Milah, Circumcision

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

We skipped him completely last time, and often give him less attention than he deserves, so let’s start our discussion of milah, the mitzvah to circumcise sons, with Aruch Ha-Shulhan, who spends Yoreh De’ah 260 recapping Talmudic sources that lay out the importance of the mitzvah (Shulhan Aruch itself said only the father has a mitzvah, gedolah, greater, than all other mitzvot).

Aruch Ha-Shulhan tells us why: it was the first mitzvah commanded to Avraham [I assume he means as a continuing practice; Avraham had been told to go to Canaan before that, for example]. Further, R. Elazar b. Azaryah pointed out (on Nedarim 31b) the word arel, uncircumcised, is a pejorative in Tanach.

He quotes many ideas from that Mishnah, I will restrict myself to a few: R. Yishma’el saw the Torah’s indication of the significance of milah in its using the word berit, covenant, thirteen times (in Bereshit; Sefer Ha-Hinuch 3 reminds us the obligation was repeated in VaYikra 12;3); R. Yehoshu’a b. Korhah pointed out Moshe’s delay in circumcising his younger son brought a quicker reaction than do most sins (or failures to perform a mitzvah); Rebbe noted Hashem only called Avraham tamim, whole, after he had been circumcised, and a verse in Yirmiyahu 33;25 sounds like God keeps the world going because of the covenant of circumcision.

On the flip side, in Aruch Ha-Shulhan’’s paragraph three, we see some circles resisted circumcision. Avot 3;11 knows of people who are mefer the berit, reject the covenant, either by not circumcising or through a later operation to give the appearance of being uncircumcised. Such people may have learned a great deal of Torah or performed many good deeds, but still lose their share in the World to Come [because their attitude towards circumcision shows their other good deeds were not done as acts of service of God, I think].

To end this brief hashkafic diversion on a good note, Eruvin 19a pictures Avraham Avinu at the door to Gehinom, protecting anyone circumcised from entering (with the exception of those who specifically mistreated that body part, such as with prohibited acts of sexual intercourse). Aruch Ha-Shulhan stresses the care we should take, then, to treat this mitzvah well.

The Mishnah’s concern is understandable, because Jews and non-Jews of their time attacked it in particular [the opposition the mitzvah arouses suggests Hashem was onto something when He chose that to mark the covenant between the Jews and God]. Sadly, I believe such resistance is on the rise in our time as well, a reason to remind ourselves of the mitzvah.

Who Is Commanded To Circumcise the Baby

Rambam, Obligation 215 tells us a father must circumcise his son on the eighth day [circumcision appears within a series of marriage-related obligations, I think because in the Guide, Rambam says milah reduces the pleasure of the act of marital relations, helping Jews treat their sexuality more properly. Sefer Ha-Hinuch attributes a more “religious” reason to the mitzvah, which would have militated in favor of putting it earlier, with other God-focused mitzvot].

Aruch Ha-Shulhan 26`1;1 articulates the court’s obligation to administer the circumcision if the father does not (even if the father simply chooses not to), because Hashem said himol lachem kol zachar, circumcise to you each male (making it a matter of the Jewish people as a whole, not just the father). The court will only do so, he says in 261;5, where the father has clearly refrained, either late in the day of the eighth, or the next day.

[Here is another example of how far we are from a Jewish state run according to halachah, with all the astounding progress we have made in the last 150 years. Imagine a father yielding his child to a court to circumcise his son when he, the father did not want to. Our sense of parental rights over their children, in this instance, does not match halachah’s view.]

In the absence of a court or father, the verse implicates the entire Jewish people, usually represented by the court. Aruch Ha-Shulhan is unsure whether the obligation means courts (or a community) must spend money to import a mohel to perform the circumcision.

When the Baby Grows Up Uncircumcised

The child is the one most fully obligated, we find out in Sefer Ha-Hinuch. For Sefer Ha-Hinuch, once he reaches adulthood, the boy neglects a karet obligation every day, rectifiable any time before death. [Minhat Hinuch tells us Ra’avad took this view also, where Rambam thought the transgression only happens if the boy/man passes away uncircumcised.]

Minhat Hinuch wonders whether the father continues to be obligated as well. This could matter because Shach and Sema to Hoshen Mishpat thought the right to perform a mitzvah had a financial element. In their view, someone who steals a mitzvah by performing it instead of the person most obligated in that mitzvah owes the other a fine.

The question of the father’s obligation also affects whether he can recite the berachah of le-hachniso at the berit of an adult son.

