With Passion and Precision

February 29, 2024

Longtime mohel Rabbi Shlomo Golish discusses his sacred craft

M. Brejt

It’s the most important moment in a child’s life, but one he’ll never remember.

It’s a fleeting cry of pain amid shouts of joy.

It’s a celebration of a new start that’s part of the longest chain in our history.

Zeh hakatan gadol yihyeh…

It’s a joyous time, a busy time, and an auspicious time, and behind it all is the mohel. He sometimes goes almost unnoticed within the hullabaloo of the early morning celebration, but he’s an integral part of it. There’s more to being a mohel than just skill. His expertise, ability, and most of all his attitude and concern shape the experience.

What’s behind it? What does the mohel see as he slips briefly into this integral moment of people’s lives? And what does he feel is important for people to know? Having recently moved to Lakewood, Rabbi Shlomo Golish has served as a mohel for around 15 years. He has done brissim on countless babies and has observed the brissim of many more. For him, it’s more than just a profession. It’s an art that he has honed to perfection.

The inauguration

How did he get started?

“About 15 years ago, when I was still in yeshivah, I lost my father. It was a difficult time. I needed a break from the daily grind, and I decided I wanted to learn milah.”

Why milah?

“I sort of fell into it. I had a friend who was a mohel, and he pushed me a little bit. It was fascinating, and I guess I was just drawn to it.”

The Toronto-born youngster traveled to England that summer to learn the trade. England has a group known as the Initiation Society of England that certifies people in milah. While there, he apprenticed with a mohel who mainly practiced on non-Jews. In most countries, circumcision is covered by insurance, but in England it needs to be done privately. Mohelim are therefore in huge demand and are frequently hired to come to people’s home to do it privately. There’s no brachah, no halachos, but it was a great opportunity to build up experience in the actual procedure.

“I spent the summer traveling all around London with him doing circumcisions. Given the variety of clients, we ended up in some pretty bad neighborhoods. Once, our car got robbed, and I lost close to $4,000!”

Adventurous episodes aside, Rabbi Golish left England with a solid understanding of the profession, but he wanted to go further.

His next stop was Eretz Yisrael, where he made his home for the next 13 years.

“Once I moved to Eretz Yisrael, I decided to hone my craft. I wanted to learn from the best.”

Rabbi Golish turned to a world class mohel, Rav Aharon Greenzweig zt”l and asked him if he could teach him the trade. It wasn’t easy to get him to agree. Rav Aharon only worked with experienced mohelim who were open to learning and gaining more. He had a total of five talmidim in his life. Rabbi Golish was the last one.

“It took some convincing, but he took me on as his talmid, and for around two years, I shadowed him every day.”

Rav Aharon was also the mohel for the Beit Hachlamah, mother and baby home, in Telz Stone, which means that he dealt with over 5,000 baby boys a year before and after the milah had been done.

“It was an amazing experience. When you work in the Beit Hachlamah, you get to see the results of so many different mohelim, for better and for worse.”

There are many different ways and techniques to do the job, and many levels of skill and experience on the part of the mohel, so many different issues can arise, and the more you see, the more ready you are to deal with every scenario. In the early years, Rabbi Golish did milah mainly for acquaintances, but at some point, his work caught the attention of well know Ramat Eshkol rav, Rabbi Shmuel Weiner. “He got to know me, saw my work, was impressed by my knowledge and expertise, and after that he recommended me to many new parents. From there, baruch Hashem, people were happy, and they recommended me to others. Other rabbanim’s recommendations also helped, but Rabbi Weiner was the main shaliach in my hatzlachah in Eretz Yisrael.”

Always on call

From the initial phone call to the follow-up check, Rabbi Golish makes sure to be involved in the entire process.

The first step is to make sure there are no health issues. He often receives the phone call a few hours after birth, and the information the father shares with him can give him a clue of what to expect.

“Usually there are no issues, but if, for example, the father tells me that the bilirubin is high, not too high but higher than normal, I know that it will likely shoot up in the next few days. If the baby is yellow so soon after birth, there’s a good chance he will be yellow later on.”

However, it’s hard to get a full picture at that point, and he requests that parents call him after they’re discharged as factors can come up during the stay that will change the status of the baby. If for example, the baby is put on oxygen, that’s very significant. Usually, the bris can’t happen for a full seven days after the oxygen regulates.

