Is it true that someone must suck the blood at a circumcision?…ask the Rabbi

May 17, 2016 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple answers your questions.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Is it true that someone must suck the blood at a circumcision?

A. Circumcision is a fundamental part of Jewish identity. Every Jewish boy – with rare exceptions – undergoes the operation on the eighth day after birth.

Whilst circumcision is a religious requirement and will be maintained by Judaism regardless of fluctuations in medical opinion, there is ample evidence that circumcised males are protected from a number of diseases.

The Mishnah Shabbat 19:2 requires suctioning a small amount of the blood; in the Gemara, Rav Papa says that the suctioning is for health reasons, to remove the possibility of a child becoming infected. A mohel (ritual circumciser) must not omit the suctioning; if he does omit it, he risks being removed from his post.

For centuries the suctioning of the blood has been done by mouth, but this method is only maintained by a minority of mohalim. Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik reported that in his family instructions were given to mohalim not to use direct oral contact but to use a pipette.

There have been odd cases where a mohel who did “metzitzah b’peh” (suctioning by mouth) transmitted a disease to the child, and of course this represents a grave danger.

The removal of the blood does not have to be done by mouth and if it is (generally by more Chassidic mohalim), it takes only a second; the mohel does not drink the blood but generally spits it out.

The Chatam Sofer and other g’dolim say that no particular method is required by Talmudic law and they permit suctioning by means of a sponge or tube; the blood is then discarded.


Q. I know that some people wash their hands (“mayim acharonim”) before bensching (the Grace After Meals). Why don’t they say a blessing when doing this?

A. You seem to be looking for a parallel to the b’rachah for washing the hands before bread. In that case we are dealing with a mitzvah which entails saying “asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivvanu” – “God sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us…”.

In contrast, “mayim acharonim” is explained by Maimonides as an emergency measure in response to possible danger (Hil’chot B’rachot 6:1). According to the Talmud, during a meal “the salt of Sodom” can adhere to the hands and, if you touch your eyes without washing the salt off, it can affect your eyesight.

Whether or not this view is medically justifiable, it is worth quoting the view of the Magen Avraham (17th century) that some things deemed by the Talmud dangerous to one’s health – e.g. eating fish baked with meat (Pes. 76b) – might no longer be harmful, but this does not allow an individual to decide for him/herself that an established practice may be wantonly discarded.

“Mayim acharonim” recalls the halachic concept of “pikku’ach nefesh”, the basic Jewish principle that taking risks with one’s life or health is not allowed and, if there is an emergency, immediate action is necessary.


Q. Why do we call Germany “Ashkenaz”, Spain “S’farad”, and France “Tzar’fat”?

A. The question is dealt with in detail by Rabbi Dr Ernest Ehrentreu (in the Rabbi Dr Joseph Breuer Jubilee Volume published in 1962).

He says that in Jeremiah (51:27), the name Ashkenaz (originally a person’s name in Gen. 10:3) is given to an area in Asia Minor where the caravan routes from Eretz Yisra’el and the rest of the Middle East converged. The Jews of Central Europe were called Ashkenazim because their migration routes were in or through Ashkenaz.

The Book of Obadiah (1:20) refers to “galut” (exile) in connection with S’farad, and since Spain was a leading part of the Diaspora the name S’farad was attached to it from the time of the Targum Yonatan onwards. (The Latin Vulgate regarded S’farad as the Bosphorus.) The Jews of Spain were flattered that Obadiah mentions “Galut Yerushalayim” – “the Exile of Jerusalem” (in recent history Vilna was “the Jerusalem of Lithuania”).

The name Tzar’fat (a Phoenician town on the Mediterranean) came to apply to France for accidental reasons, because Spain and France are adjacent and Obadiah refers to both Tzar’fat and S’farad.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.


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