Must A Mohel Wear Gloves

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Introduction

In recent years there has been a significant amount of controversy surrounding the issue of proper safety protocols, particularly issues of infection and maintaining a sterile environment, at a bris milah (circumcision). While most of the attention has been focused on whether a mohel is required, permitted or forbidden from performing “metzitzah b’peh” (oral suction of the wound), significantly less attention has been paid to the issue of whether a mohel is required, permitted or forbidden from wearing sterile gloves while performing the milah. In the medical community even minor surgical procedures are always done after both vigorous scrubbing and donning sterile gloves.1 While data on precisely how much the risk of infection is increased when a mohel does not wear gloves is not readily available, conventional medical wisdom–and common sense–suggest that all additional precautions that help to maintain a more sterile environment help to decrease the risk of infection. Because this is not an issue that rises to a life-threatening level, we cannot invoke piku’ach nefesh. If the risk ever rises to that point, then this analysis would be moot because piku’ach nefesh overrides virtually all mitzvos.

Absent piku’ach nefesh concerns, the integrity of the mitzvah of milah must be maintained. If the integrity of the milah is compromised in some way by taking additional precautions, we may discourage those additional precautions. For instance, the risk of infection is moderately decreased by having fewer people handle the baby, yet we still maintain the long standing custom for a “kvater” to carry the baby to and from the bris, and a “sandak” to hold the baby during the bris.2 The question we will discuss in this essay is whether a halachically proper milah can be performed while wearing gloves. Absent any halachic objection, it would seem clear that wearing gloves would be much preferred, if not required.

We will deal with two potential halachic pitfalls with wearing gloves, and analyze the source material to determine whether they indeed pose a halachic problem. First, is the issue of “bizuy mitzvah,” denigrating or disrespecting a mitzvah by wearing gloves to perform a mitzvah. Second, we will discuss the practical concern whether a mohel would be able to do a proper peri’ah (peeling back the thin membrane under the foreskin), which the Shulchan Aruch requires the fingernail to do.3

Bizuy Mitzvah

The Gemara (Pesachim 57a) records four occasions that caused the azarah (courtyard) of the Beis Hamikdash to (metaphorically) cry. One such cry was to banish a Kohen Gadol (high priest) named Yissachar Ish Kfar Barkai who “honored himself and disrespected the holy sacrifices.” The Gemara explains that this Yissachar would wear gloves while performing the service in the Beis Hamikdash. Rashi explains that there are two problems with this practice. First, it creates an unwarranted interposition (chatzitzah) between the skin of the kohen and the sacrifice with which he is dealing, which would invalidate the sacrifice. Second, it is disrespectful to the holy items (bizuy mitzvah) to wear gloves.

The Gemara describes how Hashem ultimately punished Yissachar Ish Kfar Barkai. On one occasion the king and queen were debating whether goat meat or lamb meat is superior. They decided to settle the dispute by calling on a person who had extensive experience with meat of different animals, the kohen gadol (Yissachar). Yissachar was summoned to the palace to resolve the dispute and while answering the question he gestured dismissively with his hand as if to say that lamb meat is obviously superior. The king was so insulted by the gesture that he decreed that Yissachar’s right hand should be cut off. Yissachar bribed the king’s messenger to cut off his left hand instead of his right. When the king heard about this, he saw to it that they should cut off his right hand as well. While the Gemara does not state explicitly which of the two problems with the practice (the interposition or the disrespect) lead to such a harsh punishment, it seems from the introductory line (that Yissachar “honors himself and disrespects sacrifices”) that the punishment was on account of the disrespect shown to sacrifices.

The Gemara clearly assumes that it is inappropriate to wear gloves when handling sacrifices, but does not tell us whether doing other mitzvos while wearing gloves is also considered disrespectful.4 There are several other forms of bizuy mitzvah that Chazal clearly apply to other mitzvos. For example, the Gemara (Chullin 87a) derives from a verse that one may not cover the blood of a slaughtered bird or beast (the mitzvah of kisuy hadam) with his foot rather than with his hand because doing so would show disdain for the mitzvah. The Gemara (Shabbos 22a) applies the concept of bizuy mitzvah to using the light of Chanukah candles for mundane purposes (such as counting money). Similarly Rabbeinu Gershom understands the Gemara (Tamid 28b) to forbid removing ashes from the altar with one’s feet because it is a bizuy mitzvah.5 The simple reading of the Gemara suggests that bizuy mitzvah is a problem on a biblical level, and this is in fact the position of Sha’agas Aryeh (#40) and Pnei Yehoshua (Beitzah 30b).6

