Circumcision  Brit milah

Investigation to open into death of two-week-old Brooklyn infant following circumcision

Baby boy reportedly dies of herpes that may have been contracted during oral suction at circumcision.

By Shlomo Shamir Tags: Jewish law Jewish World


The office of Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes announced Monday that it will open an investigation into the death of a two-week-old infant who died shortly after a controversial circumcision ritual.
The baby perished in Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn in September 2011. According to a report by the Daily News on Sunday, the cause of death was listed as “disseminated herpes simplex virus Type 1, complicating ritual circumcision with oral suction.”

 A mohel performing a circumcision.
Photo by: Daniel Bar On

"The state has a compelling interest in protecting the health of children and needs to step in on an emergency basis to make sure this practice is halted immediately," said Professor Marci Hamilton, an expert in church and state from the Cardozo School of Law.

This case reawakened the old debate on the tradition of oral suction in circumcision ceremonies. Over the last few years, New York hospitals have seen numerous deaths of babies, the cause of which, tests have shown, were viruses contracted from the mohel who performed oral suction during circumcision.

The most famous was in 2005, when twin boys perished days after their circumcisions. Post-mortem tests showed conclusive evidence that the cause of death was the contraction of a virus from the mohel who performed the circumcision. The mohel was banned from continuing to practice.

The Orthodox community has been divided over the most recent saga. Some rabbis, known as representatives of the Haredi-Hassidic public, claim hundreds of babies are circumcised each day and there is no knowledge of resulting faults or illnesses. They claim that those cases of deaths must be carefully investigated and cannot be used as a reason to stop the practice of oral suction, or that performed using a straw, which is at the underpinnings of mitzvat hamila, the deed of circumcision.

On the other hand, well-known Orthodox rabbis, like the rabbi Dr Moshe Tendler, who has been criticizing the practice of oral suction, insisting for years now that the practice be conducted using a straw.

According to David Zwiebel, head of Agudath Israel of America, a large majority of babies born to the Haredi and Hassidic communities of New York are circumcised with oral suction. In a conversation with Haaretz, Zwiebel said the religious community of New York, like the German emigrants in Washington Heights and those described as Modern Orthodox, conduct the suction with a straw or using a bandage.

"All cases of infant deaths are tragic. But the fact is that in the past six years, not a single case is known of one who died as a result of the suction," said Zwiebel, who noted that it is important to refrain from automatically blaming the mohel. "The baby can contract a virus from the nurse treating him or any other human cause."

Zwiebel noted that in 2006 the New York State Department of Health released a guide for mohels with instructions for preventing the spread of herpes. "There is no information yet as to whether the mohel in the case of the baby who died (in September) operated according to the guide or not. It is too early to express an opinion on the matter," he told Haaretz, adding that he sees it as important that an investigation take place in order for other mohels to know about and learn from what happened.
On the Health Department’s website, it is written that there is no effective and proven way to minimize the risks of oral suction, adding that the mohel can wash his mouth or sip wine prior to the action, but there is no proof that such measures prevent the spread of herpes.