"The Laws of Brit Mila"

The First Commandment

It is no coincidence that the very first commandment that the first
Jew in history was commanded to fulfill was the commandment of
religious circumcision – “Brit Milah.” This fact tells us something
about the value of this particular precept. And though the commandment
to procreate is mentioned in the Torah before the commandment of
circumcision, it is not directed specifically at the People of Israel;
rather, the injunction to procreate is includes all of the living
creatures in the world – man, land animals, and fish. The commandment
of circumcision, though, is the first commandment directed
specifically toward the Jewish people. And just as the first
commandment which the patriarch Abraham fulfilled was that of
circumcision, so the first commandment that each and every Jewish male
who reaches the tender age of eight days old fulfills is that of
circumcision. Indeed, this obligation symbolizes, more than any other
religious duty, the eternal bond between the Jewish people and their
God, a bond which is sealed upon a Jew’s very skin.

Via the commandment of circumcision we proclaim that it is not easy to
be Jewish. One must pay with his very blood for being Jewish, as the
verse which we recite in the course of the circumcision ceremony
states: “Through your blood shall you live” (Ezekiel 16:6). The mighty
task which Israel took upon itself – to reveal to a world of darkness
and heresy that there is a Creator and Overseer; to inform the
bloodthirsty and destructive nations that the true purpose of life is
to pursue kindness and show benevolence, and to lead a life of purity
and morality in a world of lies and hypocrisy. Accomplishing all of
this is no easy task. It is a job which will not be finished until the
world is finally completely rectified. And the road is full of
hardship and sacrifice. The act of removing the foreskin, which
symbolizes the moral defect that attached itself to the world,
involves blood and pain – but there is no other path. For the only
other alternative would be to compromise and to become downtrodden in
the impurity of the bloodthirsty and destructive nations, hence losing
our value and national identity.

From every page in the history of the Jewish people, from the
destruction of the Temple until the Holocaust, we learn that our
mission is a difficult one involving genuine self-sacrifice. The is
our destiny and responsibility.

Through Brit Mila we declare to the entire world that we, the Jewish
people, continue to be firm in our faith and ready to sacrifice
ourselves until we have reached the materialization of all of our
upright and just aspirations.

The Most Important Commandment

The classic code of Jewish Law, the “Shulchan Arukh,” dedicates an
entire chapter to clarifying and emphasizing the fact that the
commandment of “Brit Milah” is the most important of all practical
positive commandments. Generally, each chapter of the “Shulchan Arukh”
is made up of a number of subdivisions, but chapter 260 of Yoreh Deah
contains only one law, which is entirely dedicated to emphasizing the
importance of “Brit Milah.” And this is what is written there: “It is
a positive commandment for the father to circumcise his son, and this
commandment is of greater importance than all other positive

It is no coincidence that this particular commandment is embellished
with great adornment by all Jews, regardless of affiliation to
movement and organization. Even if the Jew’s natural bond to some of
the commandments has been weakened, when it comes to “Milah” there is
a general consensus. This agreement is equivalent to the testimony of
a hundred witnesses regarding the true feeling of each Jew regarding
Jewish faith and the Torah. Incidentally, there are a number of other
central commandments regarding which there is wide general acceptance
among Jews. For example: love for one’s fellow, honoring parents,
honesty, the saving of life, settlement of the land of Israel, In
fact, if one takes into consideration the entire Torah and its 613
commandments, one finds that there is no clear line dividing
“religious” and “secular” Jews. In practice, there are many non-
observant Jews who fulfill abundant Torah commandments with great
adoration, while there are those who are termed “religious,” yet who,
in fact, fail to perform many of the commandments. However, the
precept of “Brit Milah” is undoubtedly the most widely embraced of the
commandments, for, more so than any other ritual, it gives expression
to a sense of belonging to the Jewish people – the nation which has
been chosen for the task of revealing Divine ideals in the world.

Yet, despite the great importance of this commandment, one must be
aware of the fact that a Jew is one whose mother is Jewish; and even
if he is not circumcised and he does not appear to be Jewish, if his
mother is Jewish, he too is Jewish. It is important for us to remember
this fact, for, lately, many uncircumcised Jews have been immigrating
to Israel, and there are some who mistakenly claim that any Jew who
has not been circumcised is like a non-Jew, and must convert in order
to join the Jewish people. The fact of the matter is that whoever was
born to a Jewish mother, or converted to Judaism according to Jewish
law, is Jewish. Judaism begins from the soul, from the fact that the
Almighty chose us from among all the nations and infused within us a
soul capable of giving expression to the Divine values of the Torah in
the world. The commandments are the instruments and the means through
which Judaism appears in the world, and the first of these
commandments is that of “Brit Milah.” One who does not fulfill Torah
commandments fails to uncover and give expression to the hallowed
Jewish soul within.

