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The Sandak and the Kvater

Bert Brodetsky writes to ask: “Sandak and kvater — fun vanet kumt es?” Or to put this — more or less — into English: “The sandak and the kvater — where does it all come from?”

That still leaves us with two non-English words, both having to do with the rite of circumcision. Sandak is a Hebrew term, often translated as “godfather,” for the man who holds the 8-day-old male child on his knees while the mohel, or circumciser, removes the child’s foreskin. Kvater is a Yiddish term, also sometimes translated as “godfather,” for the man who, among Orthodox Ashkenazic Jews, takes the child from his mother, carries him into the room in which the circumcision is to be performed, and either hands the child to the sandak or places him in a chair from which he is handed to the sandak by someone else. If the person taking the child from his mother is a woman, she is called the kvaterin; in that case, it the kvaterin’s job is to pass the child to the kvater.

Although circumcision is probably the most ancient of all the Jewish rites that are practiced today, neither of these two words is anywhere near as venerable. The older of the two, sandak, is a Hebrew loan word from Greek, as easily can be seen from its earliest appearance in Jewish sources in the 13th-century midrashic anthology Yalkut Shimoni, where it occurs as sandakos, with the Greek first-declension, nominative-case singular ending. This is curious, since nearly all Greek borrowings in old Hebrew date to the pre-Islamic period, when Greek was the spoken language of the eastern Mediterranean world.

Presumably, then, sandakos was in use among Jews for hundreds of years before this but simply left no record. Its etymology is from syndikos, i.e., an advocate in a trial, and also, a backer or supporter. Syndikos was a word commonly used in Greek to translate the Latin patronus, which also could mean either a legal counsel or a social patron — and just as the Roman patronus had a moral if not legal obligation to assist whomever the person to whom his patronage is extended, so the Jewish sandak was originally thought of, it would seem, as responsible for the circumcised child throughout his life. For this reason, the sandak was traditionally chosen from among the close friends or relatives of the parents of the child, with whom he was expected to maintain a lifelong bond.

A kvater and kvaterin, on the other hand, although their position is an honored one, tend to be chosen more casually. Often, in traditional circles, they are an engaged or newly married couple, the belief being that their participation in the ceremony will help them to bear children themselves. Nor are there necessarily just two of them, since it is permissible to add as many hands as one wishes to the chain of those passing on the infant.

The word kvater itself comes from medieval German Gottvater or “godfather” (in modern German, the godfather is called the Pate or Patenonkel, from Latin pater spiritualis, “spiritual father”); the fact that it does serves to indicate that the custom of choosing one or more special individuals to transfer the child from the mother to the sandak is a historically late one. Indeed, a comparison of the custom with the Christian ceremony of infant baptism makes it quite clear that the former was taken and adapted from the latter in medieval Europe. In a typical Catholic or high church baptism, a godfather and a godmother also pass the child to and from the priest, who is in charge of anointing it from, or dipping it in, the baptismal font. After the child has been baptized, the priest hands it back to a godparent, who brings it to the mother to be dressed in its “baptismal clothes.”

And yet, unlike the kvater and kvaterin and like the sandak, the Christian godparent is expected to be the child’s lifelong protector, in a spiritual and sometimes a material sense. The relationship between them is conceived of as a permanent one. The godparent is supposed to stay close to the child all its life, be responsible for its religious education, and be present for it at rites of passage and at times of crisis.

Who, then, is the true Jewish “godfather,” the sandak or the kvater? Etymologically, it is the kvater; functionally, however, the sandak. And yet even etymologically, it should be pointed out, sandak has its connection with the “father” of “godfather,” too. The Latin word patronus, of which syndikos was a translation, comes, after all, from pater, “father,” and later became the Italian word padrino, which means, precisely, a baptized child’s godfather. It is also the word used in the Mafia for a Mafia head, so that the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film “The Godfather,” starring Marlon Brando as “Don” Vito Corleone, was an Englishing of “Il Padrone.” And in Israel it played as Ha-Sandak, not as Ha-Kvater. Linguistically wisely, I would say.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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