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Why Aren’t Men Born Circumcised?

Why Aren’t Men Born Circumcised?



You keep touting mitzvahs as things G‑d wants us to do. But if that were true, why didn’t He create the universe that way in the first place? If He doesn’t want us eating pork, why did He make it edible? If he wants men circumcised, why aren’t they born that way? Why are we messing around with the way He made things—and claiming that we’re doing His will?


Funny thing, I get that circumcision question a lot—but no one ever asks about ear-piercing, shaving or hair removal. Seems it’s an oldie, because Rabbi Judah the Prince, the famous redactor of the Mishnah, also had it posed to him by some Roman philosopher.1 In typical Jewish fashion, he responded that the same question could be asked of haircuts—why not let it grow? Or of grain growing in the field—why don’t bread loaves grow instead? Similarly, I could ask why G‑d makes earthquakes and then require that we go and pull the people out. Why make illness and then require that we develop medicines? And if we were supposed to wear clothes, I suppose He would make us furry, right?

Rabbi Judah’s answer was that everything G‑d made in His world requires some sort of fixing. That’s how the creation story in Genesis sums it up: “. . . all His work that G‑d created to do.” To do, the sages say, means to fix.

The question remains, why? If He wants it fixed, why not fix it Himself? Or better, don’t make it broken to begin with.

The answer takes more than one fascinating form:

1. To make us partners

Providing us mitzvahs to do is the ultimate act of generosity. If He had made a perfect world and beamed us down to enjoy it, He would effectively be rendering us parasites. By leaving some things incomplete and instructing us to fill them in, He promotes us to a full partnership in His creative work. And what aspect of His creative work? That which fulfills its true inner purpose, His innermost desire.

2. To render us real

Taking that a little further: Imagine a world conjured out of G‑d’s imagination, instantly behaving exactly the way He wished it should behave. What is there that is real or significant about this creation? What makes it any more than a whimsical fantasy?

Imagine you just made Pinocchio. Imagine you wanted Pinocchio to be your little boy. But imagine that Pinocchio has no free will, and even if he did, had everything laid out for him with no options in which to express that free will. Pinocchio is not your little boy, he’s just a nicely carved hunk of wood with suspenders.

By turning to us, the conscious characters within that creation, and saying, “Please do this . . . ,” G‑d provides us free will, along with the areas in which to express that free will. Mitzvahs, then, are the elements that render us real, to become “a significant other.” Or, in Torah language, kadosh—which we translate as holy.

Not only we, but also all the objects and activities that are implicated in the mitzvah, are rendered significant and kadosh.

Which, by the way, solves an enigma in the life story of the patriarch Abraham. At one hundred years of age, Abraham underwent circumcision. But didn’t he know earlier that circumcision was a desirable act for spiritual hikers, like himself, trying to get close to G‑d? The question is especially acute according to the Talmud’s statement that Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah although it was not yet given.2 So why did he leave out this not-such-a-detail mitzvah until he had to be told?

Our answer, however, solves the puzzle. If Abraham had performed the circumcision before being commanded, he would be doing it just like any other created being doing something nice. Once G‑d declares that it is now His official will that Abraham and his household be circumcised, the act of circumcision becomes a mitzvah, rendering the body of the circumcised significant and kadosh. Since circumcision, unlike other mitzvot, is a one-time-only opportunity, Abraham waited for G‑d’s command before opting in.

3. That’s just the way innermost desires work

Plunging yet deeper for the intrepid intellect, this is an inherent distinction between secondary and primary desires. Feeling intrepid? Hang in there.

Let’s start with a parallel from the human being. We also have intrinsic, primary desires rumbling beneath the surface of our consciousness—for example, the desire for territory, for love, for confirmation of our existence—whatever they are and however you wish to express them. These desires surface in the form of secondary desires: to earn money, to look good, to compete—all the mad races of human beings upon this planet.