There’s another warning sign that the baby might be yellow. If the mother and baby have different blood types, there’s a higher possibility of jaundice.

Rabbi Golish then comes by on the fifth day to check the baby. “I look at his reflexes, his eyes, if the nails are grown. If I see the baby is yellow, I’m not necessarily running to do a bilirubin check. Instead, I come back the next day and check again.”

He sits with the parents, answering any potential questions. Sometimes a new father also needs coaching about the kibbudim, and Rabbi Golish explains what they are and, if need be, guides the parents through the process of choosing who to give them to.

For the bris itself, Rabbi Golish’s priority is making sure the parents feel calm and prepared.

“Years ago, someone commented to me that a mohel spends half a minute doing a bris and gets paid so much. That’s what it looks like to the layman, but there’s so much more involved. There’s years of training that goes into the procedure, and once I receive that first phone call, I’m available for the parents for as long as they need me.

“Parents often call me, especially new parents, saying they’re concerned about something. While I already know from their description that there’s no problem, I always offer to come over. Almost invariably the parents will hesitate and say, ‘Um…if you don’t mind, that would be great.’ They’re relieved at that option, and I think that offering peace of mind is part of my job.

“Sometimes parents feel uncomfortable asking their mohelim questions or sharing concerns after the bris,” Rabbi Golish laments. “A mohel needs to make himself approachable and available. As you get busier, this becomes harder, but a balance can be achieved.”

On occasion, Rabbi Golish has even received phone calls from parents when their babies were three months old or older, wanting reassurance that things looked as they should. He came and performed a checkup on the baby, but he didn’t accept a penny. To him, it’s part of the regular service. He’s involved from beginning to end. It’s his hallmark as a professional.


When the baby is yellow

Sunshine: It’s not always feasible, but exposing the baby’s skin to the sun for five minutes every hour is very effective. Getting sunlight through the window is not as effective but can sometimes do the trick.

Formula: Giving the baby bottles of formula (instead of nursing) has been known to help.

Segulah: There’s a famous segulah from the Steipler that washing netilas yadayim with the baby can help remove jaundice.

Photo therapy—lights and blanket: This one is controversial. While it definitely helps the baby be less yellow, not all mohelim agree with this method. There’s evidence that shows that the lights don’t treat the problem (like an immature liver) only the symptoms, and the baby isn’t ready to have a bris even though he’s no longer yellow.

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The ups and downs

A bris is a pivotal moment in a baby’s life and is full of emotion and poignancy. Every bris is meaningful, beautiful, and special, but there are definitely some brissim that have extra elements that ensure that a mohel’s life is never boring.

“Aside from specialty brissim, I once did a bris on a baby with teeth! These baby teeth are known as milk teeth, and they actually need to be surgically removed. But I definitely got a shock when I put my finger in his mouth, and he bit me!”

Rabbi Golish has seen babies with heart defects, older babies, and babies with complicated medical situations. “Each scenario has to be dealt with from a point of sensitivity to the parents and to the Shulchan Aruch.”

He’s also dealt with the emotional part of the equation as well. “I’ve had fathers who weren’t at the bris, mothers who’d been in life threating situations, fathers who didn’t want to give their own father sandek, and the list goes on…”

There’s the confusing:

“I once showed up in Ramla to do a bris, and when I got there, I saw the grandfather. He was wearing tribal dress, a turban, robes, the works. They were clearly Ethiopian, but very possibly not Jewish. I didn’t know what to do!”

The status of Ethiopians in halachah is complicated. “According to halachah, the baby needed a bris, but I wasn’t sure if I could say the brachah.” He ended up saying the brachah quickly and quietly, leaving out Hashem’s name while making sure no one could hear.

The difficult:

In Eretz Yisrael, during Covid, mohelim were allowed to do brissim, but it was better if the police didn’t know, because inviting guests was illegal. “I once did a bris when I should have been in quarantine after traveling—even though I had tested negative—and I remember scurrying down alleyways to avoid any zealous neighbors.”

The wouldn’t-have-believed-it-if-I-hadn’t-seen-it:

“There was a guy who lived in the neighborhood near me who seemed like a regular ba’al teshuvah. After many years living within the community, his real identity came out. He wasn’t Jewish. He was a missionary.”

But this man wasn’t just a talented fraud. He had also acted as a mohel. Milah done by a non-Jew is invalid.

What to do?

“I reached out to the director of Beineinu, and she was able to track down the families he did brissim for. It hadn’t been so many, not more than a few, but they needed a symbolic milah—just a prick of blood to fix the issue. But it was definitely one of the strangest—and saddest—incidents I’ve dealt with.”

And finally, there’s the heartwarming:

“I was at a bris in Lakewood recently, and as I was dressing the baby, the avi haben was on the phone with his own father who couldn’t attend the bris. It was a beautiful phone call full of brachos and love, and I was so moved by the obviously close relationship that the two shared. A few weeks later I found out that this man’s father had passed away. I went to be menachem avel, and he shared with me that that the conversation at the bris had been the last time he had spoken with his father. “You’re lucky,” I told him. “Not many people get to have such a warm and meaningful last conversation with their father.”

These are just a small sampling of what happens at a bris. It’s a repository of human emotions.

What parents should know

Usually, new parents are unfamiliar with most things surrounding a bris, from the shalom zachor to the aftercare. “Being prepared is being calm and confident. I have a comprehensive parents’ guide to bris milah, There is a ton of useful information there. The more you know, the better you’re prepared.”

What should parents bring?

Rabbi Golish laughs at this question. “My list of items to bring to the bris used to be much longer but has shrunk over the years. Today I basically just tell them to bring the baby, and that’s it. I bring almost everything else.”

But, he cautions, whatever the mohel asks for should be brought in one bag. If the items are all scattered in a bunch of different places, it’s difficult to hunt them down right before the bris.

And of course, choosing a mohel with experience is the most important part of the process.

A master at work

Proper training for milah is essential. To really know what to do takes months or years of training. Like almost everything in life, the best way to learn is to shadow a master.

Experience is key. One of the main benefits of practice is the level of confidence it imbues in the mohel.

“Of course experience is not everything. The best guy in any field is not necessarily the guy with the most experience. It’s the guy who has the best technique combined with experience. One of my rebbeim used to say that practice makes permanent. The more you do something, the more consistent it will be.”

There’s also the added benefit of having seen all types of potential complications and anomalies. “A mohel in Yerushalayim once stated only half joking that if you’ve never taken a baby to the hospital for bleeding, you’re not really a mohel.”

It’s rare, but on the few occasions that this comes up, Rabbi Golish uses every trick in the book to get the bleeding to stop. If it still doesn’t let up, he knows there’s a problem and takes the baby to the hospital. But the point is that he’s calm, and he knows how to handle it because he’s seen it before.

“I once asked a just graduated mohel how many brissim he’d watched during training. ‘Oh, a lot,’ he responded. ‘I would say thirty.’ Thirty?! I had been to ten brissim just the day before.”

Rabbi Golish repeats the formula he learned from his rebbi. “The first thing he taught a talmid is what an eight-day-old baby is. You can’t do milah if you don’t know how to deal with a newborn baby. How you hold him, how you wash your hands, how you calm him down. Next, you teach them how to bandage and how to take care of the baby after the bris before teaching the actual job.”

Case in point: Once, Rabbi Golish served as an omed al gabav for a newly certified mohel. After the bris, the mohel tried stopping the blood but wasn’t successful. Rabbi Golish quickly stepped in and showed him how to utilize the “four finger technique.”

After the two of them left the house together, the new mohel turned to Rabbi Golish with admiration. “That was such a cool trick!”

Rabbi Golish was stunned—and saddened. “That wasn’t a trick! That was aleph-beis. How could someone be a certified mohel if he doesn’t have the first clue on how to stop the bleeding?”

Still, he has always made himself available to help new mohelim who need guidance.

The generational bond

A rebbi as well, one of the most beautiful bris experiences for Rabbi Golish is performing brissim for talmidim’s sons. It’s a culmination of so much shteiging!

Because that’s the message of a bris. The baby will never remember what happened, but in those few moments he has joined the chain of mesorah, becoming part of the generations of Klal Yisrael.

Rabbi Golish concludes, “It’s always special to be part of such a fundamental milestone in a Yid’s life and such a joyful time for the family. Being there to make sure the parents and baby are cared for to the best of my ability has always been my mission. I hope to share in many more simchos!”