Reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department
Maimonides, Sefer haMitzvot (Precept 215):
The Torah commands us to circumcise our sons, as the Lord said to Abraham: “every manchild along you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). The Torah states that those who transgress this commandment incur the punishment of karet.
The Sefer haHinukh records this mitzvah in Parashat Lekh Lekha, and not here in Tazria, adding that this commandment was not confined to Abraham, but rather “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you…and he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every manchild in your generations” (Gen. 17:10-12).
Several commentators ask why this commandment is repeated in Parashat Tazria.
Sefer haHinukh Parashat Lekh Lekha, Mitzvah 2, offers a comprehensive answer:
This commandment is repeated in Parashat Tazria … even as many other commandments are recapitulated several times in the Torah, each time for a specific purpose, as explained by our Sages.
But he does not explain the “purpose” in the present context. According to Or haHayim, the repetition in Tazria teaches us that the law of circumcision overrides the Shabbat seeing that it must be performed “on the eighth day.” Since this did not apply to Abraham, it was not mentioned in Genesis!
Abraham was commanded to circumcise; he was not require to observe the Sabbath. Had he failed to perform the circumcision on the Sabbath, he would have acted improperly – God forbid. It was therefore, pointless of God to command Abraham to circumcise even on the Sabbath; Indeed, had such a command been issued there, rivers of ink would have to be spilled to explain it.
This provides an halakhic answer to our problem. Toledot Yitzhak (R. Yitzhak Karo) views differently the incorporation of circumcision in the text dealing with uncleanness. He asks:
If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision (having recorded it in the Lord’s commandment to Abraham in Genesis 17:9-10), this is not the right place! Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision (Brit Milah) is holy and pure – why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a Kohen into a graveyard?!
Man has been created for the sole purpose of serving his Creator. Thus having created man, “the Lord God took the man, and put him in the Garden of Eden…And the Lord commanded the man …” (Gen. 2:15-16). Likewise here, after stating, “… and born a man child,” the Torah states: “on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised,” for he was born to fulfill God’s commandments – and the Brit Milah is the first and foremost mitzvah, without which he is not a Jew. Through circumcision he accepts the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven, having been marked to serve the Lord and fulfill all His commandments. Hence, the mitzvah of Milah appears in conjunction with the birth of a male child.
This analogy between Adam and new-born child aptly reminds us of the basic purpose of human existence – service of the Almighty.
We can cite here but some of the many reasons suggested for the mitzvah of circumcision. Several scholars place it on an “hygienic” basis. Akedat Yitzhak includes this among the “seven benefits” he enumerates, claiming that it prevents the accumulation of decayed semen under the foreskin, which frequently necessitates surgery, beyond the ritual requirement, evidently, timely circumcision prevents disease.
However, many commentators reject this reason arguing that God would hardly create man with a defect so that he might then remove it. Indeed the text (Gen. 17:10-11) contains no medical element: “This is My covenant which you shall keep … every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise … and it shall be a token of the covenant.” A more recent commentator notes that “This is My covenant” introduces this law, and “it shall be a token of the covenant” concludes it, thus underscoring the role of the covenant in the circumcision.
Dwelling on the duplication, Ha’amek Davar comments:
“And it shall be a token of the covenant” as a mark of the Almighty’s alliance with you, and not as a prophylactic remedy.
However, the element of hygiene may have been adduced by the earlier commentators as a consequence and not as a reason of the mitzvah.
Radak take an altogether different approach:
“And you shall circumcise” (Gen. 17:11): This, like tzitzit, tefillin and their mitzvot shall be a token of remembrance. However, being imprinted on the human body, it is the strongest sign of all…The Lord chose this particular organ as the common instrument of sin, and the principal source of carnal lust. The Brit Milah, by reminding the Jew of the Divine commandments when about to transgress with that organ, will prevent him from sinning. He will not follow his unbridled desires like an animal, but satisfy them within the confines of the Torah, to reproduce and to maintain his health.
“This is My covenant which you shall keep”; the purpose according the our sages, was to mark this turbulent and seducing organ with a reminder that it function within mandatory and legitimate limits.
Accordingly, this precept fulfills an educational and disciplinary role in the relationship of man towards his Creator. It harbors a permanent warning against the sinful use of the organ of reproduction: it elevates carnal activity to the level of a mitzvah.
Reading beyond the personal level, Maimonides (Guide, part III. Ch. 49) examines the national and social aspects of this mitzvah:
There is one more very important factor to the commandment of circumcision: The physical sign as a unifying factor for all those who believe in the One God. For an outsider will not go to such great pains in order to infiltrate, for some reason, the ranks of another religion. Only for reasons of sincere faith would man undergo circumcision or subject his sons to it, for this is not just an incision on the hip or a cut on the arm, but a far more serious operation.
There is love and solidarity among bearers of the same sign – the Brit Milah. It is this Covenant that God made with our Patriarch Abraham as a token of acknowledgement of the One and Only God. And all those who undergo circumcision enter into Abraham’s Covenant and confirm the Oneness of God: “To be a God to you, and to your seed after you” (Gen. 17:7).
This reason is as important as, or perhaps even stronger than the first.
Our faith in God and fulfillment of the Torah cannot be complete without circumcision.
Akedat Yitzhak lists the unifying factor of the Brit Milah among the seven aspects of the circumcision:
The second purpose … that this sign may serve to unite (all members of the Covenant) in an even stronger bond of mutual love and help. This, as Aristotle notes in Part VIII of his Ethics, is beneficial and necessary for the people in all walks of life – for the rich, to protect them against envy and strife; for the poor, from the ‘violence done to the poor and the sighing of the needy’ (Ps. 12:6): for the young, to show them the way to abandon youthful folly and the sins of immaturity; and for the aged, to help them and support them in the weakness and ailments of their old age.
