What’s the Truth about . . . Invitations to a Brit Milah?

Misconception: Similar to what is done for bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings, the parents of a newborn son customarily invite their friends and relatives to join them at the brit milah celebration.

Fact: There is a centuries-old custom not to “invite” guests to a brit and the accompanying meal but rather to merely “inform” them when and where it will be taking place.

Background: There is a long-standing tradition to make a festive meal on the day1 of a brit milah (Shulchan Aruch, YD 265:12).2 This meal is regarded as a seudat mitzvah, and there is a custom to have a minyan present (Rema, OC 551:10; Rema, YD 265:12). The Chochmat Adam (d. 1820; 149:24) reports that the Gra would rebuke those with financial means who skimped and did not make a respectable meal, and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (163:8) echoes those sentiments.3 Rabbi Yekutiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Sanz-Klausenburg Rebbe, wrote that it is obvious that the repast requires bread, by definition of it being a halachic seudah (Divrei Yatziv, YD 2:163:2). Some posekim insist that the brit meal include meat (Magen Avraham, OC 249:6).4 A ramification of it being a seudat mitzvah is that participants may eat meat and drink wine at the meal during the Nine Days (Rema, OC 551:10).

Sha’arei Teshuvah (551:33) quotes Rabbi Isaac Zekel Etthausen (d. 1763; Shu”t Ohr Ne’elam, 9) who states that the meal for a timely brit is a Biblical obligation. This differs from the positions of Shu”t Beit Yaakov (73), who says it is a rabbinic obligation, and the Gra (OC 640:6), who says that unlike a wedding feast there is no Biblical obligation and no “simchah requirement.” The Shulchan Aruch (YD 265:12) calls the seudah at a brit a “custom.” Biur Halachah (249: muttar) says it is a mitzvah to have a seudah at a brit, but there is no obligation to make it. Thus, the opinions regarding this feast range from a Biblical obligation to no obligation whatsoever.

Regarding the meal for a delayed brit, Ohr Ne’elam says that because there’s no Talmudic source for the meal, meat may not be served during the Nine Days. Sha’arei Teshuvah strongly disagrees and argues that as long as the brit was not inappropriately delayed, the meal is considered a seudat mitzvah. The Mishnah Berurah (249:12; 568:20) and Magen Avraham (249:5) explain that because a brit needs to be done as soon as possible, any time is regarded as on time and therefore the meal for a legitimately5 delayed brit is still considered a seudat mitzvah.6 The Shach on the Torah (61b; on Shemot 18:12) holds that one should also make a meal for the brit of a ger.

There are a variety of reasons offered for the festive meal accompanying a brit milah. Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 29) finds an allusion to the need to make a feast on the day one is privileged to circumcise his son, from the pasuk, “And the child [Yitzchak] grew and was weaned, and Avraham made a great feast on the day that Yitzchak was weaned [higamel]” (Bereishit 21:8). Rabbi David Luria (the Radal, d. 1855), comments that the seemingly extra words in the pasuk allude to a feast that was made in honor of Yitzchak’s brit, in addition to the one made when he was weaned.7 Tosafot (Shabbat 130a, s.v. sas) explains that the allusion is based on the homiletical interpretation of the word “higamel”—the numerical value of heh  plus gimmel is eight, and “mal” is Hebrew for circumcised—which suggests that Avraham made a great feast when Yitzchak was circumcised on the eighth day.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on the Chumash (Bereishit 17:13) finds additional meaning in the meal at a brit by relating it to the halachot of a korban. A sacrifice can only be brought after an animal is eight days old; the sacrificial act involves blood and it is the consumption of the korban (a seudah) which achieves atonement. Thus Rabbeinu Bechaye posits that a circumcision—an act involving blood performed when the boy is eight days old—should be accompanied by a meal.

In Talmudic times, a religiously significant feast was made for a brit, as evidenced by the fact that Rav Chaviva is recorded as reciting the joyous blessing, “she’hasimchah b’m’ono—in Whose abode is this celebration” at a brit celebration; however, the Gemara says that the halachah is not in accordance with Rav Chaviva because the infant’s pain detracts from the joy (Ketubot 8a).8

