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December 22, 2014 / 30 Kislev, 5775
 
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Posts Tagged ‘brit’

On Matzah & Mohels

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Pesach means bite-sized sweet kidney mangos and the return of the longon. Shavuot brings back the pomelo. Chanukah means miniature Mandarin oranges. And its always star-fruit for Rosh Hashanah. While our palates might have changed, along with our knowledge of Southeast Asian fruit, when it comes to Pesach it’s really all Osem and Yehuda Matzot for us.

I have worked hard to develop a neatly refined talent at being able to rid our apartment of chametz pre-Pesach. Nothing is left and little is wasted. I calculate and know just when to stop buying, what to purchase in smaller quantities and what we can do without for a day or so. Where my shortcoming lies is in my ability to predict how much matzah we will need. I am always grossly short. The kids always seem to eat ten times the amount they did the year before.

It is day three, a few years ago, and my supply is already running critically low. I work out, based on our current rate of consumption, what our needs will be.

It is still early. I am confident there will be an ample supply in the Koshermart, our small but well-stocked market in the Jewish Community Center. The market opens at 10. I am there at 10:15. The parking lot is crowded. This can’t bode well. “Matzah!” I simply exclaim to the clerk. “No more. Maybe you choose something else. Some gefilte fishes? Potato chip?” she responds.

“No matzah?” I confirm.

I let out a frustrated and exasperated long sigh.

Then Grace the cashier approaches. She leans close to me and whispers “meet me in the parking garage at 7pm tonight.”

I nod my head twice. Once in agreement. The second time to add effect.

It was very cloak and dagger. We met in the parking garage at the aforementioned time and she approached my car with four boxes in hand. Constantly looking over her shoulder.

“I thought the Koshermart was sold out,” I offer hesitantly.

“Yes, all sold out but restaurant upstairs have enough for whole Chinese army. I charged your account.”

And so I was to bring my matzah home with a clear conscious.

And while the excitement of this episode might perhaps have been slightly enhanced, it is not altogether overstated. We are not in New York, Los Angeles or Jerusalem. Our supplies are limited. Living somewhat off the radar clearly requires more careful planning.

As the story above shows, by day three of Pesach, the store is stripped of its supply save for perhaps a random sampling of Egg Matzah, Gluten Free Matzah, Onion Matzah and the new High Fiber Matzah. And since I continue to grossly under-buy, the same family has had to bail us out nearly every year for the past few years, passing their extra boxes of matzah to us. This has now become almost part of our Pesach tradition.

By day five, our Synagogue will typically email an announcement asking all those who will have extra boxes to please drop them off at the JCC and they are redistributed accordingly to the families that are running low. It is a comfort to know I am not the only one who can’t seem to get it right and that the demand for matzah is never unmet with a bit of communal cooperation.

When I think matzah, I of course also naturally think mohel. This association, for me, was forged because my eldest son’s brit milah was on the first day of Pesach 11 years ago. This was hardly an accident though. Having worked in the legal medicine field, I was perhaps a bit controlling when it came to things medical.

When I realized I could, if left to natural processes, potentially give birth on Pesach and miss my sedarim, I explained to my doctor in New York that as 38 weeks is full term, I could induce early and we both could have stress free chagim. Dr Goldman, also intent on making it to a family bar mitzvah around the same time, was quite amenable to the plan. And when it came to finding a mohel who would be able to walk to us, it was again not an issue.

When it came to the birth of my second son in Hong Kong, five years later, I learned that while matzah is sometimes heard to come by, a mohel always is. Though as a community we have a fairly high birth rate and our demographics are disproportionately young, we are small. And though we are rich in many Jewish institutions, we are without a mohel.

We must import our mohalim from the UK, Australia, Israel or the US. And like with our matzah, this is a communal effort and we share when we are able. Many “shidduchim” are made between expecting mothers. It is always welcome news to hear that another family is expecting a boy within days of yours. Flights, hotels and the other mohalim-associated costs can than be split. Some also require money to replace their salaries while they are away, some insist on business class seats, while others simply request a donation to a charity.

