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Q & A: Brit Milah – A Unique Mitzva (Conclusion)


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QUESTION: Why did Abraham originally not observe brit milah? I have heard that he observed the whole Torah based on his own understanding.
Arye Reed
(via e-mail)
ANSWER: We began our discussion with the covenant between G-d and Abraham (and his children) and Abraham’s brit milah, as described in Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 17). We mentioned the intent behind the brit milah, which is to be tamim, pure and wholesome before G-d, and that is accomplished for a man by removing his foreskin. We introduced the concept of Abraham fulfilling the entire Torah even before it was commanded to him. Rabbi Kellman explains that Abraham hungered spiritually to fulfill mitzvot much as people hunger physically for food.We discussed that Abraham fulfilled the whole Torah but (according to some opinions) waited for the specific command for his brit milah because a circumcision can only be done once. This is explained through the concept of the superiority of one who was specifically commanded to perform a mitzva and he fulfills it, over one who fulfills a mitzva voluntarily. Others explain that the statement that Abraham observed the whole Torah applies to the end result – eventually, Abraham had fulfilled all the commandments in the Torah. We conclude this week with additional ideas that may clarify why Abraham waited to perform the brit until he was specifically commanded to perform it.

* * *

The following verse in Parashat Vayera (Genesis 21:4) presents us with a difficulty: “Vayamal Avraham et Yitzhak beno ben shemonat yamim ka’asher tziva oto Elokim – Abraham circumcised his son Isaac at the age of eight days as he was commanded by G-d.”

The Ketav Sofer notes that the Gemara (Kiddushin 29a) derives from this verse “oto ve’lo otah” – that the father is obligated in the mitzva of his son’s circumcision, but not the mother, i.e. he, but not she.

Tosafot s.v. “Oto ve’lo otah” ask why we need to expound that verse to prove that the mother is not obligated. Since the mitzva is to be performed only on the eighth day, it is a “mitzvat aseh sheha’zeman geramah - a positive precept that is time driven,” and women are not obligated in such commandments. Tosafot answer that there is a need for an exposition since from the eighth day and on there is no interruption in the obligation of this mitzva – especially according to the view that the brit, when not performed in its proper appointed time (the eighth day), may be performed during the day or the night.

The Ketav Sofer reasons that “from our understanding it may [seem to] be far better that a person circumcise himself when he attains maturity, as it is a greater mitzva that he do it rather than his father; but [we see] that Hashem has given the right to the father to bring his son under the wings of the Shechina (the Divine Presence).”

However, the father’s right only includes that which he was commanded, in this case only the milah (circumcision), but not the peri’ah (the revealing of the crown). Abraham was not commanded to do peri’ah, but did do so in regard to his own milah, meaning that he did both the part of the mitzva which he was obligated to do and the part which he was not obligated to do. However, regarding his son he had no such permission to do the peri’ah as he was not so commanded. When Isaac would attain maturity he would be obligated in the mitzva and, since he was already circumcised, he might choose to do the peri’ah on his own at that point.

Thus we are forced to say that Abraham did not perform peri’ah on his son, since the verse states “as he was commanded by G-d,” emphasizing that Abraham specifically did that which he was commanded. We therefore derive an additional lesson from “ka’asher tziva oto - as he was commanded by G-d” to eliminate from the performance any aspect which, though it would later be commanded at Mount Sinai, was not to be performed by Abraham for Isaac.

We see from the Ketav Sofer that the actual mitzva of milah is one that is really the son’s obligation, but since the son cannot do it in its proper time, Hashem gave the father the right to ensure its performance. Therefore, Abraham not performing peri’ah cannot be considered a negation of the Gemara’s statement that Abraham observed the entire Torah even before it was given.

A number of years ago, at the brit of my grandson Shaul Tzvi Warman, I dealt with this issue in my homily when I asked the following questions:

First, why did Abraham not observe the mitzva of milah until his old age in light of his observance of all the other mitzvot even before they were given?

Second, in the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 11:9), R. Shimon bar Yochai states that the Sabbath asked Hashem: “Each day [of the week] has a mate [Sunday and Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday], but I have no mate [who shall be my mate]?” Hashem answered, “Knesset Yisrael (the Congregation of Israel) will be your mate.” But this statement is difficult to comprehend. The relationship of each day to its mate is understandable as both parties are of a similar kind, a period of time referred to as a day. However, the Sabbath and Israel are two different entities; one is a time period and one is a nation, so what connection does one have to the other?

Third, the verse states in Parashat Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32:7), “Zechor yemot olam binu shenot dor vador, she’al avicha veyagedcha zekenecha veyomru lach – Remember the days of yore, understand the years of generation after generation; ask your father and he will relate it to you, and your elders [grandfathers] and they will tell you.” Even though Rashi and Or HaChayyim refer to zekenecha as elders, i.e., sages, in this homily we will follow the view of Ba’al Haturim who interpreted zekenecha literally to mean grandfathers.

This raises the question: if one’s father “related it,” what need does the individual have for asking his grandfather?

We find a dispute in Eruvin (38a). In the Mishna we are told of a disagreement between R. Eliezer and the Sages about the topic of Shabbat and Yom Tov falling on consecutive days, specifically, whether it is one kedusha (holiness), or two distinct holy days. The difference would affect the applicable halacha if someone set up an eruv techumim in order to walk the 2000 cubits of the techum from his home to two different directions outside the city, one for the first day and the other for the second day. R. Eliezer permits this and the Sages prohibit it, as they opine that these two days are considered one kedusha, similar to the two days of Yom Tov in the diaspora. The halacha, however, is in accordance with R. Eliezer (see Rambam, Hilchot Eruvin 8:5).

Thus we must say that they are considered two kedushot, and the second day is in effect a tosefet kedusha (an addition of kedusha). Similarly, we must say in the case of brit milah that we are fulfilling the command of the king and are adding the kedusha of yahadut (Judaism) with the brit milah (see Sanhedrin 38b). This we do on the eighth day, as the verse states (Genesis 17:11-12): “Vehaya le’ot brit beini u[b]einechem. U[b]en shemonat yamim yimol lachem kol zachar ledoroteichem - This is the sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you shall be circumcised throughout the generations.”

Thus, in effect, the eighth day for milah, which is the day that separates Israel from the nations, is the natural mate for Shabbat, the seventh day.

While Abraham observed all the mitzvot, this one mitzva, which relates to tosefet kedusha, can only be accomplished if the One who conveys that holiness, namely G-d, so commands. Since Abraham was not as yet commanded to do this one mitzva, he had to wait for a tzivui (commandment) to fulfill the brit in all its aspects.

Just as we understand that kedusha only comes from Hashem, we understand that every generation that is closer to Adam (the creation of G-d’s hand who was the most perfect being before he sinned) and to Abraham (to whom G-d added this special kedusha) is also closer to Hashem and bears more holiness. Hence, previous generations have elevated holiness.

Thus we can understand the meaning of the verse, “Ask your father and he will relate it to you and your elders [grandfathers] and they will tell you.” Indeed, one must ask his father, but if one goes back even further, to his grandfather as well, he is that much closer to the source of holiness.

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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