Several later poskim have applied the specific concern wearing gloves symbolizing disrespect, to other mitzvos as well. For example, the Divrei Malkiel (V:206) writes that when a man performs kiddushin (betrothal) of his wife by placing a ring on her finger, the woman should not wear gloves. One of the reasons he gives is to avoid being like Yissachar Ish Kfar Barkai by disrespecting the mitzvah of marriage.7 The Magen Avraham (OC 183:6) writes that one should not wear gloves while holding the wine for kiddush because doing so is considered a bizuy mitzvah. The Pischei Teshuvah (YD 271:19) writes that a scribe should not write a Torah scroll, or even add the crowns onto the letters, while wearing gloves. He forbids writing with gloves even if the fingers of the gloves are cut off, because it is considered disrespectful to the mitzvah of writing a sefer torah. Responsa Torah Lishmah writes that a shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) should not wear gloves when carrying a sefer torah because that too is considered disrespectful. These examples seem to illustrate that covering one’s hands when handling a mitzvah is not only problematic when dealing with sacrifices but with other mitzvos as well. We still have to clarify the parameters of this concern. Is this a problem for all mitzvos? Does the motivation of the person who is wearing the gloves matter?

These questions are discussed in a correspondence between Rav Moshe Feinstein and Rav Yechezkel Grubner (of Detroit, MI). Rabbi Grubner was asked by shochtim whether they may wear gloves while slaughtering animals and while checking an animal after slaughter for problems that may render the animal non-kosher (treifos). Rabbi Grubner (Responsa Knesses Yechezkel #43) writes that one definitely cannot check for treifos while wearing gloves because the inspector (bodek) has to pay very careful attention to everything he touches while checking and his sensitivity to slight cuts and bumps in the animal is compromised by wearing gloves. With regard to slaughtering while wearing gloves, Rabbi Grubner points out that since we find the general concern of “bizuy mitzvah” regarding many mitzvos (as above), it is clear that people should not perform mitzvos while wearing gloves. Rabbi Grubner then analyzes whether slaughtering is, in fact, a mitzvah or simply the only permissible way to obtain kosher meat. If it is a mitzvah, it may not be done while wearing gloves. If it were only a “matir” (a way of making meat kosher) one would be permitted to wear gloves.8 Rabbi Grubner concludes that a shochet should avoid wearing gloves, even if his intention is to protect his hand from adverse conditions and not out of disdain for the mitzvah. However, if he wears gloves the slaughter is certainly valid.

In his response to Rabbi Grubner’s responsum, Rav Moshe Feinstein (published in Iggeros Moshe YD II:16 and in Knesses Yechezkel #43) argues that even if slaughtering is a mitzvah, a shochet may still wear gloves. Rav Moshe demonstrates that there are certain mitzvos that one may perform while wearing gloves. For example, Rashi (Sukkah 42a sv. derech kavod) understands that Rava permits taking a lulav while wearing gloves, and is apparently not at all concerned for bizuy mitzvah. The concern of bizuy mitzvah, argues Rav Moshe, is only when a person wears the gloves in order to avoid “dirtying” his hands with the mitzvah. This is considered disrespectful to the mitzvah for two reasons. First, a mitzvah should be done with joy and love; one should be honored to have the mitzvah on his hands and shouldn’t look for ways to avoid becoming dirty from the mitzvah. This idea is demonstrated in the Gemara (Pesachim 65a) that says that they would plug the drains in the Beis Hamikdash on Erev Pesach so that the blood from all of the sacrifices would back up, and it was a “praise for the children of Aharon to walk knee deep in blood”.9 Second, if a person is careful to wear gloves so that his hands do not get dirty from the mitzvah, he gives the impression that he would not perform the mitzvah if it meant getting dirty. When taking a lulav, neither element of bizuy mitzvah is present, since the lulav does not dirty the hands in any way. It is evident that the person wears gloves out of respect and reverence for the mitzvah, and not as a protection from becoming dirty.

