Photo Credit: Jewish Press

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)


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.

* * * * *

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 89b) offers an alternative different explanation for the words that introduce the akeidah story, “Va’yehi achar hadevarim ha’eleh – And it happened after these things.” “R. Levi said: It was after Ishmael’s conversation with Isaac, when he boasted, ‘I am greater than you both in virtue and deed, for you were circumcised on the eighth day while I was circumcised at the age of 13.’” The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 55:4) explains that Ishmael meant: “It was possible for me to protest and resist, yet I didn’t.” Isaac replied, “With one limb you seek to aggravate me; were the Holy One Blessed Be He to tell me, ‘Sacrifice yourself before me,’ I would submit and offer myself.” At that moment, “G-d tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). As the Matnot Kehunah (op. cit.) explains, after hearing this statement from Isaac, G-d knew that he was ready for the test and would not object when He commanded Abraham to sacrifice him.

The Etz Yosef (op. cit.) offers a slightly different version of the conversation between Ishmael and Isaac leading up to the akeidah:

“Ishmael boasted that he was circumcised at 13, an age when he was physically able to resist but nevertheless did not. Isaac retorted that he was circumcised on his eighth day and quoted the principle (Menachot 72a), ‘Chavivah mitzvah b’sha’atah – Precious is a command that is performed in its proper time.’ Ishmael not only belittled Isaac’s response, but argued that his role in performing the mitzvah was greater. He claimed that Isaac’s circumcision was a ‘present’ [since he was the first person to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life]. Isaac accepted his argument but declared that he would submit to being sacrificed on an altar if G-d so commanded.”

The Maharsha (in his Chiddushei Agadot) notes: Even though the Holy One Blessed Be He did not tell Isaac directly to sacrifice himself, nonetheless he followed the instructions of his father Abraham, who was a prophet. Had Isaac not believed in the prophecy of Abraham, he would not have allowed himself, at age 37, to be bound on an altar as a sacrifice. The Maharsha further notes based on the Gemara that when a person has been confirmed as a prophet, one can heed his words without hesitation; if not, Isaac would not have submitted to being bound as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.

(To be continued)


Previous article24 Firebomb and Rock-Throwing Attacks in One Day
Next articleTea Party Radio Host Says Democrats Who Boycotted Bibi Should Be Hanged
Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.