The Gemara (Pesachim 113b) lists seven types of people whose actions lead to them being “excommunicated from Heaven.” The Gemara then says that in addition to those seven, “some say” that one who does not join in “feasting with a group celebrating a mitzvah” should also be included in this list. Rashbam and Tosafot both cite a brit milah or a wedding of a bat Kohen to a Kohen as examples of group celebratory mitzvot that would fall into the category of “feasting with a group celebrating a mitzvah.”9 Tosafot also points to a midrash that states that one who participates in the feast of a brit is spared from the judgment of Gehinnom. The Rema (YD 265:12) quotes as halachah this strong condemnation of one who absents himself from a brit meal, but lessens the severity somewhat with the wording “as if excommunicated.”10

Commenting on this halachah, Pitchei Teshuvah (YD 265:18) cites Shu”t Makom Shmuel (80; p. 85b) who quotes Sharvit Zahav who states that his teachers would object to a shamash going from house to house to invite people to a brit because of the possibility that someone would not attend and then be considered excommunicated, God forbid (Rabbi David Lida, d. 1697, Central/Eastern Europe; his own commentary to his work on circumcision, Sod Hashem; p. 15a in 5574 ed., p. 46 in 5762 ed.).11 Rather, he preferred that people should simply be informed when and where the brit will take place.

At around the same time, Rabbi Yaakov Culi (d. 1732) wrote similarly (Me’am Loez, Bereishit 17:9 [p. 141-2 in English ed.]) in Turkey: “If a person is invited to a circumcision feast, he must rush to attend. If he refuses, he is considered as if he were excommunicated from on High. . . . Furthermore, if a king invites a person to a feast, he cannot refuse to go. The same is true of this feast, where Elijah is the host. Some people say not to invite them, since something might come up, preventing them from attending.” Rabbi Yaakov Emden (d. 1776, northern Europe) similarly wrote (Migdal Oz, 9:16:5) that one should not invite an individual to a brit if you know he can’t come, because of geneivat da’at and because it can result in his being “as if excommunicated.”

Essentially, this Gemara in Pesachim is stating that if one refuses to attend a festive meal that is a seudat mitzvah because he regards it as a waste of time, he deserves excommunication because of his disrespect for observing mitzvot. This would not apply if, for example, he has a valid reason not to attend, as seen below.

Tosafot (Pesachim 114a s.v. v’ein) says that excommunication only applies if there will be “upright people in attendance.” He draws support for this from the Talmudic statement (Sanhedrin 23a) that the pious of Yerushalayim would only attend a feast if they knew who else would be in attendance, and the Rema (YD 265:12) incorporated this ruling of Tosafot. The Aruch HaShulchan (YD 265:37) mentions the custom of not inviting guests to a brit and notes that unfortunately, in his day, not attending a brit after being invited was not much of a concern because it was likely there would  be unworthy people at the meal; nonetheless, he encourages attending a brit. Biur Halachah (170 s.v. lo) observes that people today are not careful about the halachah of sitting among upright individuals and not among the unscrupulous; on the contrary, he encourages upstanding and honorable people to sit with others who may be less so, and positively influence them.12

Rabbi Rachamim Nissim Yitzchak Palagi (son of Rabbi Chaim Palagi; 1813–1907, Izmir) limits the obligation to attend a brit. He cites, for example (Yafeh La’lev 265:12 [81]), that the obligation may only apply if there is no minyan without his presence, although the Shlah, quoted by Magen Avraham (249:6), seems to disagree with this. Rabbi Palagi also observes (Yafeh La’lev 265:12 [82]) that in his time, people would often not attend a feast at a brit even if invited, and he states that it was explained to him that many parents feel compelled to issue invitations due to social etiquette, but often truly prefer that not everyone attend.

In explaining the Gemara’s reference to excommunication, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 2:95) notes that there is no such consequence for not attending a wedding feast. He then states that although the Gra seems to question why it only applies to a brit, the Rema maintained that it applies exclusively to a brit. Rav Moshe felt that there is an obligation for one to attend a wedding (maybe even uninvited) and bring joy to the bride and groom, whereas he felt that no such obligation exists with regard to a brit. The excommunication in the case of a brit, Rav Moshe states, is not because of the obligation to attend every brit but because you are rejecting participating in a mitzvah that you were personally invited to participate in. Rav Moshe is quoted (Masoret Moshe, ed. Rabbi Mordechai Tendler, 5773, p. 321, item 251) as saying that excommunication is the consequence only if one received a personal invitation, but if there was a general invite, such as an announcement after the ceremony that everyone is invited to the seudah, it is less of a concern. Nonetheless, he says, it is preferable to simply announce, for example, that the meal will be in the social hall.

