New York- City health officials are investigating whether a baby boy died after contracting herpes from the rabbi who circumcised him, the Daily News has learned.
The probe was launched after city officials realized that three infants in the city who tested positive for herpes last year all were circumcised by Rabbi Yitzchok Fischer. The Rockland County-based Fischer is a prominent mohel – someone who performs religious circumcisions.
Under Jewish law, a mohel is supposed to draw blood from the circumcision wound to remove impurities. While many mohels do it by hand, Fischer uses a practice little known outside ultra-Orthodox communities called metzizah bi peh, in which the mohel uses his mouth.
On Oct. 16, 2004, Fischer performed a bris, or religious circumcision, on twins. Ten days later, one infant died of herpes, and the other tested positive for the virus, according to papers filed in Manhattan Supreme Court by city lawyers.
A few weeks later, city Health Department officials found a third baby, on Staten Island, who also tested positive for herpes after being circumcised by Fischer in late 2003, the papers say.
Herpes is far more dangerous to infants than adults because of babies’ fragile immune systems. The health status of the two surviving boys was not clear yesterday.
The city “is concerned that the possible transmission of herpes simplex virus type 1 in infants may be continuing as a result of defendant’s practice of metzizah bi peh,” city lawyers wrote in the complaint, dated Dec. 22. “Defendant’s conduct to date constitutes a threat to the public health.”
The custom of metzizah is thousands of years old. But experts said that these days, many mohels breathe in through a sterile tube to draw the blood instead of using their mouths directly on the wound, although in some ultra-Orthodox sects, the oral practice is mandatory.
The city asked Fischer to submit to a blood test in November, and ordered him to stop performing metzizah by mouth while waiting for the results, court papers show. Officials told him to use a sterile tube and gloves in the meantime.
But the Health Department got a report that Fischer wasn’t following the order, so the city filed the legal complaint to compel him do so.
Fischer, 66, declined to comment yesterday.
His lawyer, Mark Kurzmann, wouldn’t say whether Fischer has done the blood test, citing medical confidentiality. But he said Fischer is “cooperating with the city’s investigation to resolve this matter.”
“My client is known internationally as a caring, skilled and conscientious mohel,” Kurzmann said.
He suggested the babies could have contracted herpes elsewhere. He also said there are concerns about the government regulating religious practices.
City lawyers declined to comment.
Health officials, aware of the sensitivity of the issue, have been talking extensively to community leaders.
“There’s been a constructive dialogue between the community and the Department of Health, and we’re working with [them] to ensure the safety of all our city’s children,” said Arie Lipnic, spokesman for City Councilman Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn).