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Why Do We Have a Circumcision?

Why Do We Have a Circumcision?

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Question:

A friend asked the other day why we have a bris (circumcision). I rambled on about health, tradition, old people, eight days, pain and a whole lot of other nonsense before leaving this one to you.

Answer:

The bris is a physical symbol of the relationship between G‑d and the Jewish people. It is a constant reminder of what the Jewish mission entails (a reminder which men need more than women). Let’s look at its details:

If circumcision is what G‑d wants, why aren’t we born circumcised? G‑d created the world imperfect, and gave us the mission to perfect it. G‑d created wheat; humans make bread. G‑d created a jungle; humans create civilization. The raw materials are given to us, and we are to use our ingenuity to improve on the world that we were born into. This is symbolized by the bris—we are born uncircumcised, and it is up to us to “finish the job.” This is also true metaphorically. We each have instincts and natural tendencies that are inborn, but need to be refined. “I was born that way” does not excuse immoral behavior: we are to cut away any negative traits, no matter how innate they may seem.

Why on earth would G‑d choose circumcision to represent something sacred? Jewish spirituality is about making the physical world holy. The way we eat, sleep, work and procreate should be imbued with the same holiness as the way we pray; our homes should be as sanctified as our synagogues. We find G‑d on earth just as much (and perhaps more) than in the heavens. So we put a sign on the most physical and potentially lowly organ, to say that it can and should be used in a holy way. In fact, it is in sexuality that we can touch the deepest part of our soul—when we approach it with holiness.

Why circumcise a baby? Wouldn’t the statement be more powerful if it were made by a mature adult? The circumcision is performed when a child is still not aware of what is happening. This is because the Jewish connection to G‑d is intrinsic: whether our minds believe in G‑d or not, whether our hearts love G‑d or not, our souls know G‑d. We can join the covenant with G‑d even without being consciously aware of Him, because subconsciously we already know Him.

Why specifically on the eighth day? The number seven represents nature—seven days of the week, seven colors of the rainbow, seven musical notes (do re mi, etc.); the number eight is the number that surpasses seven, and thus represents the miraculous, what is beyond nature. We do the bris on the eighth day because the Jewish people survive on miracles. Our history defies the laws of nature. We welcome a new Jewish child into this miraculous existence on the eighth day of his life, as if to say, “Expect miracles!”

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
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John Walker Greensboro, NC March 11, 2017

I wholly disagree that God created an imperfect world, because God does not create imperfection. When man fell, i.e. sinned, the world was then tainted, i.e. became imperfect. Man has been striving for perfection ever since.
The eighth day is also scientifically significant. In the human body, the presence of prothrombin, vitamin k, which is essential for blood clotting, is at the highest it will ever be. God said eight days, then prepared the body accordingly! Reply

Tzvi Freeman October 6, 2016

You'll find that in Midrash Rabba, Genesis 11:6. It's translated in our article "Tikun: Fixing Up the World" Reply

Shaul Seattle October 6, 2016

the TaNaKh or in the Talmud. It was invented, as an "ism," by the Christian church, along with the word "paganism"--in order to claim that ChristianITY was "better" than these "isms".

They do not "convert to Judaism". They are admitted to the Sinaitic covenant and, in the case of men, to the Abrahamitic covenant. Reply

Shteiging Non Stop October 5, 2016

Could you please list the sources you used to answer "why aren't we born circumcised"?
Thank you so much! (Gemara project) Reply

Sarah K. Europe May 8, 2016

Dear Menachem, Thanks for your answer. I am amazed. If anyone knows why is it so, I would be interested too.
Best, Reply

Menachem Posner May 8, 2016

The Talmud tells us that women are considered to be born circumcised. On other words, whatever *fixing* that circumcision does to a male child already exists naturally within the Jewish woman. Reply

Sarah K. France April 19, 2016

Hallo,
Very nice discussion ! Maybe in addition bris is more generally reaffirming readiness for sacrificing ourselves for G. ? Q:Why the man has more need of that than the women? Maybe because only men become rabbis? (or at least in old times)
With best regards, Reply

Tzvi Freeman August 25, 2013

I see that many are asking questions here about conversion. Most of these questions are dealt with in another article on our site: Why Is Conversion To Judaism So Hard? Reply

Anonymous August 24, 2013

"One does not become Jewish by believing, nor cease being Jewish by not believing".

I am not sure if I understand Rabbi Brownstein's explanation fully.
I can see that Judaism is not like other religions where the person can claim to be a member of a faith just by saying 'I believe' , since Judaism (in the Orthodox sense) entails much more than mentally saying that you believe.
But how does it work then in case of a female convert to Judaism , where there is no circumcision but is still accepted as a Jewess at the end of the conversion process? Is the fact that she not only believes but also immerses in the Mickvah and observes the Law allowes her to enter into the Covenant / Judaism? I am not a skeptic, but just genuinely curious as to how it works. Reply

Shaul Philadelphia August 23, 2013

Just in case my prior post fails to make that clear, his explanation is standard Jewish thought. It's not about "religion" as in performing a ritual to make something happen. It's not about beliefs. It's about a covenant. Read the verses I cited from Genesis 17:9-14. Obeying a covenantal commandment from Genesis is about as vital and basic as it gets!!! It's more fundamental even than the covenant at Sinai.

