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Question: If Abraham was commanded to circumcise his descendants on the eighth day, why do Arabs – who claim to descend from Abraham through Yishmael – wait until their children are 13 to circumcise them? I am aware that this is a matter of little consequence to our people. Nevertheless, this inconsistency is one that piques my curiosity.

M. Goldman
(Via E-mail)

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Summary of our response up to this point: We started our discussion by citing the source for the commandment to circumcise a baby boy – Genesis 17:9-14. These verses are verbose, which teaches us how significant a brit milah is and hints at the great reward in store for those who fulfill it.

We noted that Abraham was 99 years old when G-d commanded him to circumcise himself and his household. His son Ishmael was 13 at the time. The Torah specifies that a circumcision should be performed on the eighth day of a boy’s life (as long as he is in good health, as the Talmud explains).

The Abrabanel notes that the covenant of milah includes inheriting the land of Canaan. Each Israelite grants this inheritance to his newborn son through brit milah.

We examined who exactly was given the commandment of brit milah. Was it only for Abraham and his children? Were Keturah’s children included? How about their children? Rashi states that Keturah’s grandchildren were not obligated to have a brit. The Rambam disagrees. He maintains that all of Keturah’s descendants must have a brit. Nowadays, though, the descendants of Keturah are interspersed with the descendants of Ishmael; we therefore don’t know who descends from Keturah.

We discussed the biblical prohibition against an Ammonite or Moabite entering the Jewish nation and noted that it is not upheld nowadays since Sennaherib, king of Assyria, mingled all the nations and we don’t know who belongs to which nation. We suggested, however, that according to the Rambam the descendants of Keturah, plus the descendants of Ishmael, might together comprise the Arab nations.

We asked why Abraham, if he kept all the mitzvot even before they were given, waited until such an advanced age to circumcise himself and his household. The Ramban explains that Abraham knew that he would eventually be commanded to do so and wished to wait for that command.

We reviewed Bereishit Rabbah 64:3, which explains that following the akeidah, Isaac was considered a “sacrifice” by G-d and so could not leave the geographical limits of the Holy Land. We wondered why G-d tested Abraham with the akeidah after he had already passed so many other tests, thus proving his loyalty. Why would He ask him to sacrifice the son whom He had promised would be his heir?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 89b) discusses the events leading up to the akeidah, which will help us answer these questions. It relates that Satan tried to convince G-d that Abraham was not sufficiently thankful for the birth of Isaac since he prepared a feast for guests but did not prepare any sacrifices for G-d. G-d told Satan that Abraham was so devoted to Him that he would sacrifice Isaac if instructed to do so by G-d. Satan then approached Abraham and tried to dissuade him from going ahead with the aikedah, but to no avail.

Last week, we discussed an alternative sequence of events leading up to the akeidah. The Gemara states that Ishmael boasted to Isaac that he was greater than him since he was circumcised at age 13, when he was old enough to protest, yet he did not. G-d wanted to show that Isaac, who was circumcised at eight days, was ready to be sacrificed and would not object even though he was an adult now. The Etz Yosef adds that it was Isaac himself who said, in response to Ishmael’s boast, that he would submit to being sacrificed on an altar if G-d so commanded.

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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.