Applying these concerns to slaughtering, Rav Moshe points out that both concerns would seem to apply as the blood of the animal gets the shochet’s hands dirty. However, Rav Moshe continues, perhaps the concern of bizuy mitzvah only applies when the actual mitzvah gets the hands dirty. When, however, the messiness is incidental to the mitzvah, but not a critical component, one may protect himself from becoming dirty. The blood of the animal is a critical part of sacrifices but plays no role in the mitzvah of slaughtering regular animals to eat. In fact, if somehow there would be a bloodless slaughtering, it would be valid (Chullin 33). Therefore, the first type of bizuy mitzvah (that he is avoiding allowing the mitzvah to dirty him) would not apply to slaughtering a regular animal. The second type of bizuy mitzvah (the impression that one wouldn’t do the mitzvah if he couldn’t stay clean) may still be a concern. However, even the second type of bizuy mitzvah may not be a concern for slaughtering because there is no requirement to do it. One who has somebody else slaughter an animal is considered no less pious and scrupulous than one who does it himself. The impression that one would not slaughter an animal if he were not able to wear gloves is not a problem at all. In the end, Rav Moshe’s only objection to a shochet wearing gloves is that it may impede his ability to properly slaughter or to sense when the pressure of the knife, rather than its sharpness, is responsible for the slicing of the animal.

At first glance it would seem that when we apply Rav Moshe’s analysis to the mitzvah of milah, there would be ample concern that wearing gloves would constitute a bizuy mitzvah. First, milah is more similar to slaughtering than to lulav in that the blood gets the mohel’s hands dirty. Second, unlike slaughtering, where the blood is not a critical part of the mitzvah, the blood is certainly critical to the milah. Virtually all poskim rejected the use of a Gomco clamp in performing a bris milah. One of the primary concerns is that the clamp stops the blood flow to the foreskin, and the milah is then done without drawing blood. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe YD II:119) and Rav Eliezer Waldenberg (Tzitz Eliezer VIII:29) both argue that drawing blood is indispensable to the milah. Rav Moshe proves this point from the fact that even when a baby is circumcised in a way that does not fulfill the mitzvah (e.g. before the eighth day or at night) we are obligated to do “hatafas dam bris” – draw blood from the area, as a fulfillment of the mitzvah (Shach YD 262:2).10 Additionally, wearing gloves would seem to give the impression that without gloves one would not perform the bris, a violation of the second type of bizuy mitzvah that Rav Moshe highlights.

Upon further reflection, though, it seems clear that the issue of bizuy mitzvah is not a concern when wearing sterile gloves to perform a bris milah. Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chashukei Chemed, Pesachim 57a) was asked if a mohel is permitted to wear gloves when the parents request it. He answers that it is clear to everybody that the purpose of wearing gloves is to avoid transmission of disease and not to maintain a sense of the honor of the mohel. Rav Zilberstein writes that even if the parents do not make the request the mohel is justified in wearing gloves. Similarly Rabbi Moshe Perutinsky (Sefer Habris 264 Likutei Halachos #77) writes that since sterile gloves are widely recognized as the best way to keep a wound clean and free of infection, the gloves do not denigrate the mitzvah but accomplish the exact opposite – honoring the mitzvah by maintaining best practices.

Peri’ah

A second potential halachic issue with the mohel wearing gloves during the bris milah is that the Shulchan Aruch (YD 264:3) describes two stages to the process of circumcision. The first is to cut off the foreskin. Once that is accomplished the mohel is required to remove the thin layer of skin underneath the foreskin, using his fingernail. The first stage is known as “milah” while the second is called “peri’ah.” The Shulchan Aruch (Y”D 264:4) goes on to say that if one only does milah but omits peri’ah, the bris is invalid. Some mohalim report difficulty in doing a proper peri’ah with the fingernail while wearing gloves. Rabbi Yaakov Breish (Responsa Chelkas Yakov YD:148) assumes as a matter of clear fact that peri’ah with the fingernail cannot be done while the mohel is wearing gloves.11

Historically, one of the reasons that some poskim rejected the use of a “Bronstein Mogen” clamp12 (developed by Rabbi Tzvi Bronstein in the mid-20th century, and halachically superior to the traditional Gomco clamp, and described in detail in Sefer Habris, Likutei Halachos 264:86) is that the clamp is set up in such a way that all of the skin is removed with a single cut. The peri’ah is not a separate action from the milah. There are three reasons that this concern should not be an impediment to a mohel wearing surgical gloves.

First, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggeros Moshe YD I:155, III:98, IV:40) allows for the milah and peri’ah to be done simultaneously. In fact Rav Moshe points out that Rav Hai Gaon (cited in Teshuvos Hageonim Shaarei Tzedek 3:5:6) endorses the practice of mohalim to perform milah and peri’ah together.

Second, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky (Achiezer 3:65:12) allows for a peri’ah that is not done with the fingernail. He points out that since peri’ah is impossible to perform with a fingernail on an adult, an instrument is always used to do peri’ah on an adult convert. Rav Ovadya Yosef (Responsa Yabia Omer YD VII:22) also rules that peri’ah with an instrument is acceptable. However, theseposkim both still rule that peri’ah should preferably be done with the fingernail (lechatchila). The argument can be made, however, that the safety advantage allows for the milah to be done in a less ideal way. It should also be noted that not allposkim accept a peri’ah done with anything other than the fingernail. Rabbi Yakov Breish (ibid) cites a midrash that identifies three mitzvos done with fingernails: melikah (special slaughter) of bird sacrifices in the Beis Hamikdash, using the havdalah light, and peri’ah, which seems to assume that peri’ah must be done with the fingernail. Rav Breisch also emphasizes that the reasons for many practices in the milah procedure are beyond our comprehension and those practices should be maintained.13

Finally, and most fundamentally, with proper training it seems that a mohel can do peri’ah with his fingernail even while wearing gloves. Several expert mohalim have told me that they have no trouble doing peri’ah using gloves. Perhaps those who have a hard time with it have never tried with gloves that are thin enough.

Approaches of Poskim

Based on the issues we have presented, poskim have developed different approaches to the issue of wearing gloves while performing a bris milah.

Rabbi Yakov Breisch (Responsa Chelkas Yakov YD 148) and Rabbi Yosef Veisberg (commonly known as Reb Yossele, a respected mohel from Yerushalayim, in his Sefer Otzar Habris III:8:14) rules that absent any known illness or special concern for bacteria or infection, a mohel should not wear gloves. He bases the prohibition on Yissachar Ish Kfar Barkai, arguing that wearing gloves is a demonstration of arrogance and a show of disrespect to the mitzvah. Even Rabbi Veisberg would allow for gloves to be worn when the bris is being performed in the hospital (though his son Rabbi Moshe Veisberg does not use gloves even when performing a bris in a hospital), when the mohel has cuts on his hands, when a baby that the mohel had previously done a bris for came down with an infection or when the baby has had some sort of previous procedure done on that area of the body. Clearly, in situations that involve any reasonable threat to human life, all poskim would take every precaution necessary, as the preservation of life overrides almost all Torah prohibitions. Certainly, these poskim (after their own consultations with doctors) assume that the increased risk of infection from the hands of a mohel who scrubs his hands, has no known virus and no cuts on his hands, is so minuscule that it does not even rise to the level of “safeik piku’ach nefesh” – doubtful risk of life.

Rav Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chashukei Chemed, Pesachim 57) rules that it is permissible to wear gloves if the parents of the baby request it or if the mohel has any concerns that (he or) the baby has some sort of virus, and the mohel wears the gloves to protect himself (or the baby). Rav Zilberstein and Rabbi Moshe Peretinsky (Sefer Habris) are not concerned that there is any bizuy mitzvah in using gloves.

