Ask the Expert: What’s a Jewish Godparent?

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Question: Do Jews have godparents? What does it mean to be a Jewish godparent?
–Harold, OR

the expertAnswer: You may remember that in the movie The Godfather there is a brief discussion of what it means to be a godfather to a child. The verdict: “To the Italian people, that is a very religious, sacred, close relationship.” So what about to the Jewish people?

In the Christian world, it’s generally held that the godparents of a child are the people responsible for ensuring the child gets a Christian education if something should happen to the child’s parents. Godparents often have a key role at a baptism ceremony. The godparent’s function is intrinsically Christian, and as a result, for many Jews, the idea of designating godparents seems very un-Jewish. According to Jewish law, it’s the parents’ job to give their child a Jewish education. If something happens to the parents, then the community is responsible for ensuring children are given a Jewish education, and if the community doesn’t take on this obligation, the child him or herself is ultimately responsible for getting a grounding in Jewish life and traditions.

But, if you’ve ever attended a bris or a simchat bat (ceremony welcoming a baby girl), you may have heard people referred to as godparents. In particular, at a bris, the person whose lap the baby sits in while he is circumcised is referred to as the sandak, which is sometimes translated as godfather. This person is often one of the boy’s grandfathers, but it is also an honor one can give to a family friend. Traditionally, the sandak is a man. At an Ashkenazic bris the person or people who bring the baby from the mother to the sandak are referred to as kvater, or kvaterin, and these are also sometimes translated as godparents.

The best person to ask about a bris is a mohel, the person who performs a circumcision. So I called Cantor Philip Sherman, who has been called “the busiest mohel in New York” and asked him about godfathers in Judaism.

Cantor Sherman said, “Officially in Judaism we do not have godparents–it is not a Jewish tradition. Jewish families may appoint them if they wish, but there are no attending religious obligations or responsibilities. It is simply an honorary title. Families can appoint as many as they want or none at all.” And he added, “the appointing of godparents in Judaism has nothing to do with legal guardianship.”

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