Metsitsa b’peh is a custom mohels should discard

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By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California –For the past 2000 years, enemies of the Jews have often portrayed the Jews as leeches and vampires. Some people think Bram Stoker’s gothic novel about the blood-thirsty demon bears an uncanny resemblance to the pale-skinned Jew, who hates anything associated with the light of Christianity. Over 110 years since the Dracula novel’s first appearance, the Arab world continues depicting the Jew as a blood-sucker. One of the most popular themes in Arab cartoons is the blood-loving or blood-thirsty Jew.

What else would you expect from a society that subsists on anti-Semitism as a form of self-definition?

However, images of Jews as “leeches” and “blood-suckers” finds occasional literary expression in the United States as well. Almost a year ago, an Internet comic-book named, “Foreskin-man,”  appeared on the Internet. The cartoonist used his new character to launch a new political campaign to ban ritual circumcision in the State of California. The cartoonist had enough common sense not to attack the Muslim community, but directed his animus toward the Jewish community. The cartoonist depicts the mohel as a dark and sinister figure who loves mutilating Jewish male infants. In contrast, his protagonist, Foreskin-man is the blond-haired and blue-eyed superhero who rescues Jewish male children from the villain named, “Evil Mohel.” This fiendish ghoul delights in a ritual called, metsitsa b’peh, literally, “sucking the blood [of a baby’s penis] with one’s mouth.”

By now, many folks are probably wondering: You must be kidding me, right? No, this is not a joke. The real tragedy of this depiction is the fact that many mohels perform this ritual while paying no regard to the potential health risks.

The Mishnah discusses the sundry rituals associated with the circumcision of a young infant boy. One of the customs included “suction.” The Mishnah does not provide a clear definition what this custom means. The ancients believed that sucking the blood of a baby’s penis prevented infection and that the saliva of a person is “clean,” functioning almost like an anti-septic. Well, modern medical science has demonstrated that this folk-medicinal belief has no basis in science. In fact, sucking the baby’s penis has sometimes lead to tragic consequences.

The problem boils to down to what Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof calls, “Tradition!”  Can or should Tradition change when it is confronted by the medical and technological advances of the times? Or must we robotically perpetuate tradition for its own sake, especially because the Kabbalah has developed a mythology centering on an antiquated custom?

A two-week old boy died at a Brooklyn hospital last September after contracting herpes through a religious circumcision ritual. The unidentified infant died Sept. 28, 2011, at Maimonides Hospital, according to a spokeswoman for the city Medical Examiner, who confirmed the death after a news inquiry. The cause of death: “disseminated herpes simplex virus Type 1, complicating ritual circumcision with oral suction.”[4]

Many leading rabbis within the Haredi and Modern Orthodox community have urged the mohels to take extra-precautions when fulfilling the precept of brit milah (ritual circumcision). Several leading rabbinical authorities have offered an important alternative to the traditional sucking: using a sterilized glass tube between the wound and the mohel’s mouth avoids direct oral contact.[6]

In the past, Rabbi David Zwiebel, the head of Agudath Israel of America admitted that the Haredi leaders may have lied to their constituencies about both the dangers of metsitsa b’peh, and the city’s intent.[7] Chabad mohels have sometimes  disregarded the hygienic problems of the metsitsa b’peh ritual.[8] For people in the San Diego area, anyone wishing to use an Orthodox mohel would be wise to tell the rabbi that either he use a sterilized tube if he wishes to do the metsitsa b’peh, or else it would be far safer for the rabbi to not perform this ritual.

Ask yourself one last question: How would an anti-Semite view this story?

In the age of the Internet, as Jews, we need to avoid giving credence to images of the Jew that craves the blood of babies, thus inviting anti-Semites to exploit this antiquated tradition as a modern-day blood libel–especially when the custom results in multiple deaths.  We have more than enough enemies to deal with; must we give the tormentors of our people another reason to decry us as blood-sucking monsters? Haredi and Hassidic Jewish leaders need to recognize that the greater world community observes our behavior much more than we may realize.

It is surprising that the great anti-Semites of history did not refer to this particular custom in their blood libels. The relative scarce mentioning of this custom may give us pause to wonder how prevalent the metsitsa b’peh  in the pre-Lurianic world of the 16th century. Tradition is important, but not if it results in the death of an infant because of a Mohel’s carelessness. Combined with the health dangers associated with metsitsa b’peh, if only one child’s life is ruined or lost as a result of this custom, then we would be wise to remember the wisdom of the ancient Judaic teachers, “God created the first human being alone in order to teach us that whosoever kills a single soul is considered as though he has destroyed an entire world. By the same token, anyone who preserves a single human soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world.” [9]

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Notes:

[1] Some scholars claim metsitsa b’peh is considered an essential part of the ritual, and they maintain it is a tradition that goes back to Sinai; others say it is not a part of the ritual, but merely a health precaution (BT Shabbat 133b). It is surprising that neither the Talmud nor the subsequent halacha mention anything about a scriptural prohibition is sucking the blood because of the biblical prohibitions regarding blood in general. Among some of the more notable scholars, the R. Rabbi Yechiel Epstein in his Aruch HaShulchan notes that nowadays it is better not to do oral suction, but to use a sponge instead (Y.D. 264:19; cf. Mishnah Berurah (B’iur Halacha 331 s.v. Ufarin), and notes that a sponge may even be used during the Sabbath for this express purpose.

[2] Fred Rosner, “Hemophilia in the Talmud and rabbinic writings” Ann Intern Med.1969;70 :833– 837

[3] In the 1830s, a number of babies found themselves infected by life-threatening sores in their groin area, shortly after their circumcision. Physicians and several local rabbis alleged that the sores came as a result of the mohel performing the metsitsa b’peh, (oral suction). The physicians and rabbis felt the mohel had transmitted a communicable disease; due to the babies’ weakened immune system, they had succumbed to the mohel’s infection. From this point on, doctors and many rabbis alike condemned the metsitsa b’peh custom. Some of them complained to the government to ban the practice and this is where a controversy developed. Rabbis loyal to the metsitsa b’peh alleged that the medical community had no business interfering with a religious ritual. Others argued further that there was no concrete proof that the mohel had truly infected the children. “Besides,” they argued, “Who are we to change an age-old hallowed Jewish custom?” When this matter came before the Hungarian rabbi (and ancestor of mine) Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839), the rabbi ruled that a sponge could accomplish the same purpose as an oral suction. S.R. Hirsch even suggested using a sterilized glass tube, and so the issue seemed to fade for the time being.

[4]http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2012/03/metzitzah-b-peh-kills-boy-789.html

[5] Alexander Tartis invented this device in 1900, which is quoted in the halachic study, “Dam Brit.”

[6] This point is emphasized by Mordechai Breuer in Modernity within Tradition: The Social History of Orthodox Jewry in Imperial Germany (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1992), 259.

[7] http://failedmessiah.typepad.com/failed_messiahcom/2006/02/agudath_israel_.html

[8] See Rabbi Avi Billet’s article: http://www.mohelinsouthflorida.com/2011/10/metzitzah-debate-with-chabad-person.html

[9] BT Sanhedrin 37b;  JT Sanhedrin  4:12, 22b.

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Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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