Five Terms Of Endearment – So Why Only Four Cups Of Wine?

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

The number four seems to play a major role in the Pesach Seder. We have four questions, four sons, four terms of endearment and, of course, one of the major features we soon will be enjoying – the drinking of four cups of wine.

The Mishnah is very specific about those four cups, requiring the community to see to it that even the poor have them, even if it comes from public charity (Pesachim 10:1).

Since the Torah says nothing about wine in describing the Pesach ritual, the question arises as to the origin and meaning of this practice. Why wine at all and why four cups?

To begin with, wine does appear in the Torah in ritual contexts. It was used as libations on the altar (Exodus 29:40) and was considered a special drink that caused people to rejoice.

As we read in Psalm 104:15, “And wine makes the heart of man joyful…” This is why it was taken from the Temple rite into the synagogue and the home, so that Kiddush is recited over it, as are Havdalah and the Birkat Hamazon. Weddings are also solemnized with wine and it is used in the ceremony of the brit milah.

It would only have been natural, then, for the festive Pesach meal, like any holiday feast, to begin with wine and conclude with it. Two cups.

However, at the Seder the third cup is associated with maggid – the telling of the story. The fourth cup is recited over Hallel and is a special addition unique to the Seder.

Different explanations were offered in the writings of the sages, the gaonim, and the later rabbis as to the significance of the number four. Among them are: four expressions of redemption, four empires that oppressed Israel, four cups of punishment of those empires, four cups mentioned in connection with Pharaoh, four cups of fury, four cups of salvation, four decrees of Pharaoh against Israel, four exiles.

The most popular and most generally accepted explanation was that the four cups stand for the four promises of redemption that God uttered: I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements, and I will take you to be My people (Exodus 6:6-7). The Hebrew words are vehotzeiti, vehitzalti, vegoalti and velakahti.

Once these four promises had been accepted as the reason for the four cups, the question arose about the fact that there was a fifth expression of redemption in Exodus 6, verse 8 – “And I shall bring you to the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” – veheiveiti.

And so Rabbi Tarfon taught, “On the fifth cup one finishes the Hallel and says the Great Hallel (Psalm 136).” This is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Pesachim 10:1, and also in the manuscript reading of Pesachim 118a.

This is also probably the origin of the Cup of Elijah. Since not all were agreed that we should drink a fifth cup, it was set aside until Elijah would come and decide that issue and all other halachic issues. It may be that the majority of the sages demurred because that promise was painfully unfulfilled after the exile of the year 70 CE. That may also explain why in the verses elucidated in the Haggadah, the verse “He brought us to this place and gave us this land” (Deuteronomy 26:9) is absent.

Both Rav Amram Gaon and the Rambam mention using the fifth cup, though they see it as optional but not required.

Rabbi Menachem Kasher, in his edition of the Haggadah, strongly advocates the drinking of the fifth cup. The Cup of Elijah can be passed to all the participants as the fifth cup.

Rabbi Kasher believes we have been privileged to live in a time when the fifth expression of redemption has actually come to pass, as the Jewish people have returned to their own land and established the state of Israel. Therefore, it is right and proper that we drink a fifth cup to recognize that reality and express our gratitude and thanksgiving to God for it.

Considering that so great a sage as Rabbi Tarfon advocated the fifth cup and that such great authorities as the Rambam and Rav Amram Gaon permitted it, it would seem that not to drink the fifth cup would be an act of ingratitude to God for the partial redemption represented by the state of Israel.

How many cups does it take to express our gratitude to God at the Seder? I believe the answer is five.

By Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher is dean of students at the Diaspora Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

Pidyon Ha’ben And Tisha B’Av

Friday, January 20th, 2012

Pidyon ha’ben, like brit milah, is primarily the responsibility of the father. A brit milah must be performed on the eighth day of the child’s birth, unless it would endanger the life of the child. Pidyon ha’ben must be performed on the 31st day of the child’s birth. Neither ceremony may be delayed beyond its prescribed time unless there is some halachic justification to do so.