Rabbi Hershel Schachter encourages mohalim to use gloves, arguing that the milah is fraught with danger by its very nature.14 Any additional safeguard to protect from infection, when it does not infringe on halachah, should be encouraged strongly.
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  1. See Responsa Chelkas Yaakov (Y”D 148) where the author quotes a “big expert doctor” to say that minor procedures like a circumcision are often done without wearing sterile gloves. Conversations with several doctors reveal that this is no longer the case in American hospitals where every procedure is done with sterile gloves.
  2. See Responsa Mishnah Halachos (XII:177) who discusses why the custom is to allow additional people to serve as kvater, considering the potential added risk to the baby. He suggests that people rely on the principle of “שומר מצוה לא ידע דבר רע” – when doing a mitzvah one will be protected from harm.
  3. Rabbi Breisch (Chelkas Yaakov, ibid.) argues that there is a third problem, of chatzitzah, an unwarranted interposition between the hands of the mohel and the mitzvah. However, this argument is very difficult to understand for several reasons: First, there is no source in Chazal nor halachah or minhag cited in Shulchan Aruch that refers to an issue of chatzitzah with a bris milah. Second, even if there was an issue of chatzitzah, all agree that the milah is done with an instrument that touches the baby directly. It would be difficult to understand why wearing gloves that interpose between the mohel’s hands and the instruments would qualify as a chatzitzah. Perhaps this is why none of the otherposkim that discuss wearing gloves raise the issue of chatzitzah.
  4. Rabbi Yakov Breisch (Responsa Chelkas Yaakov YD 148) argues, based on the Zohar, that a milah would have the status of a sacrifice. There are many parallels between milah and sacrifices, including the midrash referring to the sandak’s knees as an altar. Bereishis Rabbah 47:7 states that when Avraham circumcised the members of his household (this probably refers to Avraham’s thousands of followers – see Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:3), he piled up the foreskins into a small mountain. When the sun shone on them, the seemingly putrid aroma was as pleasant to God as the incense. There are several practical ramifications to this equation between serving as sandak and burning the incense in the Temple, including the custom not to have the same person serves as sandak twice, the custom to call the sandak to the Torah, the custom for the sandak to go to the mikvah before the bris, and many others.
  5. See Mishnah Berurah 167:88 that throwing bread may be considered a bizuy mitzvah. See also Eretz HaTzvi ch. 49 for an explanation of why the bread is considered a mitzvah object that would be subject to concerns of bizuy mitzvah.
  6. See, however, Tosafos (Shabbos 22a sv. sukkah) who asks why we need both the concept of Sukkah decorations being considered huktzah lemitzvasan and the concept of bizuy mitzvah to teach that it is forbidden to benefit from them, if one of the concepts would seem to be enough. The question seems to imply that both considerations are on the same level. Since הוקצה למצותה is only a rabbinic level concern, it seems that Tosafos assumes that bizuy mitzvah is also only a rabbinic level concern.
  7. His primary reason is that the Rama (EH 27:1) writes that we only use a ring for kiddushin. We do this because it adheres tightly to the finger, symbolic of the close relationship between God and the Jewish people. Having something interpose between the finger and the ring represents a weakness in the relationship.
  8. For a fuller discussion of the difference between a mitzvah and a matir, see Ginas Egoz ch. 1.
  9. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 250:1 that even people who have servants and housekeepers should personally be involved in preparing the house for Shabbos, and should not be concerned about their own honor, because “this is his honor, that he honors Shabbos”. The Bi’ur Halachah (sv. ki zeh kvodo) explains that because the concern for human dignity overrides many halachos, one might have thought not to sacrifice his dignity for Shabbos preparations. The Shulchan Aruch therefore informs us that becoming dirty in preparing for Shabbos is not an affront to human dignity, but is in fact the most dignified thing to do. Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bikkurim 3:3) asserts that with regard to mitzvah performance no distinction is made between great Torah scholars and regular Jews. In fact the Gemara (Kiddushin 70a) says that somebody appointed to an important communal position should not do work in public. Yet, a Torah scholar is permitted to build a fence on his roof, and the Sha’arei Teshuvah (625) writes that a public official may build a sukkah. (See also Chavos Yair #205)
  10. See also Chidushei HaGrach Al HaShas (p. 135) who strongly argues that blood is indispensable to the bris milah.
  11. It is likely that gloves that are readily available today are significantly thinner and provide much more tactile sensitivity than the gloves that were used in the past when Rav Breisch wrote his responsum.
  12. See, for example, Minchas Yitzchak V:22:2 and Tzitz Eliezer VIII:29, X:38, XX:52.
  13. Most of the sources in these two paragraphs were taken from Rabbi Chaim Jachter’s Gray Matter (IV:170).
  14. See Yevamos 72a that the entire time the Jewish people were in the desert, they did not perform bris milah because the therapeutic northern wind did not blow. The clear implication is that absent the therapeutic effect of the wind, the milah is inherently dangerous.

About Aryeh Lebowitz

Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz serves as an 11th grade Rebbe in Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School, Senior Magid Shiur in HALB's post high school Yeshivat Lev Shlomo, and is the Rabbi of the Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere. He has contributed articles to several torah journals and books, and has delivered thousands of popular shiurim on a variety of torah topics.

One comment

  1. I heard from Rabbi Elchanan Zohn of the National Association of Chevra Kadisha that R’ Moshe Feinstein insisted that a chevra kadisha should not use gloves. However, practically today OSHA demands it so they do. How is that relevant (or not)?

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