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Q & A: Brit Milah – A Unique Mitzva (Part I)


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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: I must apologize for the delay in dealing with your question. My uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l, taught me that every questioner is dear and all are to be answered, but he, too, admitted that at times there is an unavoidable backlog due to the voluminous mail that comes every day.He encouraged me to discuss and research each question, one at a time, and to check my files regularly to see which would be appropriate to present next. In truth, every question is like a treasure trove that reveals a valuable discussion.

Let us review the origin of the mitzva of brit milah (circumcision), namely, the removal of the foreskin which covers the male organ. It is a mitzva that was originally commanded to our Patriarch Abraham, as recounted in Parashat Lech Lecha (Genesis 17:1). There the verse states, “Va’yehi Avram ben tish’im shana ve’tesha shanim, vayera Hashem el Avram vayomer elav, Ani Kel Shakai, hit’halech lefanai veh’yeh tamim – Abra[ha]m was ninety-nine years old and G-d appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am the Almighty [i.e., Who has sufficient resources to support all of creation - see Rashi ad loc.]: walk before Me and be perfect.” The next verse tells us, “Ve’etnah beriti beini u’[b]einecha, ve’arbeh ot’cha bi’me’od me’od – I shall set My covenant between Me and you, and I shall increase you most exceedingly.”

G-d appeared before Abraham to arrange the covenant, which would be an everlasting bond between Abraham (and his future progeny) and G-d. Later in the parasha, the verse details the directive that Abraham is to circumcise himself and all the males of his household (including the servants).

Rashi (ibid. 17:1) s.v. “Veh’yeh tamim” quotes the Midrash: “Walk before Me with the command of the milah, and through this you will become perfect, for as long as the foreskin (orlah) remains upon you, you are a ba’al mum (lit. one with a blemish).”

In the Gemara (Nedarim 32a) Rabbi Judah the Prince explains the Mishna’s similar statement. He also states that there was none whose performance of mitzvot was as great as Abraham’s, and yet the Torah states, “veh’yeh tamim,” suggesting that only through the completion of the mitzva of brit milah will Abraham become whole and perfect.

According to the Midrash and the Gemara above, we see that the concept of brit milah is to return one to the original state of wholeness that G-d intended for us. This purpose of the brit is one that can only be realized by man, who strives for wholesomeness and perfection both in the physical and the spiritual realms.

This would seem at odds with the statement of Rav (Yoma 28b): “Abraham, our father, fulfilled [or observed] the entire Torah.” He brought proof from Parashat Toledot (Genesis 26:5): “Ekev asher shama Avraham bekoli vayishmor mishmarti mitzvotai chukotai vetorotai – Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, observed My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.” R. Shimi b. Chiya remarked to Rav, “Perhaps this refers to the Seven [Noahide] Laws (sheva mitzvot b’nei Noach)?” To which Rav responded, “But we included ‘milah’ – circumcision.” R. Shimi then suggested, “Then let it refer to the Seven Laws and milah after he (Abraham) was commanded, but not to that which he was not yet commanded.” Replied Rav, “[if such is the case], what need is there for ‘My commands and My laws’ (in the plural) as the verse states?” Rabbah (others say, R. Ashi) explains that our father Abraham observed even the law of eruv tavshilin (which is a Rabbinic enactment), as the verse states, “Torotai - My laws,” which generally refers to both the Written Torah (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Writings) and the Oral Law as handed down from Moses.

This is the Talmudic source for the tradition that Abraham observed the entire Torah, and thus your question has merit: Why did Abraham wait until his old age to observe this particular mitzva?

Indeed, another question to ask is: Why did Abraham observe all the mitzvot if there was no commandment to do so?

I recently received a newly published volume, “Perspectives on the Parsha of the Week, Vol. V,” authored and published by Rabbi Abraham Kellman, Dean of Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva in Brooklyn. (The volume, in English, is available from Bnos Leah Prospect Park Yeshiva, 1604 Avenue R, Brooklyn, NY 11229, at a cost of $12.00 plus postage). Upon receiving the book I was very anxious to see what this great scholar and dean of educators had to say. I came to a passage in R. Kellman’s discussion about Parashat Toledot (p. 24) that made me think of your question.

Let us see Rabbi Kellman’s discussion, which will surely offer us some insight.

Rabbi Kellman cites the verse which we quoted earlier (Genesis 26:5), “Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws.”

We freely adapt excerpts of Rabbi Kellman’s comments:

Rashi explains that the pasuk implies that Avraham kept all the mitzvot of the Torah, both the Written one and the Oral one. Our sages suggest that Avraham was aware of the laws either through prophecy or from his own wisdom, and this enabled him to become aware of all the mitzvot which were later spelled out at Sinai…

Ramban, in a lengthy explanation, raises a number of questions not only regarding Avraham, but the other ancestors as well. How did Yaakov marry Rachel and Leah, two sisters, if it is forbidden by the Torah? And according to some opinion, the two concubines he married, Bilhah and Zilpah, were also daughters of Lavan! He also raises the question as to why Amram married Yocheved, his aunt, which is also forbidden by the Torah. He answers that our ancestors kept the laws of the Torah only when they lived in Eretz Yisrael…

It still needs to be explained why it is so important for us to know that Avraham observed all the mitzvot on his own. After all, once the Torah was given this issue is no longer relevant. We no longer have an occasion of doing mitzvot without a command. Today all of us are in a category of metzuveh v’oseh - we do because we are obligated…

Perhaps the statement of our sages is meant to convey that Avraham had a natural desire to do mitzvot for the sake of nourishing his soul… Just as a person has a natural desire for food, and does not require a formal command so, too, is it with the soul. It, too, needs nourishment… And just as sickness diminishes the appetite, so it is with a sick soul. A lack of desire for spirituality is an indication of a neshama (soul) that is not well. The Torah therefore tells us that Avraham had a strong urge on his own for the very performance of spiritual deeds. This attitude is therefore very relevant…

Rabbi Kellman then concludes: “It is very interesting to point out that this comparison of physical appetite with spiritual needs is alluded to in this parasha. Avraham’s observance of Torah laws is placed in the parasha between two examples of physical appetite. In the beginning of the parasha, we are told that Eisav sells his birthright for a pot of lentils. In the second half of the parasha, Yitzchak offers his blessings in return for food that Eisav will bring him. No human being can escape this need. That is the way it ought to be with our spiritual appetite.”

We see a deep lesson in Rabbi Kellman’s discussion, which only further strengthens our question: Why did Abraham not keep this one mitzva when he was meticulous in his observance of all the others?

(To be continued)

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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