak is a saintly man, he can, with the help of God, instill a strong Jewish spirit in the child.
After the death of King Solomon, the Jewish kingdom was divided. Those living in the Kingdom of Ephraim, in Samaria, stopped the practice of circumcision. Elijah, a prophet of the times, cried out to God, … for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant. (I Kings 19:10) Elijah swore that he would prevent rain or dew from falling. God upheld this promise and told Elijah that because of his passionate championship of the mitzvah of milah he would have the privilege of attending every brit that Jews would perform throughout the centuries. For this reason, a chair is set aside in honor of Elijah the Prophet, who is referred to in the ceremony as the angel of the covenant. The sandak stands to the left of the chair following the Talmudic dictate that a student walks on his teacher’s left. Often one of those assembled is honored by briefly placing the infant on the Throne of Elijah so the prophet can bless the child. It is customary to decorate the chair with beautiful sheets or pillows.
The mohel should be a competent, Torah observant Jew of the highest character. He should be thoroughly knowledgeable regarding current medical practice as well as halakha, Jewish law. It is preferable that the mohel be a male since the one who impresses the sign of the covenant upon the child should himself be a member of the covenant.
A mohel is trained by the preceptor method, apprenticing himself to a master teacher. There is no prescribed duration for the course of study. Each candidate advances at his own pace, absorbing instruction in medical science (anatomy, hematology, physiology and pathology); techniques of sterilization; pre and post operative procedures and the laws and customs included in Talmudic literature, codes, responsa and at least one milah textbook such as Sefer Habrit, Brit Avot or Zocher HaBrit. When the teacher deems the training complete, he recommends the candidate to the local certifying board. Such a board may consist of rabbis, mohalim and physicians who evaluate the candidate for his knowledge, reverence and expertise.
Brit milah is a sacred religious ceremony, not merely a medical procedure. Therefore, a physician does not automatically qualify to be a mohel. In fact, some rabbinic authorities have objected to doctors, even religious ones, serving as mohalim in order to avoid a trend toward using medical practitioners who do not meet the standards of ritual observance.
The mohel also must have the proper intention, kavanah, during the brit. It is said that he should keep in mind the thought that in carrying out this ritual it is as if he were observing all of the 613 commandments. (Zikhron Brith L’Rishonim)
A minyan is preferred, but is not mandatory. Because Elijah is an honored guest, it is fitting to recognize his presence with a minyan. All stand throughout the ceremony. This derives from the verse, … and the entire nation stood at the covenant (II Kings 23:3), when King Josiah renewed Israel’s commitment to the Torah.