In the case of milah, such a delay is a very serious matter since the punishment for unjustifiably delaying circumcision, by even one day, is karet, premature death at the hand of God. So important is the duty to circumcise on the eighth day that if the eighth day happens to be Shabbat, the milah is performed even though the surgery involves a melachah de’oreitah, biblically prohibited work on Shabbat.

Accordingly, in the event of a conflict between the duty to circumcise on the eighth day and the prohibition against violating Shabbat by inflicting a wound, the duty to circumcise takes precedence. It is also most important that the circumcision be performed by a devout Jew. So important is this requirement that it takes precedence over the requirement to circumcise on the eighth day. Accordingly, if the only person available to perform the milah on the eighth day is a person who is not a devoutly observant Jew, the milah should be postponed until such a mohel is available.

Unlike a brit milah on the eighth day which overrides the prohibition of performing a melachah on Shabbat, a pidyon ha’ben, which involves the handling of money and the performance of a transaction, both prohibited activities on Shabbat, does not override the Shabbat. Therefore, if the 31st day of the birth is Shabbat, the pidyon ha’ben is postponed to Sunday. Apart from this situation, there is no license to postpone the pidyon ha’ben ceremony beyond its prescribed time. Such a postponement, though not as serious as the postponement of a brit milah, would violate the general prohibition of shihui mitzvah, postponing the performance of a mitzvah.

Both the brit milah and the pidyon ha’ben ceremonies are celebrated by a festive meal, a seudah, to which family and friends are invited. If the 31st day is in the middle of the week, it would of course be more convenient to postpone these ceremonies to Sunday when more guests can attend. Such a postponement is, however, unacceptable for the reasons articulated.

In a situation on which the eighth day is in the middle of the week and the parents insist that the brit milah be performed on a Sunday and threaten to have a non-observant doctor perform the circumcision if the mohel won’t agree to the postponement, then according Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, it is better for the observant mohel agree to perform the circumcision on the Sunday, even though this results in a prohibited delay. The reason for this is that a circumcision performed by a non-observant person is ineffective.

Similarly, if the parents insist that the pidyon ha’ben be performed on a Sunday when more people can attend the seudah, then, notwithstanding the general prohibition of shihui mitzvah, the kohen may perform the ceremony even though it is beyond the 31st day. Of course, in both situations, but especially with milah, the father should be prevailed upon to conduct the ceremony and the celebration at the prescribed time without any postponement.

Both the seudah in honor of the brit milah and in honor of the pidyon ha’ben have the halachic status of seudot mitzvah. This has practical consequences, particularly in the period of the nine days between Rosh Chodesh Av and Tisha B’Av. Accordingly, even though one should refrain from reciting the blessing of Shehecheyanu during the nine days, the blessing may be recited for a pidyon ha’ben performed during that time. Similarly, though one is not permitted to eat meat or drink wine during the nine days, close relatives and friends of the child’s family may do so at a brit or pidyon ha’ben seudah during this time, even on erev Tisha B’Av, provided it is done before noon.

Finally, even though the father of the child may not break his fast when the ninth of Av is on the 31st day of the birth of the firstborn, some authorities hold that when the 31st day of the birth occurs on a Tisha B’Av that was postponed to the 10th of Av (as is the case when the ninth of Av is a Shabbat), the father of the child and the kohen, even though they may not make a se’udat mitzvah, may break their fast in the afternoon.

Raphael Grunfeld’s book “Ner Eyal on Seder Moed” (distributed by Mesorah) is available at OU.org and your local Judaica bookstore. His new book, “Ner Eyal on Seder Nashim & Nezikin,” will be available shortly.

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

Wednesday, January 7th, 2004
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.

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

Thursday, January 1st, 2004
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)

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

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003
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)

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/ask-the-rabbi/q-a-brit-milah-a-unique-mitzva-part-i/2003/12/24/

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