All of this is true regarding one who was born to a Jewish mother. A
non-Jew, though, who desires to join the Jewish people through
conversion, hence establishing a new Halakhic fact – i.e., that from
this time onward his offspring will be members of the Jewish people –
must accept upon himself the responsibility of fulfilling all of the
commandments. The sages teach that the ultimate source of the soul a
non-Jew who takes upon himself to convert to Judaism is in fact
Jewish; yet, in order to get to this source, the convert must accept
upon himself to fulfill all of the commandments. In other words, one
who was born Jewish possesses a Jewish soul, and even if he does not
observe the commandments, his spiritual nature does not change; but,
regarding a convert, only the foundation of his soul is Jewish, and,
therefore, only by formally accepting upon himself the commandments
can a Jewish soul reside within him. True, these matters cannot be
proven scientifically, but I believe that a broad and all-encompassing
examination of the history of the Jewish people and of those converts
who did not earnestly accept upon themselves the Torah commandments
can help to understand these profound ideas.

Abraham’s Offspring

Regarding the question of the circumcision of Abraham’s other children
besides Isaac, we find an interesting discrepancy among the early
authorities of Jewish law. When it comes to the rest of the nations of
the world there is agreement among rabbinic decisors that they should
not be circumcised, for circumcision a commandment incumbent upon the
children of Abraham alone. The source of this obligation lies in the
verse, “And you must keep my covenant (“Brit”); you and your seed
after you for all generations” (Genesis 17:9). And the sages of the
Talmud explain that the intention here is to Abraham’s seed alone –
“you and your seed” but not other people. Ishmael is not considered
the seed of Abraham, for it is written elsewhere (Genesis 21:12): “It
is through Isaac that you will gain posterity.” Esau, the son of
Isaac, is also not considered the seed of Abraham, for it is written,
“It is through Isaac that you will gain posterity” – of Isaac, but not
all of Isaac’s seed. In other words, only a portion of Isaac’s seed is
called the “seed of Abraham,” and that is the portion which was born
of the offspring of Jacob, and they are the one’s commanded to fulfill
the commandment of “Brit Milah.”

Yet, because Abraham had other children besides Isaac and Ishmael – as
it is written, after the death of the Matriarch Sarah (Genesis 25:1):
“And Abraham married another woman whose name was Keturah,” and she
bore him six children – it is necessary to clarify the law regarding
them. According to Rashi (Sanhedrin 59b), even though all of Abraham’s
sons were commanded to perform circumcision, their sons – that is, the
offspring of Abraham’s additional children – are not bound by this
commandment, and it belongs solely to the Jews.

According to the Rambam, though, Ishmael’s offspring was freed from
this commandment because the verse “It is through Isaac that you will
gain posterity” removes the seed of Ishmael from the category of
Abraham’s seed. The offspring of Keturah, though, had not yet been
born at the time when that verse was stated to Abraham. Concerning
them, then, there is no indication in the scriptures that they are to
be separated from the Abraham’s seed. Therefore, even though they are
not Jews – for they are not progeny of the Patriarchs Isaac and Jacob
– they are none the less obligated to perform circumcision as the seed
of Abraham. Rambam also rules that, because the offspring of Keturah
have in the meantime become intermixed with the offspring of Ishmael,
and Keturah constitutes the majority, all of them are bound by this
commandment (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:8).

It is worth mentioning here that there is a unique bond between the
statute of “Brit Milah” and the Land of Israel, to the extent that it
is an historical fact that nations which are not circumcised are not
capable of settling the Land of Israel. The Sages even teach (Zohar
vol. 2, 23:1) that whoever is circumcised can inherit the land.
Indeed, in the days of Joshua, before the Children of Israel began
their conquest of Israel, all of the men who had not yet performed
“Brit Milah” were called upon to do so. Only after this step had been
taken were the Israelites able to conquer the land. In addition, the
Sages forecast long ago that the Ishmaelites would gain control of the
Holy Land for an extended period of time, while the land was barren
and desolate. The reason for this is that the Ishmaelites practice
circumcision, and, say the Sages, they will therefore succeed in
delaying the return of Israel to its land. But, because their “Milah”
is itself “desolate,” i.e., worthless, and defective (they do not
circumcise on the eighth day, and they also do not remove the thin
layer of skin, and whoever circumcises without removing the membrane
of the corona is as he did not circumcise at all. Therefore the Land
of Israel will remain barren and desolate while in their possession
and in the end the Land of Israel will become the possession of the
People of Israel.

