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The Mitzvah of Circumcision (Part I)

The Mitzvah of Circumcision (Part I)

Parshat Lech Lecha

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The first mitzvah that is performed on a Jewish baby boy is the mitzvah of circumcision. In Hebrew this is called brit milah (lit., “the covenant of circumcision”). This mitzvah is referred to, in the blessing recited by the father at the circumcision, as “the covenant of Abraham,” as it was to Abraham that G‑d commanded1: “This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised.”

Reasons for this mitzvah

Many reasons are given for this mitzvah. Several of them are:

  • It establishes a sign, affixed in our flesh, that we are believers in the one G‑d.2
  • It is akin to a branding that, in days of yore, masters would oftentimes imprint upon their slaves. It acts as a reminder for us that we are in G‑d’s service, and must follow His ways.3
  • Sefer HaChinuch4 explains that just as Jewish souls are different than Gentiles’ souls, G‑d wanted there to be a difference in our physical bodies as well. He explains further that G‑d left this sign for us to make rather than creating us with it, in order to symbolize that just as we can and must perfect our bodies, so too we can and must perfect our souls.
  • Why was the reproductive organ chosen for this imprint?
    1. To symbolize that the covenant with G‑d is eternal and must be passed on to the next generations.5
    2. It weakens sexual desire and pleasure, hopefully giving a person more strength to restrain himself from engaging in forbidden sexual encounters.6 In a similar vein, Nachmanides writes7 that the brit reminds us to only use the male organ in a permissible and positive way.
    3. The reproductive organ was chosen, since it is in the merit of our uniqueness and devotion to G‑d that we continue our existence as a race.8

Why the eighth day?

Several reasons are given as to why the Torah commands us9 to wait until the eighth day before performing the circumcision. (Though these may be part of the reason, ultimately we do it on the eighth day—not earlier or later [unless medically necessary, see below]—because this is what G‑d commanded.)

Some of them are:

  1. To allow the baby to gather strength before going through the pain of the circumcision.10
  2. The Talmud11 says that the reason is so that the mother can—technically—be cleansed from her postpartum niddah (ritual impurity) state, which lasts a minimum of seven days.12
  3. The Zohar13 explains that the baby must experience a Shabbat before being circumcised. This imparts to the baby the special soul of Shabbat—as preparation for the brit.14
  4. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains15 that the number seven represents the natural order of this world, exemplified by the seven great heavenly bodies (the sun, moon, and five visible planets), the seven days of the week, and G‑d’s seven emotional attributes—the building blocks with which the world was created. The number eight, on the other hand, represents G‑dly revelation that is completely beyond this world16—the source of the supernatural.17 The brit is a manifestation of the Jew’s connection to G‑d on a level that is completely beyond this world.18

We do not wait beyond the eighth day, because it will be more difficult for the parents to do this to their baby as he grows older. In addition, the older the boy is, the more painful the procedure becomes. And, as explained above, the number eight has special spiritual significance.19

The importance of the brit

G‑d made thirteen covenants with Abraham concerning the brit milah.20 Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains21 that this indicates that the brit milah evokes the revelation of G‑d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.

Despite Abraham’s great devotion to observing the mitzvot of the Torah, he was not called tamim—“complete”22—until after his brit milah.23

Our sages go as far as to say that if not for this mitzvah, G‑d would not have created the heavens and earth;24 it is the greatest of the positive mitzvot;25 and considered the equivalent to all of the mitzvot of the Torah combined.26

According to some opinions, Abraham circumcised himself on Yom Kippur. In that merit, every year on Yom Kippur, G‑d “sees” the blood of Abraham, and forgives the sins of the Jewish people.27

The rewards for observing this mitzvah

  1. In the merit of the continued observance of this mitzvah, the Jewish people are assured the continuation of the interrupted Davidic dynasty with the arrival of Moshiach, of their continued possession of the Holy Land, and of the continued presence of the shechinah (divine presence) amongst the Jewish people.28
  2. One who is circumcised will be saved from gehinnom (purgatory)29 by our forefather Abraham, who will prevent him from being brought there.30
  3. The Midrash asserts that it is healthier to be circumcised.31 Many health professionals concur, and say that circumcision gives extra protection against urinary tract infections, various sexually transmitted diseases, and even certain types of cancers.32
  4. This mitzvah is one that one continues to “do” throughout one’s life—for one always remains circumcised.33 Thus, even when one is in a place where it is forbidden to do other mitzvot (e.g., the bathroom), one is still doing this mitzvah.34
  5. The blood of the brit milah is stored in a special place in heaven. When G‑d is upset at His people, he looks at this blood and has mercy on them.35
  6. The Jewish soul of a baby boy begins to enter the baby at the time of his brit.36 For this reason, it is better to start washing negel vasser (ritual handwashing upon waking in the morning) with a baby boy after his brit milah.

