How Important is Time?

The time for the mitzvah of circumcision is the eighth day after birth, as it is written:1 "On the eighth day, you shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin."

If a child is not circumcised on the eighth day, the act may fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision, and a blessing is recited,2 but the mitzvah lacks the distinction of a mitzvah bizmano, a mitzvah performed at the appropriate time.

When the mitzvah is performed at the appropriate time, it has a unique quality, as reflected by the fact that it (and all the activities necessary to perform it) supersede the prohibitions against labor on Shabbos as our Sages comment3 on the above verse. When circumcision is not performed on the eighth day, however, it does not supersede the Shabbos laws.

This seems to imply4 that when a child is circumcised after the eighth day even when it was impossible to circumcise him earlier because the child was sick, for example, the circumcision is not considered to have been performed "at the appropriate time." Moreover, it would appear that circumcision after the eighth day affects only the coming days, and has no retroactive effect.

The father in such a case is not considered to have transgressed G‑d's commandment. On the contrary, he is forbidden to circumcise a sick child, for pikuach nefesh, a threat to life, supersedes all the Torah's commands.5 Nevertheless, the actual performance of the mitzvah is lacking. As the Rambam explains, we are permitted to circumcise a child only when he is healthy, because: "A threat to life takes precedence over everything. It is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards, but it is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]."6

The above conclusion is, however, unwarranted, as can be seen by a careful examination of the wording used by the Rambam, who alludes to two reasons for the delay of the mitzvah : a) "a threat to life takes precedence over everything," and b) "it is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards," i.e., the mitzvah is not nullified.

The first reason states the importance of pikuach nefesh. Even if there is no possibility of performing the circumcision afterwards, the threat to life takes precedence. By adding the second reason, the Rambam implies that the mitzvah which one fulfills afterwards makes up for the previous days, and even enables one to attain the advantages of circumcision "at the appropriate time." If the mitzvah affected only the coming days, the rationale that "it is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards" would not be sufficient in its own right, for the uncircumsized state of the initial days would not have been corrected, and the advantage of fulfilling the mitzvah at the appropriate time would be lacking.

This is somewhat difficult to comprehend: How can a mitzvah have a retroactive effect? True, there are instances in which the Torah states that an activity will affect a previous time, but such activities are not intended to effect a new status, but rather to clarify the nature of an existing situation, or cause an act that was performed conditionally to become binding.7 Because the later activity merely clarifies the previous situation, it is understandable that it can have a retroactive effect. But when an act brings about a new status, it seems logical that it can only affect the future. How then can circumcision affect the previous days?

Also, the order of the Rambam' s words raises a question: After stating "It is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards," the Rambam adds: "but it is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]." The latter phrase seems to relate more to the first reason stated by the Rambam the preeminence of pikuach nefesh. For once it is explained that through circumcision at a later date, one can rectify the lack in previous days, it is seemingly unnecessary to state: "It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]."

Revealing Our Inherent Potential

The above questions can be clarified based on a passage in Likkutei Torah8 which states that circumcision draws down a level of Divine light which transcends the levels attainable by mortal efforts. Such a light is drawn down only on G‑d's initiative. Nevertheless, the act of circumcision is necessary because it is only when the foreskin is removed that this light will reveal itself.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the fact that the entry of the holy soul into the body takes place through the mitzvah of circumcision.9 This refers to a level of soul which transcends our powers of understanding.10 There is no way we can tap this level through our own efforts. Instead, every Jew shares an inherent, essential bond to this level. Nevertheless, it is through circumcision that this inherent connection is revealed.

On this basis, we can understand how circumcision affects the past. For it, like the situations mentioned previously, is not bringing about a new development; it is revealing something which existed previously.11

To cite another example: Teshuvah motivated by love has a retroactive effect, transforming one's earlier sins into merits.12 For teshuvah does not bring about a new situation.13 Even at the time a person sins, his soul remains faithful to G‑d,14 though its connection with Him is hidden. Since teshuvah brings this inner bond back to the surface, it has a retroactive effect, elevating one's previous conduct.

Similarly, with regard to circumcision, if one does not perform the deed afterwards, the child's inherent connection to G‑d remains hidden. This runs contrary to the intent of creation as a whole, and to the purpose of that particular soul's descent. For the purpose of creation is that a Jew should by virtue of his Divine service reveal the G‑dly nature of his soul.15 But when a Jew who was not circumcised at the appropriate time circumcises himself afterwards, he reveals this inherent, [timeless] connection. Therefore this has an effect on the previous days.16

G‑d's Only Son

On this basis, we can understand why, after giving the two reasons spoken of previously, the Rambam adds: "It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]." In addition to the obvious meaning of the phrase, it also explains why, when a child is circumcised after the appropriate time, the act has a retroactive effect.

A Jew's connection with G‑d continues at all times, regardless of his conduct, as it is said:17 "Regardless, they are My children; to exchange them for another nation [heaven forbid] is impossible."

With the words "It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back," the Rambam alludes to another act that can never be retracted: G‑d's covenant with the Jewish people. Moreover, this covenant does not merely involve the nation as a whole; it affects every individual Jew. G‑d has bound Himself to every individual Jew with a bond that cannot be retracted, for G‑d loves every Jew with essential love. As the Baal Shem Tov would say:18 "Every Jew is cherished by G‑d like an only child born to his parents in their old age; indeed, he is even dearer to Him."

The universe was created "for the sake of the Jews, who are called first.' "19 This applies not only with regard to the Jewish people as a whole, but with regard to every individual.20 The intent of the creation as a whole depends on every individual Jew, and therefore "everyone is required to say: The world was created for me.' "21 This is why someone who saves one Jewish soul is considered to have saved the entire world. For when a lack is experienced by one Jew, the entire world is effected.

"It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back," and the bond between G‑d and every Jew is always completely intact; all that is necessary is that it be revealed. For this reason, "It is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards," and there will be a retroactive effect, because circumcision reveals the connection to G‑dliness which exists at all times, even before the circumcision.

One's Efforts Will Be Magnified

As mentioned previously,22 the mitzvah of circumcision alludes to our Divine service as whole. It teaches that work must be accomplished. One may not be content with the promise that ultimately "No one will ever be estranged from Him,"23 and thus decide that his conduct today is of no significance. For the inner connection must be revealed, and this can be accomplished only through work.24

This work involves both milah, cutting the thick foreskin, and priyah, ripping open the thin membrane, which on a spiritual plane alludes to the subduing of our material desires.25 Afterwards, one must perform metzitzah (sucking out the blood), thus removing the excitement generated by material things from one's body as a whole.

On the other hand, a person must appreciate that his efforts to "circumcise the foreskin of [his] heart"26 will have far greater effects than could be brought about through his own labor. These endeavors will lead to a revelation from above, and the fulfillment of the promise:27 "And G‑d your L-rd will circumcise your heart," which in a complete sense will be manifest at the time of the ultimate Redemption to be led by Mashiach; may it take place in the near future.

(Adapted from Sichos 10 Shvat, 5713)