But the rabbi said it better than I seem to be able to do. Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein Chabad.org August 22, 2013

Free will does not mean that whatever you do is right. It means that nothing in nature compels you to choose good over bad, only your own understanding of the rightness of good and the wrongness of bad. Parents usually do not give their children choices, but raise them according to their own understanding, trusting that when the child grows up, he or she will realize the wisdom in the parents values. (Most children would not go to school unless compelled to, e.g.) Regarding imposing religion, Judaism is not a belief system. One does not become Jewish by believing, nor cease being Jewish by not believing. It is the essence of the Jewish person, as much a part of a mature adult as a newborn child. Circumcision is done at eight days to underscore just this point, that Jewishness is not a decision, and that the newborn is wholly Jewish. Reply

Shaul Philadelphia August 21, 2013

Abraham's "family"--which includes converts and their descendants and members of their households--is bound by the covenant of Abraham as outlined in Genesis 17:9-14.

Every boy born to a Jewish woman is born into that covenant. Every gentile who wants to do so can be part of that covenant.

Anyone who is not born to a Jewish woman and is uninterested in that covenant is free to abstain from it. The Oral Torah says that "the righteous of all nations have a portion in the World to Come." I personally believe that Gd may have made other covenants with other groups. In any case, being a Jew is about living in a specific covenant. It's not about getting saved from a non-existent eternal hell. It's not about being clean. It's not about health (although it certainly averts infections that can take refuge under the foreskin, including those that lead to cervical cancer). It's about being faithful to a covenant.

The baby expresses his acceptance by later circumcising his own sons. Reply

W. Lawrence Lipton Maine August 20, 2013

It is asked: "Isn't this the same divine power that gave us free will? So why should one impose their religion, regardless of what it is, on a life that has yet to determine its religious affiliation?"

That argument is sound -- if we refrain from any religious indoctrination before a child attains adulthood. But the Bris (aside from the future health concerns that equate it to an inoculation), like a Baptism, is the beginning of a religious process of indoctrination. "Saint Paul's Joke" - if you convert to Christianity, you don't need to be circumcised; if you practice it, you should refrain from having kids; if you have kids, you are bound by the Hebrew Law to have a bris for any sons born after your conversion, and they must be raised in The Law.

As we know, most people chose not to follow the teachings of either Paul or Peter -- so what religion have they chosen for themselves and their children? Have they not imposed none on the children, and partially closed the door to two? Reply

Anonymous August 20, 2013

Isn't this the same divine power that gave us free will? So why should one impose their religion, regardless of what it is, on a life that has yet to determine its religious affiliation? Would you like someone to scar you to make you Catholic because it's their "belief" though not yours?

I could know the Torah cover to cover, backwards and upside down and still have foreskin. Reply

W. Lawrence Lipton Cambridge, ma August 18, 2013

Seem one Anonymous poster claims the medical & scientific journals don't support the fact that circumcision protects against STD, which is funny because, while researching a book I published a few years ago, using the Harvard library resources of archaeological, medical & scientific journals, is where I first came across the peer review medical data. Reply

Anonymous August 17, 2013

Circumcision does not protect against STD's, and in no way decreases infection. I am tired of hearing this, it is all over scientific journals that it does not do this. Please, look this up! Reply

Noam Indianapolis January 2, 2013

Your idea of a substitute for child sacrifice makes sense. But I can think of another even likelier possibility. Reply

Chaim Savannah, GA January 2, 2013

If Gd is your savior and reigns forever, why do you choose to disrespect his title by casually writing it as if it were an ordinary word instead of a sacred word to be revered?

We write it without the vowel so as to avoid writing it at all. It is too sacred to expose it to secular usage. We write it with the vowel in sacred scrolls and in prayerbooks and in Bibles, not on scratch paper or on the internet or anywhere vulnerable to being thrown in the garbage. Reply

Bill Schreck Maine January 2, 2013

The answers are pure theology, while the Circumcision is a contract and laws which pertain to health -- the reason we wash when touching something ritually unclean, etc. Seven days is when the body is stable for blood coagulation, the eighth day is safe. For an adult, circumcision is both painful and dangerous.
That it is a contract, is clear in the story of the woman who circumcises her son to establish the contract -- we must agree to obey the laws. It has nothing to do with divine perfection. As pointed out in a book published last year, St Paul said his gentiles are also bound by the contract -- but, in 4th century, they decided to reject it.... Hence the European Plagues. Reply

Seth January 2, 2013

May I ask why God's name has a hyphen to replace the O in God? I am just curious. God is my savior and reigns forever. Reply