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, or in Hebrew, "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 includes all of the living creatures in the world – man, animals, and fish.
The commandment of circumcision is the first commandment directed specifically toward the Jewish people. And just as the first commandment which our patriarch Abraham fulfilled was that of circumcision, so too, 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 flesh.
Through 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 is to reveal to a world full of darkness and heresy, that there is a Creator and Overseer; to inform the cruel 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.
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
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Accomplishing all of this is no easy task. It is a job which will not be concluded until the world is completely rectified – and the road is full of hardships 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 demoralized in the impurity of the cruel and destructive nations, hence losing our special 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. This is our destiny and responsibility.
By way of ‘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 fulfillment 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 commandments."
It is no coincidence that this particular commandment is embellished with great adornment by all Jews, regardless of affiliation to movement or organization. Even if the Jew’s natural bond to some of the commandments has been weakened, when it comes to ‘brit 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, and 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 many Torah commandments with great love, while there are those who are termed "religious," 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 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 us with 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 reveal and express the hallowed Jewish soul within him.
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, and thus establish 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. Our 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 us understand these profound ideas.
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 arbiters that they should not be circumcised, for circumcision is 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 our 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 ones 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 our 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 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).
There is a unique bond between the statute of ‘brit milah’ and the Land of Israel, to the point where it is an historical fact that nations which are not circumcised are not capable of settling the Land of Israel. Our 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 were the Israelites able to conquer the land.
In addition, our Sages foresaw 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 our Sages said 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, it is as if 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 a 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 are 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 is 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 complete the work. And in order to complete it, one must also perform kind deeds like giving charity, and driving 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 Jewish nation is forever being refined and made pure, and together with it, the entire universe.
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 performed.
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, because, since 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 may 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 postponed 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 precedence 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 already been postponed does not override the Sabbath (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 266:2).
This article was taken from Rabbi Melamed’s series of Jewish law books "Peninei Halakha", and translated from Hebrew.