Simply having something else important to do may be a sufficient reason to not attend a brit even if one was invited. Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Wosner (Shevet Halevi 8:217) says that it is obvious to him that if one needs to perform another mitzvah or to learn Torah, he is exempt from this obligation. He would personally make sure to take a food item from a brit to eat at home.13 Similarly, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 4:YD:19) maintained that one need not sacrifice talmud Torah to attend a brit or wedding. In a similar vein, Kaf HaChaim (Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer, d. 1939; 90:67) and Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (Salmat Chaim, 5767, OC 213) say that one is not among the excommunicated if the reason he absented himself from the seudat mitzvah was in order to daven with a minyan. Rabbi Shabtai Ish Lifshitz adds (Brit Avot 13:11) that if one is working to support his family, he is not obligated to attend a brit seudah.

Rabbi Halberstam (Divrei Yatziv, YD:2:163:1) quotes Yismach Moshe (YD 265:12) who, based on a careful reading of the text, says that actually there is no mention of an obligation to attend the brit celebration, but rather criticism is leveled at one who is at the event and does not participate. Based on the words of the Rema, Rabbi Moshe Kalphon Hacohen (Djerba, d. 1950; Shoel VeNishal, 7:YD:209), reaches the same conclusion as his Chassidic contemporaries—that excommunication only applies if one is at the event and does not participate,14 but one is not obligated to attend a brit.

Rabbi Yitzchak Tzvi Leibowitz (d. 1944; Simla L’Tzvi commentary to Shulchan Ha’ezer 9:1 [68a]), seems to apply this obligation to weddings as well. But he asserts that getting an invitation mailed weeks before the event does not trigger this obligation; it is only obligating if one is invited the day of the event. Similarly, Me’am Loez suggests inviting people the day before but not the day of the brit.

To summarize, for hundreds of years, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim15 had the custom to not directly invite guests to a brit milah repast. Despite the fact that it is not mentioned in the Talmud or early sources, posekim encourage following this practice. It is not, however, a prohibition to invite guests to a brit. Moreover, if “invitees” might misinterpret the general announcement inviting everyone to a brit as an indication that their presence is not really desired, it may be better to simply invite directly. Furthermore, at the brit itself, it is preferable to not directly invite people to the meal in case the participants do not eat.

Regarding invitees, it is considered meritorious to attend a brit. However, if one has someplace important to go—be it to learn Torah, earn a living, or engage in some other mitzvah—he can skip the simchah.16 Attending a brit should not be viewed as a burden. On the contrary, it is an opportunity to join with a family as they welcome a new Jewish member into the covenant and to demonstrate that Jews perform mitzvot, particularly brit milah, with joy and love along with their community. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel is quoted as saying (Shabbat 130a) that any mitzvah that the Jews accepted with simchah, such as milah (based on Tehillim 119:162), they still do with simchah. Rashi explains that we demonstrate simchah by joining in a festive meal. It is more than 2,000 years since Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel made that statement, and brit milah is still performed today with simchah as a community celebration.