Now take a look at how these two sorts of desires manifest. The secondary desires jump out immediately and spontaneously. The inner, primary desires, on the other hand, unfold gradually, sometimes after many years—in some cases, never achieving fruition. We run through our entire lives rarely, if ever, understanding why we do all the things we do.

Why is it this way, that inner desires do not manifest spontaneously, but unfold? Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch explained: If a desire has any outward expression, it is already not the real you. As soon as you can know of it and feel it and act upon it, it is already a movement away from the innermost core.

Ironically, by this paradigm, the deepest expressions of the divine will are those acts which He did not expressly tell us to do, but which Jewish communities derived through study and celebration of His Torah. Examples are the rabbinical enactments and safeguards, customs and embellishments known as hiddur mitzvah. We, as a community, decided to send gifts of food to one another on Purim, to eat fruits on Tu B’Shvat, to dance with the Torah on the day we conclude the cycle of its readings. These are the most exquisite expression of desire closest to the core—that which cannot be commanded or told, sometimes not even alluded to in a nuance of the text, but sensed only by those who are immersed with their entire souls in His Torah with love.

It seems more than slightly absurd to apply human psychology to the One who came up with their design to begin with. In truth, the idea applies to Him in its most absolute sense. We are but the cheap imitation, created this way, “in His image,” so that we can come to some understanding of His workings with this world by more deeply examining ourselves.

You see, our innermost desires are innate: since we are human beings, we desire territory, love, etc. Our desires are really needs. The Creator has no needs; He is entirely free in every respect to choose whatever He wishes to desire. Once He has so chosen, however, then certain needs spring into place. Since those needs are conceived by necessity, they are born into existence by necessity. But since the inner desires are chosen by His free will, they are manifest in our world through our free will.

Let’s take an example: G‑d decides to desire that the seventh day will be a day of rest, so that Creator and created can commune in a state of un-movement. That’s an inner desire—nothing preceded it, demanding that it must be so. But once that desire is in place, there is now a need for a world that is created in six days, so that on the seventh, G‑d will rest, and His created beings will rest along with Him.

The second desire appeared spontaneously, and therefore is manifest in the same way: G‑d never asks the creation to create itself in six days, or forbids it to be created in five or seven or any other way. He dictates and so it occurs. The primary desire, however, that we should rest together, appears as a mitzvah: Just as G‑d chose it of His free will, so the human being must choose of his free will to observe the Shabbat.

Another example: G‑d chose of His free will that there will be conscious beings inside His creation that will declare His oneness every morning and night—a.k.a. “Shema Yisrael.” Accordingly, there must be morning and there must be night. That implies us creatures living upon a planet where darkness and light alternate, which in turn is fulfilled by a simple relationship between the movements of our planet and that of a fiery globe beyond us. Again, the patterns of nature are set in firmware, while the underlying desire that gave rise to those patterns is left as a user event.

And one more: G‑d chose to desire that physical beings make a covenant with Him through their physical bodies—and by implication there must be physicality, bodies, and a certain place on the body for circumcision. That which exists by implication becomes the natural order, occurring spontaneously within our natural world. The innermost desire is left up to us to choose, and to carry out.

Along with our choice to rescue survivors, heal the sick, and wherever we can, otherwise fix the world.

Genesis Rabbah 11:6
Talmud, Yoma 28b; Leviticus Rabbah 2:9. See How Did the Torah Exist Before It Happened?
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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louise leon long pond, PA December 29, 2011

circumcision reply thank you to anonymous who explained why women don't need circumcision. I must admit that I enjoy letting my female ego get highly complimented. Reply

Leila Livingston December 27, 2011

birth @Louise- women have babies. I would think that is enough to make us holy and show our obedience to Hashem. Reply

Anonymous December 23, 2011

louise PA Women are born with a far more intuitive sense of trust in G-d. hence, the Matriarchs had greater power of prophecy than did the Patriarchs. Examples: G-d tells Abraham to listen to Sarah regarding expelling Hagar and Ishmael. Rebbecah gets the birthright for Jacob.

