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.
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).
We discussed chavalah, the prohibition against damaging oneself or one’s property, and suggested that gentiles who circumcise themselves may be violating this prohibition. We cited the case of Keti’ah b. Shalom, a gentile who hurriedly circumcised himself with the intention of converting to Judaism right before he was killed by the Romans and merited life in the world to come as a result. The Rambam (Hilchot Melachim 10:10) states that if a member of B’nei Noach wishes to perform a mitzvah (in addition to the Seven Noachide laws), we do not prevent him. We also noted that it is possible that there is no issue of chavalah in our time since it has been proven that circumcision is healthy.
Last week, we reviewed several questions the Abrabanel asks about brit milah: 1) Why is it referred to as a brit? An infant lacks the intelligence necessary to enter into a covenant with G-d. 2) How does brit milah promote righteousness? 3) If the foreskin is disgusting to G-d, as traditional sources suggest, why aren’t people born without it and why wasn’t Adam commanded to remove it?
The Abrabanel explains that 1) the covenant includes inheriting the land of Canaan. Each Israelite grants this inheritance to his newborn son through brit milah; 2) Milah promotes sh’leimut, wholeness, and save a person from descending to gehenna; 3) Adam at his creation was not drawn to worldly desires, so his foreskin was not a detriment to him. Once he sinned, however, he was drawn to worldly desires.
In order to rectify what Adam perverted when he ate of the tree of knowledge and was expelled from the Garden of Eden into the world below, Abraham was given the mitzvah of milah so that he and all his progeny would merit the Garden of Eden in the world above.
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Brit milah is a distinctly Jewish practice that establishes a unique bond between the Jewish people and G-d. Rabbenu Bachya (Genesis 17:23 sv “b’himolo be’sar orloto”) writes:
“We find that the Jewish people, by way of the commandment of brit milah – to which they firmly adhere – have merited and are guaranteed three presents: First, that the royal house of David [the Davidic dynasty] will never cease. Second, that the present of the land [of Israel] will be their inheritance forever and ever. Third, that the Divine presence will dwell in the midst of the Jewish people.
“Each of these is derived from G-d’s promises to Abraham in this parshah [Lech Lecha]. The present of the royal house of David – as the verse (supra 17:6) states: ‘u’nesaticha l’goyim u’melachim mim’cha yeitzeiu – and make nations of you, and kings shall descend from you.’ This verse is in G-d’s covenantal discussion with Abraham. We find another verse in Psalms (89:4-5): ‘karati brit l’b’chirai, nishbati l’David avdi – I have made a covenant with My chosen one, I have sworn to David My servant. Ad olam a’chin zar’echa, u’vaniti l’dor va’dor kis’acha selah – For all eternity I will establish your seed, and I will build your throne for generation after generation, Selah.’
“The present of the land – as the verse (Genesis 17:8) states: ‘v’natati le’cha u’l’zaracha acharecha eit eretz m’gurecha eit kol eretz Canaan la’achuzat olam – and I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojourns, the entire land of Canaan, an everlasting possession.’ This means that the land will belong to the Jewish people as an everlasting possession, that no one else will inherit it or settle it. Now, should it happen that they are exiled from it, they will return, because it is an everlasting possession for them and not for the gentile nations. Indeed, there is a great sign for them in this matter, for from the day they were exiled from it no other nation ever settled there. Rather, it will remain destroyed and desolate until such time as its brood returns.
“Regarding the Divine presence that shall dwell in the midst of the Jewish people, this is evidenced by G-d’s statement (17:8): ‘v’hayiti lahem lei’lokim – and I shall be a G-d to them.’ To ‘them’ and not the gentile nations.”
Rabbenu Bachya concludes: “And praised are the people that are guaranteed three such presents: the Davidic dynasty that will be everlasting and never cease, the Holy Land that will be theirs alone as a present forever; and the Divine presence that will dwell in their midst. No other people have merited any single one of these. And this is what King David stated (Psalms 144:15): ‘Ashrei ha’am she’kacha lo, ashrei ha’am she’Hashem Elokav – Praiseworthy is the people for whom this is so; praiseworthy is the people whose G-d is Hashem.’”
So important and fundamental is the mitzvah of brit milah that R. Eleazar (Shabbos 131b-132a) rules that it (and all preparations necessary to perform it) overrides Shabbat. The Gemara identifies R. Eleazar’s source as a verse in Parshat Tazria (Leviticus 12:3): “U’vayom ha’shemini yimol besar orloto – And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” Rashi (on 132a) notes that we do not derive that milah overrides Shabbat from that verse. Rather, it is halachah l’Moshe mi’Sinai – a law handed down by Moses at Sinai.
Tosafot (sv “ha’hi mi’ben shemonat yomim…”) cite the Gemara (infra 132a) which teaches that we circumcise during the day and not at night. The source for this is “u’ven shemonat yomim yimol lachem kol zachar l’doroteichem – at the age of eight days, every male among you” in Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 17:12). Two other Gemarot cite the verse in Tazria as the source while Tosafot explain that others cite the verse in Lech Lecha as an asmachta – a support, seeking a simple exposition.
I would suggest that the verse in Tazria was used as a support for overriding Shabbat and not the verse in Lech Lecha because the former was stated after the giving of the Torah at Sinai, while the latter was G-d’s command to Abraham before there was any command to keep Shabbat. As such, Abraham would have had no need for a verse to instruct him that milah supersedes Shabbat.
Indeed, it is our unbroken chain, all these thousands of years of following G-d’s commands in all their details – without the slightest deviation – since G-d’s covenant with Abraham, which gives us, the Jewish people – the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – ownership of this great mitzvah of brit milah.
(To be continued)