Since in this week’s parashah we read about the first female mohelet (female ritual circumciser), “Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me” (Exodus 4:25), I thought that a quick review of some rabbinic sources on female mohalot would be in order.
In Avodah Zarah 27a the Gemarah concludes that according to Rav a woman is forbidden to perform circumcision but according to Rabbi Yohanan it is permitted. According to the principle that whenever there is a disagreement between Rav and Rabbi Yohanan the halachah should be according to Rabbi Yohanan (Beitza 4a), in our case since Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion is that women are permitted to perform circumcision, then this should be the halachah. While this would seem to be the appropriate decision, things weren’t so simple. There seem to be three different schools of thought:
1. Women are permitted to circumcise without any limitations-Sheiltot, Parashat VaYerah, par. 10, ed. Mirsky p. 10; Sefer Yereim, par. 402; Or Zarua, Hilchot Milah, par. 97
2. Women are permitted to circumcise only when no man capable of doing so is present-Halachot Gedolot, ed. Hildesheimmer (Jer.), p. 204; Rif; Rosh, par. 11; Sefer HaEshkol, Hilchot Milah, ed. Albeck p. 11, Rambam, Hilchot Milah 2:1
3. Women are forbidden to circumcise-Tosafot Avodah Zarah 27a s.v. isha lav bat milah hi (maybe) and Sefer Mitzvot Katan (commandment 157)
Yoseph Karo in the Shulhan Arukh (YD 264:1) says “הכל כשרים למול אפילו עבד אשה וקטן”(“All are permitted to circumcise, even a slave, woman and a minor”). Moses Isserles adds “וי”א דאשה לא תמול” (“There are those who say that a woman should not circumcise”). What is very interesting about Karo’s words is that they are taken from the Rambam but in the Rambam the sentence continues “במקום שאין שם איש” (“in a situation where there is no man”). So it is clear that according to the Rambam a woman is only permitted to circumcise when there is no man who is capable of doing so, yet in the Shulhan Arukh it seems that Karo edited out this final clause. Since all three of Karo’s pillars of jurisprudence, the Rif, Rosh and Rambam, limit the permissibility of a woman to circumcise to a situation where there is no capable man, Karo’s wording in the Shulhan Arukh is even more interesting. I looked in the Beit Yosef and couldn’t find anything out of the ordinary to possibly explain Karo’s wording.
Yaakov Spiegel, Sidra 5; Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 1, p. 66 no. 18; Avraham Grossman, Hasidot uMordot, pp. 331-332; Elisheva Baumgarten, Imahot veYeladim, pp. 103-106. [Both Grossman and Baumgarten's books are available in English but I was unable to consult them.]