Jewish woman do not need the physical covenant. Jewish men do.

I may be wrong, but that's my take. Hope that it helps. Reply

louise leon long pond, PA December 13, 2011

circumcision If G-d wanted MAN to give up this "sacred, vulnerable" part as a covenant between MAN and G-d...what "sacred, vulnerable" part has WOMAN given up as a sign of the covenant. Serious Question. Reply

prince797bd dhaka, bangladesh November 14, 2011

circumcised If someone is born circumcised, does it have any special meaning?And should he need to be circumcised again? Reply

Anonymous Ndola, Zambia November 10, 2011

circumcised in a family of 6 boys we were all born already circumcised. I asked my father who is now 67years old he told me that we were born like that. Is there some spiritual meaning to our family? Reply

Marty November 8, 2011

Why circumcise? Perhaps circumcision is proving that we are willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable and sacred part of ourselves for G-d. Circumcising our infants, inflicting pain in the most sensitive part of his body; I hope parents feel they would rather inflict pain on themselves than hurt their baby who, until now, has complete trust in you.. So G-d is demanding the ultimate test.. I wish G-d had chosen a more loving means for us to show our dedication to Him.
Regarding benefits: Even a stopped clock is right 2x a day. Regarding hygiene: The Academy of Family Physicians mention flawed studies and inconclusive evidence. Or saying women prefer it: that is just cultural, it’s what those women are used too. Only a tiny fraction of 1% of men need a circumcision for health reasons. Those who are intact have 1/3 more nerve cells translating to more sexual pleasure. Reply

Anonymous Melbourne November 6, 2011

circucision @Bud Circucision isn't about perfection. It's about obedience. Those who are born circumcised have no opportunity to obey in that way, but can enjoy the benefits of other types of obedience. Our aim is not perfection but a relationship with our Creator
@ Sev I don't know when foreskins became part of human history, only what The Creator's words says about it as something a Jew should do for his son on the 8th day. Presumably in a 'perfect world' there was no need for a physical or spiritual circumcision as there was not yet sin and thus no sickness or death,or need of outward sign of obedience.
May you all enjoy the blessings of obedience! Reply

Ari November 6, 2011

Rabbi Judah? Wasn't it Rabbi Hoshaiah and the Greek philosopher's Origin? Are there two versions of this discussion? Reply

Shmuel Bollen Natick, MA via November 4, 2011

commandment=connection Mouse, try it this way- G-d does not want Jewish men to be circumcised, He wants Jewish fathers to choose to circumcise their sons on the eighth day after birth and thereby fulfill His will.

See section 2 of Reb Tzvi's article. Reply

Anonymous Madrid, Spain November 4, 2011

circumcision Ask yourself the question why you cut your hair, your nails etc... you could let your hair grow to the ground .... why clean your house, you could let the dust accumulate. There is a factor of correction which is related to repetition. Why do you confess your sins, you could let the sins pile up. We all need a cleanup regularly whether spiritually or physically. Actually the physical and spiritual are interwined, so that in Judaism they cannot really be separated, even physical acts become spiritual. Now lets look at circumcision. let me ask you: are you married ? do you wear a ring? do you have a marriage contract? if you are married, do you have any evidence to show that you are married? circumcision is a sign of a covenant, like a ring is a sign of a marriage covenant. You don't have to wear a ring if you are not married. If you are not included in the Sinai covenant you do not need to be circumcised. Different signs are related to different covenants. Reply

Bud Stark Isleton November 3, 2011

circumcision Are you saying that people who are not circumcised, or have uncut hair, are imperfect because they are uncircumcised and have uncut hair? And are you saying that those who are circumcised and have cut hair are more perfect because of this? Are these imperfection's spiritual or physical or both? Reply

Anonymous November 2, 2011

need vs decision itch Can i address G-d and needs ? You have written point blank that " G-d has no needs. " Before today I used to think that G-d had one need, recognition. He made the Torah , 600,000 Jewish souls, Chariot of Glory, a couple other things - seven in all , beforehand, and then Creation.