The consequences of not observing this mitzvah

One whose father did not circumcise him and who, upon reaching adulthood, willfully never circumcises himself, is punished by having his soul cut off from its divine source (karet). As the verse states37: “And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that soul will be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant.”38 This is one of only two positive commandments whose neglect carries this punishment. The other is the Paschal sacrifice.39

Girls

The Talmud says the Jewish women are considered naturally circumcised.40 This means that they do not have to go through this painful mitzvah in order to achieve all of the objectives of the brit (outlined above). For them, these are inborn traits.

Click here for Part II of this article—The Timing and the Preparations.

Footnotes
2.

Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:49.

3.

Commentary of Sforno to Genesis 17:11,13.

4.

Mitzvah no. 2.

5.

Sforno, ibid.

6.

Ibid.

8.

Sefer HaChinuch, ibid.

10.

Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:49.

11.

Talmud, Niddah 31b.

13.

Zohar 3:91b.

14.

See Ohr Hachaim commentary on Leviticus, ibid.

15.

Likkutei Torah, Vayikra 20c ff.

16.

In Kabbalistic language, this is the level of Adam Kadmon.

17.

See Kli Yakar commentary to Leviticus 9:1.

18.

Shabbat, which is on the seventh day, is a manifestation of the lower aspect of G‑dliness. For this reason, a brit that is on time (the eighth day) supersedes the observance of Shabbat.

19.

Maimonides, ibid.

20.

Talmud, Nedarim 31b, based on the fact that the word brit—“covenant”—appears thirteen times in the verses of Genesis 17 in reference to this mitzvah.

21.

Torah Ohr, Lech Lecha 13d.

23.

Rabbi [Judah the Prince] in Talmud, Nedarim 32a.

24.

Nedarim, ibid.

25.

Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 260.

26.

Nedarim, ibid.

27.

Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29.

28.

Commentary of Rabbeinu Bechayei to Genesis 17:24.

29.

Unless the person sinned exceedingly or profaned the covenant (Talmud, Eruvin 19a).

30.

Genesis Rabbah 48:8.

31.

Ibid. 46:10.

32.

Brian J. Morris, “Why Circumcision is a Biomedical Imperative for the 21st Century,” BioEssays 29:11 (November 2007), 1147–1158.

33.

Observing this mitzvah throughout one’s life means not defiling this holy organ with any forbidden sexual activity. This includes not to waste seed, and to sanctify oneself during intercourse (See Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 240). Since man’s sexual desire is very strong, it is difficult to observe this mitzvah to perfection. It is for this reason that proper observance of this mitzvah is equivalent to observing the entire Torah (Me’am Loez on Genesis, ibid.).

34.

Talmud, Menachot 43b; see there for a story in this vein about King David. See Likkutei Sichot 3:757ff, as to why this is a continuous mitzvah.

35.

Me’am Loez, ibid., citing Shelah.

36.

Zohar 3:91b. See also Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi’s Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 4:2 (mahadura batra).

38.

According to Rema (Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh De’ah 261:1), the person becomes liable for this punishment every day he doesn’t circumcise himself.

39.

Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah no. 2.

40.

Rabbi Yochanan in Avodah Zarah 27a; see Beur HaGra, Yoreh De’ah 264:2.

Rabbi Aryeh Citron was educated in Chabad yeshivahs in Los Angeles, New York, Israel and Australia. He was the Rosh Kollel of The Shul of Bal Harbour, Florida, and is now an adult Torah teacher in Surfside, Florida. He teaches classes on Talmud, Chassidism, Jewish history and contemporary Jewish law.
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Aryeh Citron Surfside November 11, 2016

Babies feeling pain I do not recall where I read that newborn babies do not feel as much pain as older children. Perhaps it was in the Rambam's Guide. Scientifically, I am not sure if this is true. But it may mean that young babies have no stress anticipating the event before it occurs. Reply

Philip Pleven, Bulgaria via lubavitchliverpool.com November 10, 2016

How do you know it is less painful at 8 days than later on in life? Reply

Anonymous Berlin, Germany November 14, 2011

Marty - a couple of talmudic tractates Thank you all for this interesting side discussion. After a bit of research, it seems the following tractates might help:
1. Nedarim 20a, in which the man is permitted to speak during relations with his wife for the purpose of arousal
2. Kallah 19, citation of Rabbi Judah
3. not Talmud, but writings of Joseph ben Abraham Gikatilla, on how to ensure the conception of a male child (through pleasing the wife)

