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. We noted that Abraham was 99 years old when G-d commanded him to circumcise himself and his household. His son Ishmael was 13. The Torah specifies that a circumcision should be performed on the eighth day of a boy’s life.
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 suggested, however, that according to the Rambam the descendants of Keturah, plus the descendants of Ishmael, might together comprise the Arab nations.
We discussed the great degree of self-sacrifice Abraham demonstrated by submitting to circumcision. The Midrash (Tanchoma, Vayera 4) recounts that Abraham had three trusted friends, Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre. When G-d instructed Abraham to circumcise himself and the members of his household, he asked them how best to fulfill G-d’s command. Aner was concerned about the publicizing the command because Abraham’s enemies might take advantage of his crippled state. Eshkol feared that Abraham would be unable to withstand the surgery and die. Clearly, circumcising himself was no simple matter for Abraham. But Mamre reminded Abraham that G-d repeatedly saved all of Abraham’s limbs, so when He asked for him to perform a ritual on a part of one of them, he should certainly listen.
We quoted from Roy S. Neuberger’s captivating work “Worldstorm,” where he discusses Sarah perceiving Ishmael’s violent nature and G-d telling Abraham, “Whatever Sarah tells you, heed her voice…” The Torah states that the legacy of Abraham goes through Isaac and not Ishmael, and that legacy includes the deed to the Land of Israel. While the children of Ishmael have tried to claim they are the recipients of the spiritual heritage of Abraham – and have argued that the child brought to the Akeida was in fact Ishmael – this claim is based on falsehood. They are trying to deny us our spiritual and geographical heritage.
Last week, we discussed how the Torah (Genesis 17:23-27) details Abraham’s fulfillment of G-d’s command regarding the covenant and circumcision. These verses follow G-d’s promise (17:19-22) that He will make Ishmael into a great nation with twelve princes, however it will be Isaac, the son that will be born to Sarah, and his progeny who will be heir to the everlasting covenant between G-d and Abraham. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 47:11) tells us that Abraham performed the circumcision on the very day G-d commanded him to do so, and during daytime for all to plainly see. He zealously fulfilled the command of G-d fearing no man.
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We noted previously that the Torah (Genesis 17:26) repeats and emphasizes “B’etzem hayom hazeh nimol Avraham v’Yishmael bno – On that very day Abraham was circumcised with his son Ishmael.” The previous verses (supra 17:24, 25) relate that Abraham was 99 years old and Ishmael was 13 years old at the time. Yet, Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel in his translation/commentary to this verse refers to Ishmael as being 14 at the time!
Before we address this matter, it is important to make note of the passing of Abraham and Ishmael’s good standing at that time.
In Parshat Chayyei Sarah, the Torah (Genesis 28:8-9) states: “Vayigva va’yomot Avraham b’seivah tovah zaken v’sovei’a va’yei’oseif el amaiv. Vayikberu oto Yitzchak v’Yishmael banaiv el me’arat ha’machpeilah el sdei Ephronben Tzohar haChiti asher al pnei Mamrei – And Abraham expired and died at a good old age, old and satisfied, and he was gathered to his people. And Isaac and Ishmael, his sons, buried him in the double cave (Machpelah), in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which faces Mamre.”
The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 30:4) notes that at his death Abraham was glad that, not only had his father Terach repented, but his son Ishmael had repented as well (Genesis Rabbah 62:6). Our sages find evidence of Ishmael’s repentance in the Torah relating that Ishmael, the older brother, let Isaac precede him at their father’s burial.
Another indication that Ishmael died righteous is the following: We find a unique word in regards to Abraham’s death: “vayigva – and he expired.” The Ibn Ezra explains that vayigva means “the departing of the ruach (the breath of life), the spirit, in one moment without any pain or delay….” The Klei Yakar (Genesis 25:8) writes that our sages (Bava Batra 16b) state that we don’t find the term vayigva (in relation to death) except in regards to the righteous. And yet, the Torah (infra 25:17) uses this word in describing the death of Ishmael; thus we see that Ishmael, at the time of his death, was righteous.
The Ramban notes that the word vayigva is not always used to describe the death of righteous people. For example, the Torah uses it concerning the generation of the flood. The Ramban, though, explains that in that context the word is used to indicate that the generation died quickly, and did not suffer from any illness. Insofar as Abraham and Ishmael are concerned, however, vayigva indicates that they were righteous.
If so, though, should there really be any difference between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ishmael when it comes to circumcision? We are commanded to perform milah on the eighth day of a child’s life. If Ishmael repented before his death, then a descendant of his should circumcise himself on the eighth day if he decides to perform a brit – even as an eino metzuvah (one not specifically commanded to do so).
(To be continued)