Notes
1. The Magen Avraham (568:10) says that the custom in his community is to make the seudah the night following the brit. Yafeh La’lev (265:12 [70, 72]) maintains that the meal should specifically take place during the day and not at night. The Me’am Loez (Bereishit 17:9) says that if the feast is delayed until night, one has not fulfilled his obligation. Some have a custom to make another seudah on the third day after the brit. (Hanhagot Maharshal:50 says that this seudah is a mitzvah while the Peri Megadim [Mishbetzet, OC 444:9] views it as a custom.) The Magen Avraham (640:13), disagreeing with Nachalat Shiva, says that the meal some make the evening before the brit to which the mohel, sandek and friends are invited is a custom and not a seudat mitzvah. The Sha’arei Teshuvah (551:33) discusses whether meat and wine are permitted at the pre-brit meal or at the meal three days after if they happen to fall during the Nine Days.
2. Rabbi Ratzabi (Shulchan Aruch haMekutzar, vol. 5, YD 159:12, n. 54) quotes an opinion that the feast should be in the same location as the brit.
3. From an historical perspective, it is interesting to note that Rabbi Yechiel Michel HaLevi Epstein (d. 1908; Aruch HaShulchan, YD 265:37), a Lithuanian posek who was personally from a wealthy family, observed that in his locale it was the rare individual who actually made a feast but rather, because of the extreme poverty suffered by most Jews at the time, the majority simply served treats such as “lekach” (honey cake or sponge cake).
4. For a thorough discussion of whether meat is required, see Rabbi J. David Bleich, “Fish or Meat at a Brit Milah Repast,” Tradition 35, no. 2 (2001): 55-60 (reprinted in Contemporary Halakhic Problems, vol. V [New York, 2005]: 393-402). Maharsham (9:86) prefers “real” meat and not fowl. The Chatam Sofer (Shu”t, OC 69), in discussing a Shabbat morning brit, says that serving dairy foods suffices and that meat or wine is not required. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot V’hanhagot, 2:485) suggests that because nowadays the seudah is often in the morning, the practice of not serving meat is justifiable. This might imply that for an afternoon brit, he believes meat is preferred. Rabbi Menashe Klein (Mishneh Halachot, 14:272) cites a story that the Divrei Chaim of Sanz once told a man that his son was not a talmid chacham because at his brit, dairy foods were served. Rabbi Bleich (footnote 29) terms similar stories “strange and questionable.”
5. For example, a brit was delayed because the baby was sick. To delay a brit for convenience sake is deemed wrong by the posekim.
6. This was also the opinion of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo, Tishah B’Av, 15:15 and n. 60 [p. 447]), who opined that the Chayei Adam also took this position, as did the Mishnah Berurah in 559:38.
7. Commentators note that it is no longer customary to make a feast when a child is weaned, yet Avraham did so for Yitzchak and Channah did so for Shmuel (I Shmuel 1:24). In the latter case it was because that is when she brought Shmuel to the sanctuary and dedicated him to the service of God. Regarding the former, Rabbeinu Bechaye (Bereishit 21:8) writes that upon Yitzchak’s weaning, Avraham began teaching him Torah.
8. Some commentators claim this is why some people do not say Shehecheyanu at a brit. The Rashba rejects this, arguing that this reason only applies to the blessing of “she’hasimchah b’m’ono” (Beit Yosef, YD 265 s.v. shadar).
9. Rabbeinu Chananel seems to have a different understanding of the Gemara’s ambiguous statement concerning “feasting with a group celebrating a mitzvah.” Rabbeinu Chananel understands this to refer to Kiddush.
10. The Divrei Yatziv (2:163:1) quotes his ancestor, the Yismach Moshe, in suggesting that the Rema wrote “as if excommunicated” because in his view, the halachah only applies to the seven categories initially enumerated in the Gemara. Nonetheless, the Yismach Moshe says that one should take seriously the Gemara’s exhortation about not joining a seudat mitzvah. The Divrei Yatziv points out that there is actually a version of this gemara, found in Ein Yaakov, that, similar to the Rema, states “as if excommunicated.”
11. The posekim all seem to discuss not attending a brit when invited, but do not discuss the same for a wedding. Furthermore, there is no such custom not to invite to a wedding. Many posekim note this incongruity. (See e.g., Teshuvot V’Hanhagot 2:649 and Otzar Haposekim [commentary to EH 64:4 in sections 16:13-21]).
12. Similarly, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach points out (Halichot Shlomo, vol. 3, 9: n. 444 [p. 327-8]) that the language of the admonition “not to sit at a meal with others unless one knows who will be joining them,” teaches that an upright person should actually participate in a seudat mitzvah, but he should be appropriately prepared for the crowd who will be in attendance.
13. Me’am Loez recorded that his father was accustomed to fasting by day, so he would take some fruit or cake home from a brit to break his fast.
14. Most understand “not joining in feasting with a group celebrating a mitzvah” to refer to “not eating.” But the Chazon Ish is reported (Ma’aseh Ish, 5762, 5:107) to have explained that the Gemara uses the word “mai’saive,” which literally means “to sit,” and thus all that is required is to remain at the meal, not to eat. Thus, the Chazon Ish often did not eat anything at britot where he served as the sandek. It should be noted that the Rema does say “eat” in place of the Talmudic “sit,” and that the Talmudic “mai’saive” usually refers to reclining at a meal.
15. Yemenites never had such a practice and do explicitly invite to a brit milah. Rabbi Yosef Kapach explains how the invitation would be spread (Halichot Teiman 5747, 164-5). See also Rabbi Yitzchak Ratzabi, Shulchan Aruch HaMekutzar, vol. 5, YD 159:13 and Zohar Amar “Hazmanah l’Brit Hamilah b’Nussach Yehudai Teiman,” Mesorah l’Yosef 6 (5769): 289-294.
16. Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, Peninei Halachah; Mishpachah-Likutim 3; Brit Milah, 7:11.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in Jewish Action legal-ease.