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


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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: Last week 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 continue by focusing on exactly what we mean when we say that Abraham fulfilled the whole Torah, and how that applies to his brit milah.

* * *

R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, the Pressburger Rav, zt”l, author of Responsa Ketav Sofer, discusses the topic of brit milah in his Ketav Sofer al HaTorah, Vol. I (p. 65). The discussion is based on the verse, “Be’etzem hayom hazeh nimol Avraham [veyishmael beno] – On that very day, Abraham was circumcised [with Ishmael his son]” (Genesis 17:26).

Our verse in Genesis states, “Be’etzem hayom hazeh – On that very day” Abraham was circumcised. “That day” is explained as being Yom Kippur in a midrash cited by Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (ch. 29), which the Ketav Sofer quotes. The expression be’etzem hayom hazeh is used for Yom Kippur as well (Vayikra 23:21). This explanation is based on the opinion stated by Rabbi Eliezer (see Rosh Hashana 10b-11a) that the world was created in Tishrei (and the Patriarchs were born in the month the world was created). [The other opinion, that the world was created in Nissan, is stated by Rabbi Yehoshua (ibid.) and supported by Seder Olam, as quoted by Rashi (Bereishit 18:10).]

The Ketav Sofer asks how the brit of Abraham, which is certainly a “mila shelo bi’zemanah,” a circumcision performed not in its proper time, i.e., after the eighth day, could be performed on Yom Kippur. A brit performed on the eighth day would certainly take place on Yom Kippur, but Abraham’s was well after the eighth day. Since Abraham observed the entire Torah even before it was given to Israel at Sinai, he must have known that his brit milah should have been performed after Yom Kippur. R. Sofer offers a solution. He explains: “Possibly this was considered bi’zemanah since [Abraham] had now been commanded about the mitzva of brit milah and thus, immediately after the command was given, he performed the circumcision.” R. Sofer points out that we do not consider that Abraham may have performed the brit on Yom Kippur because he was not yet commanded to observe Yom Kippur, since Abraham had indeed accepted upon himself the responsibility of observing Yom Kippur many years earlier.

We find the concept of the voluntary [act] later becoming obligatory in the comments (Shabbat 9b) of the Rif, R. Alfasi, regarding the Maariv prayer. [The Rif explains that now that the Jews have accepted upon themselves the Maariv prayer as a requirement (chovah), one is thus required to interrupt his meal to pray Maariv just as he would do for the Mincha prayer.]

The Ketav Sofer continues homiletically: “We might answer according to a midrash which Rashi cites for Genesis 17:24, based on the verse in Nechemiah (9:8) which states, “Vecharot immo - and He (G-d) cut with him.” The midrash informs us that G-d sent out His hand, held on to the knife, and circumcised [together] with Abraham, and thus it was considered as two doing a prohibited labor together, so that neither bears liability for that labor, as we find in the Gemara (Shabbat 3a).

R. Sofer reiterates our Sages’ conclusion (Kiddushin 82a and Yoma 28b, as noted earlier) that Abraham observed the entire Torah before it was given. This obviously gives rise to the question why Abraham did not perform a brit milah for himself earlier rather than wait until an advanced age.

Mizrachi (loc. cit. 17:24) poses the above question and offers an answer. Our Sages state (Kiddushin 31a; Bava Kamma 38a, 87b) that it is considered far greater to perform a mitzva when one has been commanded to do so, and is therefore obligated, than to perform a mitzva even though one is not commanded, i.e., voluntarily. Abraham, aware of this, knew that he would be able to perform the other mitzvot again after being specifically commanded to do so. However, doing a brit milah again would be impossible.

“Nevertheless,” the Ketav Sofer continues, “one must fully understand the Gemara’s statement (Yoma 28b) that ‘Abraham observed the entire Torah, even eruv tavshilin’. It would seem from that statement that Abraham observed the entire Torah before it was given without any exceptions.” Thus, asks the Ketav Sofer, if we say that Abraham specifically delayed performing the mitzva of brit milah, how can this be reconciled with the statement that Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah? The solution offered directs us to Yevamot 71a. There we learn that the mitzva of peri’ah, uncovering (the crown of the male organ), was not given to Abraham.

The question is raised: If G-d commanded Abraham to do the brit milah, why did He not do so as well for peri’ah? One might argue that it is a greater deed when one is not commanded in a mitzva yet he does it voluntarily. Indeed, such was the initial opinion of R. Yosef (Kiddushin 31a); however, he subsequently changed his view and supported the more accepted principle that it is far greater to perform a mitzva that one has been commanded to do.

The reasoning is that the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, causes more harm when one is commanded and obligated in order to prevent the individual from performing his duty.

Tosafot comment (Yevamot, loc. cit. 71b, s.v. “Lo nitnah peri’at milah…”) that Abraham’s brit milah had two aspects: 1) Abraham performed the actual circumcision, which he did upon being so commanded; 2) Abraham performed peri’ah, which he was not specifically commanded to do. Abraham performed these acts in the same manner in which he observed all the other mitzvot. Thus Abraham observed this mitzva (brit milah) in the manner of metzuveh ve’oseh, one who was commanded and performed the mitzva. Therefore, should the evil inclination have sought to turn Abraham away from performing the brit milah, the fact that he included a voluntary aspect in the brit (peri’ah) protected Abraham, and the evil inclination was rendered powerless.

Thus, the statement that Abraham observed all the Torah, which implies without exception, is correct. Now that the Torah has been given, one has not accomplished the mitzva of circumcision if one does not do peri’ah. Abraham did do the peri’ah even though he had not been commanded specifically.

The statement of the Gemara about Abraham observing all the [commandments of the] Torah refers to the future, to the time after Abraham accomplished the mitzva of brit milah with both aspects, the obligatory part as well as the part that, for him, was voluntary.

(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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