Didn't G-d have a need to be revealed, that one purpose/desire to put the rest of the plan in motion? It remains an itchy question for me.

It is easy for me to accept the view that " G-d has no needs . " I just convert from the word need to the phrase ' decisions by His Free Will '. Problem is that i still have the itch. I could better live with the standard, we cannot know. We human beings do things or make a plan to fulfill some need. Isn't this another way that we are created in G-d's image ? Didn't G-d have that Primal Need/purpose ? This is not an argument. i don't know the answer and just want to get closer to the Truth. Reply

Anonymous Barcelona, Spain November 2, 2011

The Jew and the Mitzvah Actually there are further 2 ways to elaborate on this. First the Mitzvah being a route. The question can be asked why do you have to reach a goal if the goal is already there. The mitvah itself is a route to Tikkun, perfection, HaShem. In this sense the mitzvah itself is not the object, otherwise it would be better to be born circumcized, but since it is a route to reach a goal, a "means", you actually have to fulfill it. Secondly the Mitzvah actually should be projected before G-d. The Torah longs to be projected and needs a Jew to help project it before HaShem. The Jew in a way allows the Torah to project itself. So the Jew needs the Torah for Tikkun, and the Torah needs the Jew to be projected before HaShem. It is a mutually beneficial relationship. Like a fruit tree. In order to spread and multiply the trees need birds and animals to eat the fruit and spread the seeds as far as possible, and the animals need the fruit as sustent to keep them alive. It is a cooperation. Reply

Anonymous November 2, 2011

Circumcision We perform a Bris because we are commanded to do so, but, in addition to this, it is certainly more hygienic, reduces the spread of STD's / cancer for women and is aesthetically pleasing. Reply

Sev Szafran Melbourne , Australia November 1, 2011

Adam was ceated without a foreskin. When and why did the foreskin appear. Reply

Anonymous Melbourne, VIC.AU November 1, 2011

Choice and natural consequences Perhaps so we could see one of the ways obedience benefits our health. Please check into research done on penile and gynaecological cancers, also the infection survival rate of circumcised to uncircumcised soldiers in World Wars. Your choice to obey and enjoy the benefits, for you and the following generations, or abstain and suffer the natural consequences...Also the boys most sensetive part is not the foreskin, but that underneath it. If done on the 8th day, with a new flint knife,limits infection risks and this procedure provides males and their future spouses freedom from penile and female gynaecological cancers...something even a non-believer can see as a benefit, It is documented as certainly more effective than vaccines which now are proven need re-administering! Reply

Bernie Siegel, MD Woodbridge, CT/USA November 1, 2011

why? As the Baal Shem Tov said, I wish I were God.
So you could stop the persecution and killing of Jews? His students responded.
No, so I could understand why.

We are here to live and learn. Reply

Mouse Lexington, MA November 1, 2011

If G-d wanted us to wear clothes... The analogies (clothes, haircut, etc) are flawed. There is no _direct_ Commandment to wear clothes: you don't like it - feel free to enjoy the snow in your natural fur.

Likewise with hair: those who don't want to cut it - leave it long (uncut).

Likewise with wheat and bread: want to ear raw wheat - fine, just not too many people find it an attractive choice so they go through the labor or grinding the wheat, baking the bread, etc.

Likewise with ear piercing: you don't like it - you don't do it (and as other posters mentioned - even if you do it, it's not permanent).

So, if G-d really wanted us circumcised - why didn't He make us so? Reply

Chanoch Brown Miami Beach, FL November 1, 2011

Why? Thank you for being my teacher, we have never met, but the "vibes" are great Reply

Circumcision is the first commandment given by G-d to Abraham, the first Jew, and is central to Judaism.
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