Now since God was pleased to make Israel worthy, and therefore gave them a copious Torah and many commandments, for whose fulfillment the need of each other’s help is even more necessary than in other matters, the Lord in his wisdom decided to mark them all with them same distinctive feature. This will be a potent factor in fostering love and peace among them, for they will all worship the same God of their Covenant and carry His seal. They will be at peace with the loyal to one another, in the spirit of the Prophet’s admonition: “Have we not all one Father … why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother?” (Malachi 2:10). Likeness and relationship spawn love and are certain to preserve it … as Maimonides has written in his Guide Part III Ch. 49, on which we have elaborated.
The expression ‘carry His seal’ often represents the essence of the Brit Milah. Thus, R. Yosef Bekhor Shor:
“AnI will make My Covenant between Me and you”: I will put a seal on you flesh as a sign that you are My servant. Thus, it is usual for slaves to wear a badge on their clothes as a mark of submission and allegiance to their masters. Thus according to the Talmud (Shabbat 58a), a slave may not pass into the street on the Sabbath with his badge around his neck or on his garment.” As for us, the Almighty has stamped His badge on our flesh to mark us as His servants – and it is irremovable.
This expression though not Scriptural, appears in our grace after meals (birkat hamazon) – “And for your Covenant which You have sealed in your flesh.”
Akedat Yitzhak’s “sixth reason” merits close attention:
The sixth reason concerns the spirit in which this precept is fulfilled. Beyond the other benefits is the fact that it is performed at God’s behest … and not out of any rational considerations. For granted all the attendant benefits, which prompts the Jew to perform it, is the Divine injunction. This is meant by, “Walk before Me, and be perfect” (Gen. 17:1) … and by Rabbi Meir’s statement; “Brit Milah is so vital, that without it the lord would not have created the world, for it is stated (Jer. 33:25):
“If I had not appointed My Covenant (which endures) day and night, the ordinances of heaven and earth I would not have created” (Nedarim 31b). Thus, by the spirit expressed in this act, milah is counted among the Divine precepts for whose sake the Lord created the heaven and the earth…which accords with Rabbi Akiva’s doctrine concerning the refinement of humanity.
Let us quote Rabbi Akiva fully in order to understand his view. In Tanhuma Tazria 5 we read:
Turnus Rufus the wicked the wicked once asked rabbi Akiva: Whose works are superior, those of God or those of man? He answered him: Those of man are superior.
Answered Turnus Rufus: But look at heaven and earth, can man make their like? Rabbi Akiva replied: Do not draw on what is above human experience and control, but rather on that which is within our range. He said to him: Why do you circumcise? He answered: I knew you would ask this question, and so I anticipated you by declaring that human works are superior to those of God. Thereupon Rabbi Akiva brought him ears of corn and cakes. He said to him: the former are the works of God, the latter of man. Are not the latter superior to the ears of corn?
Turnus Rufus, however countered; If He requires circumcision, why does not the child leave the mother’s womb circumcised? Rabbi Akiva replied: Why indeed, does the umbilical cord come out with him and he is suspended by his navel and his mother cuts it? as for your query why he is not born circumcised, this is because the Holy one Blessed be He has given the commandments for the sole purpose of refining our character through them. This is why David declared: “The word of the Lord refined” (Ps. 18:31).
Arama’s “sixth reason” for the Brit Milah is educational; this he likewise discerns in the comment of R. Akiva. Accordingly, it is not anatomy, the timing (on the “eighth day…”) or the essential character of the mitzvah that count. As in the case of the other mitzvot, the salient point lies in the spirit of its performance as an act of worship, in harmony with the Divine will. This is reflected in Ibn Ezra’s terse comment on opening the verse of the chapter dealing with the Brit Milah: “Walk before me and be perfect”, i.e., do not query the purpose of the milah.
Benno Jacob on Genesis, after stressing that circumcision is a conventional sign adds, in the wake of Rabbi Akiva, that the Brit Milah is designed to improve on creation, sublimate nature and elevate it to the level of the super-natural. Thus God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, with the circumcision. Nominal change was to reflect the physical transformation. Thus also God’s designation of Adam upon creation, and the change of Yaakov into Yisrael, marked them as new creatures, transcending their former ‘natural,’ existence. Accordingly, circumcision as a human act performed at God’s behest marks the perfection of human nature. Benno Jacob comments:
In the Torah man’s original garments were Divine gift, and not the product of human resources and cunning – a complement to the work of creation. Just as this ‘improvement’ open’s man’s moral history, so circumcision lays the foundation for the Jewish faith.
There is a noteworthy parallel between the sign and the Divine Covenant with Abraham and his descendants and that granted Noah and mankind. The Torah recounts that “Noah walked with god,” and in the opening verse concerning the Brit Milah God calls upon Abraham to “walk before Me, and be perfect”, in both instances God said, “and I will establish My Covenant with you” (Gen. 9:11 and 17:7). With Noah it was to be “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature,” and with Abraham an everlasting covenant between God and Abraham’s seed. In his essay “On the meaning of the key-words in biblical stories,” Martin Buber notes:
There (concerning the flood), though addressed to mankind at large, it is a visible, cosmic and transient sign, whereas here (Circumcision), the symbol of national identification, is discreet, physiological and permanent; there the occasional sign is God’s work, here it is performed by man.