Photo Credit: Flash 90
Torah scroll.

The Torah’s commandment of circumcision describes it as being in the “flesh of the foreskin” (Vayikra 12:3). This term is used in the initial proclamation to Avraham as well (Bereshit 16:11, 16:14). While this may just be a clarification of which foreskin is being specified (1), the Torah’s use of this particular word seems much more deliberate.

In telling us to remove part of our flesh, the Torah seems to direct us to get beyond our association with our bodies, something it wants us to remember that we share with lesser creatures. After all, the word is exactly the same one that is used to refer to animal flesh or meat. (There is no distinction between flesh and meat in Hebrew, both being called basar.)


In the context of circumcision it reflects the fact that physiologically speaking, there is no real difference between human reproduction and animal reproduction. While other natural functions may be even more animal-like in our eyes, reproduction likely represents the area of strongest conflict between our animalistic impulses and spiritual aspirations.

Having an animal body is so much a part of our make-up that it should be understood as an inescapable part of the human condition, as willed by God. And yet it is also part of God’s will, as seen through the Torah, to have mankind not fulfill their bodily needs in the same indiscriminate and primal way as do animals.

Earlier in the Torah, when time ultimately runs out on the earlier generations and God decides to destroy mankind with the flood, it is repeated that it is flesh that he is wiping out. When men do not go beyond their animalistic nature, they become the same as animals and so there is little distinction between the rather prosaic death of animals and the otherwise tragic death of humans. Hence no distinction is made when God decrees that the “end of all flesh has come before me” (Bereshit 6:13) and again that “I will bring a flood… to destroy all flesh…” (Bereshit 6:17).

When it comes to human beings, reduction of flesh is generally a good thing whereas its expansion is generally a bad thing. This is exactly what we see in the question of circumcision and tza’arat, the former being its reduction while the latter represents its expansion. Moreover, in a different context, the fattening (shamanta) of the nation of Israel is viewed as its downfall. Though this can obviously be viewed as figurative, it nonetheless uses expansion of flesh as the metaphoric tool for that which causes one to release one’s observance and hence become more flesh or animal-like.

Working from this perspective can lead us to a new understanding of our own bodies, as well as the struggles we engage in to rise above our more basic instincts. As but one example, we would say that responsible dieting is not just a desirable behavior; it is also a method of accentuating our spiritual aspirations.

1.This term is used to refer to other figurative covers – See, for example, Shemot 6:12, 30 when Moshe refers to his speech impediment as such a covering of his lips and Yirmiyahu 9:25, where the prophet rebukes the Jews for having covered hearts.

{Editorial assistance on this Dvar Torah from Harry Glazer of Highland Park, NJ}


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Rabbi Francis Nataf ( is a veteran Tanach educator who has written an acclaimed contemporary commentary on the Torah entitled “Redeeming Relevance.” He teaches Tanach at Midreshet Rachel v'Chaya and is Associate Editor of the Jewish Bible Quarterly. He is also Translations and Research Specialist at Sefaria, where he has authored most of Sefaria's in-house translations, including such classics as Sefer HaChinuch, Shaarei Teshuva, Derech Hashem, Chovat HaTalmidim and many others. He is a prolific writer and his articles on parsha, current events and Jewish thought appear regularly in many Jewish publications such as The Jewish Press, Tradition, Hakira, the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Action and Haaretz.