From this you can assume a man is urged to please his wife. Pleasure is therefore more important for the female, and restraint is more important for the male. I guess this discussion about circumcision does support that interpretation. Reply

Marty Denver November 13, 2011

Pleasing Oneself The Shulchan Orach forbids "pleasing oneself" based on Gen 38:9-10, correct? I don't understand how that conclusion is reached. To me, it seems that G-d was angry because Onan refused to impregnate his deceased brother's wife in accordance with the associated mitzvah.
Doesn't forbidding pleasing oneself based on such a liberal interpretation violate the very clear and distinct law from Deut 4:2 not to add or delete laws? Doesn't that go beyond building a fence around the Torah and instead create resentment and guilt for those who are not married?
Thank you Reply

Aryeh Citron Surfside, Fl November 11, 2011

To Toby and Marty et al. 1) As the Rambam was a physician, I assume his statement that circumcision weakens man's sexual pleasure/desire is based on his medical experience.
2) As to why the circumcision is in the lower half of the body, the message is that as a result of the of our dedication to G-d, we must master over this aspect of ourselves as well. The symbolism also indicates that this dedication is passed on to the next generation.
3) In terms of sexual pleasure vs. deprivation, the issue is not man vs. woman but self vs. other. Each spouse should try to give their partner a pleasurable experience and should do so in as frequently as that spouse desires it (if possible). On the other hand, one should not seek to pleasure themselves as this is not spiritually beneficial. See Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chayim Siman 240 in this regard. Reply

Marty November 10, 2011

To Toby To clarify, the evidence to date is that circumcision has no bearing on desire as that is a function of hormones and that is not affected by circumcision; but circumcision might reduce pleasure as we have a reduction in nerve endings. So there is a distinction between desire and sensation or pleasure.
In terms of pleasing a woman, I think the Talmud only talks of sexual frequency. Please cite the tractate if it says anything else.
Thank you. Reply

Toby Berlin, Germany November 10, 2011

Marty's answer So it seems you disagree with Rabbi Citron's statement that "it weakens sexual desire and pleasure," even given the debates and the Rambam's speculation, which you mention. Most interesting: accordingly, the male requires this separation from his animal nature, but - according to the Talmud - is required to enhance his wife's sexual pleasure to the highest possible degree. In fact, his failure to do so could be grounds for divorce on her part. What do we make of this interesting distinction between the man and the woman, when it comes to reducing or enhancing sexual pleasure? Reply

Marty November 9, 2011

Circumcision doesn't weaken desire as that is a function of one's libido; the latter being most influenced by hormones, mostly the level of testosterone.
On the other hand, there is a debate that circumcison does reduce pleasure. It's not conclusive but it centers on this: "the genitally intact male has thousands of fine touch receptors and other highly erogenous nerve endings—many of which are lost to circumcision, with an inevitable reduction in sexual sensation experienced by circumcised males."
This would be in line with Rambam's speculation: that G-d commanded us to be circumcised to reduce sexual pleasure so that we wouldn't behave as animals. The whole idea of "Kadosh" or "holy" is to separate us from our animal nature so the Rambam might be on to something.
Thank you Reply

Anonymous Berlin, Germany November 1, 2011

"It weakens sexual desire and pleasure" Regarding this point, I have heard strong arguments to the contrary, especially given by rabbis and mohelim to convince uncircumcised men that circumcision will not negatively affect their sexual experience/ sensitivity. Do you have any scientific backing for saying that it weakens desire and pleasure? Reply

Aryeh Citron Surfside, Fl November 10, 2009

Metzitza Thank you
The Talmud says that after the circumcision, the Mohel must suck out some blood in order to prevent infection. This is called Metzitza. The Talmud also says that any Mohel who doesn't do Metzitza is removed from his position (becuase he's endangering the child). Even when modern medicine questioned the necessity of Metzitza, the clear majority of Halachic Authorities insisted that a traditional metzitza remains an obligation. The Metzitza also has Kabbalistic ramifications. In light of a recent tragic story, a small minority of Rabbis are now saying that Metzitza should only be done with a tube or a machine & not directly by the mouth. Despite this, the traditional Mohels still do Metzitza by the mouth. Generally they use an alchoholic mouthwash before doing it, so that any germs in his mouth are killed. All of the opinions on this topic are beyond the scope of this article (or this comment). So one should consult with a Halachic expert on this matter when choosing a Mohel. Reply

Anonymous los angeles, CA November 9, 2009

circumcision First of all, yasher koach to Rabbi Aryeh Citron for his clearly explained, fascinating halacha columns on the parsha!

Secondly, a question on last week's article on circumcision: What about Metzitza? Where does that come in? Reply

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