Removal of the Foreskin

When it comes to the commandment of “Brit Milah” there arises a
justified question: Who are we to make adjustments which run counter
to nature? If man is born naturally with foreskin, is it not best to
simply leave things as they are? And if the foreskin is so abhorrent
that God himself desires that we remove it, why did He create it to
begin with?
The truth of the matter is that this question was already asked ages
ago by the Rabbis of the Midrash (see Midrash Tanchuma, Tazriah 5):
Turnus Rufus, the wicked Roman general once challenged Rabbi Akiva,
asking him: “If the Almighty God so desires circumcision, why does the
newborn not enter the world already circumcised?” The Talmud also
tells us that on another occasion Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva a
similar question (Bava Batra 10a): “If the Almighty loves the poor –
for we see that he has commanded to give them charity – why does He
not provide for them Himself?” To this Rabbi Akiva responded that the
Almighty does not provide for them, in order that we ourselves be
allowed to merit fulfilling the commandment. In other words, certainly
God can provide for the poor, but He created the world with deficiency
so that man be granted the privilege of taking part in the perfection
of creation. The same is true regarding the foreskin. Certainly God
could have created man circumcised, without foreskin and without any
evil inclinations, but this was not God’s desire in creating man in
His image. The desire was for man to be God’s partner in the creation
of the world.

This is why the Creator left part of the creation incomplete – in
order that we finish the work. And in order to complete, one must also
perform kind deeds like giving charity, and pulling away the negative
tendencies in man’s nature.

The foreskin represents the undesirable aspects of man’s nature. The
foreskin, which is skin that the body has no need for, represents
indulgence rather than necessity, the fleeting appetite which leaves
only a bad taste in its wake. It is the opposite of true love, which
constitutes the foundation of life. Removing the foreskin initiates a
process of individual refinement, and with the beginning of this
process a covenant is forged between the newborn child and the eternal
nation. The nation is forever being refined and made pure, and
together with it the entire universe is being purified.

On the Eighth Day, Even on Sabbath

It is written in the Torah (Leviticus 12:3): “On the eighth day, the
child’s foreskin shall be circumcised.” The Torah says that the
commandment to circumcise the child must be carried out on the eighth
day, no sooner and no later. And it is so important that the Brit take
place on the eighth day that even if the eighth day falls on the
Sabbath, the Brit supersedes the day of rest, and the circumcision is
carried out. This is how it is done: Whatever is needed for the Brit
Milah must be prepared before the Sabbath, while the Milah itself is
carried out on the Sabbath, for the Torah commands us to circumcise on
the eighth day even if it falls on the Sabbath. And clearly the Brit
should not be delayed for other reasons, for example, in order to
allow relatives to arrive. Indeed, even if the father himself is
abroad, the Brit must go ahead without him.

Regarding the eighth day, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague,
explains that the nature of the physical world is such that it lacks
perfection. It is limited and deficient. In order to attain the
spiritual level which suits the nature of our soul, we must perfect
it. This is the role of the Brit Mila. And it must necessarily be
performed on the eighth day, for, because the world was created in
seven days, the natural world is characterized by the number seven.
After this, on the eighth day, we ascend to a level beyond nature.

There is one reason alone for which we postpone the Brit: illness of
the baby. In this regard we are very cautious. And if there is even
the slightest suspicion of endangerment to the baby’s life, the Brit
must be put off until the complete recovery of the baby. Under no
circumstances is it permitted to attempt to be stringent in this
matter. According to the Shulchan Arukh, one must be very cautious in
these matters, for it is forbidden to circumcise a baby who is
suspected of being ill, because protecting life takes precedent over
all. It is possible to circumcise the baby at some later date, but it
is impossible to ever replace even a single Jewish soul (Shulchan
Arukh, Yoreh Deah 263:1).

In the event of a delayed Brit Mila due to danger, one waits until the
baby has healed completely. If the illness has taken hold of the
baby’s entire body, one must wait seven days after recovery before
performing the circumcision and then go ahead with the Brit
immediately (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 262:2). In the case of a
postponed Brit which falls on the Sabbath, it is delayed until Sunday,
for only a Brit which is performed in its proper time – i.e., on the
eighth day – takes precedence over the Sabbath. A Brit which has at
any rate been postponed does not override the Sabbath (Shulchan Arukh,
Yoreh Deah 266:2).

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