Rambam reminds us milah is one of only two obligations whose neglect leads to karet [the other is partaking of the Pesah sacrifice], and women have no formal obligation to circumcise their sons. Tosafot (discussed in Minhat Hinuch) wondered why we need a special verse, since the obligation has a time component to it. Among the answers, they suggested that since there is a karet penalty for lack of performance, we might have thought women would be included, despite the time component.


Milah is on the eighth day, the Torah says, with day starting at alot ha-shahar (daybreak) by Torah law. Aruch Ha-Shulhan 262;6 says we only do it after ha-netz ha-hamah, sunrise, for fear we will think it is already alot when it is not (it’s hard to catch alot, because it’s still very dark).

For a baby born bein ha-shemashot, between sunset and stars coming out, we push off the milah, because it is an indeterminate time in halachah, and we need to be sure we perform the milah on the eighth dayA baby born bein ha-shemashot on Friday will have the milah on Sunday, because Friday might not be the eighth day, but if it is, Shabbat is the ninth day, and we only circumcise a baby on Shabbat bizmano, if the milah is happening on the eighth day.

While in some areas of halachah, the community’s actions (such as accepting Shabbat early) define the day already as Shabbat, for days of milah, only the astronomical day counts.

We prefer to perform the circumcision as early in the day as possible, because zerizim makdimim, people who care about mitzvot do them as soon as they can. We do not do it before prayers, Aruch Ha-Shulhan says, both because many mitzvot are bundled into tefillah (recitation of Shema, wearing of tefillin, prayer itself), and because circumcision is followed by a meal of celebration, and we may not eat until after prayers.

Mistimed Circumcisions

Milah before the eighth day, or at night, does not count, says Aruch Ha-Shulhan 262;5, leading to a debate about how to fix the situation, similar to a debate about a baby born circumcised, or a non-Jew who converts after having been circumcised. Either as a matter of Torah or Rabbinic law, our practice is to be matif dam berit, to produce a bit of bleeding as symbolic re-circumcision.

Perhaps the most well-known timing question of milah comes with a baby who is ill. Whether the issue is restricted to one body part or affects the baby as a whole, we delay the milah until he is better, Aruch Ha-Shulhan rules in 242;10-11. Once healed, we do the milah right away if he had a one-body part illness, are supposed to wait a full seven days with a more overall concern (parents today who want to have the milah as soon as possible often need rabbinic consultation on how we count various infancy issues).

The Basic Definition

Coming to the act itself, Sefer Ha-Hinuch tells us milah involves removing the foreskin at the tip of male organ, then also doing peri’ah, breaking open a membrane that sits under that foreskin [I think we are less aware of that today because mohalim use a forceps to detach the membrane from the organ, clamp it together with the skin, and cut off both at the same time].

Without peri’ah, the Gemara said in Shabbat, the baby has not been circumcised.  In other words, the mitzvah is to reveal the rosh ha-atarah, the tip/crown of the organ.

Minhat Hinuch adds a layer: the verses regarding Avraham speak only of milah¸ Yevamot 71b held that peri’ah, tearing open the membrane, appears in a verse in Yehoshu’a. Bothered by the idea of a book of the Prophets adding a Biblical obligation, Tosafot said it must have been an halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai, a law given orally to Moshe at Sinai. (The difference sources of milah and peri’ah lead Minhat Hinuch to suggest Rambam, who held descendants of Keturah–Avraham’s third wife—had to do milah, would not have required peri’ah.)

Sefer Ha-Hinuch says all who understand know that removing this foreskin perfects the human form (he does not say in what way). In his view, milah established a bodily sign of Jews’ connection to God, corresponding to their spiritual difference from others, placed there because it is the organ of procreation, meaning that Jews will only produce children within a context of being made aware of their connection to God.

God made Jews do it (instead of creating them born that way) to teach us we have the ability to perfect ourselves, physically and spiritually.

The Berachot of the Milah

After a relatively brief reference to laws of the mitzvah (ones we reviewed above), Sefer Ha-Hinuch discusses the blessing (a bit surprising, because it is a Rabbinic aspect of the mitzvah). Shabbat 137b says the person performing the milah recites al ha-milah, the berachah on the act of mitzvah.

Minhat Hinuch noted Rosh held this berachah could be said between cutting off the foreskin and the peri’ah, since peri’ah is an indispensable part of the act. Minhat Hinuch is unsure, because Hazal chose to phrase the blessing in terms of the covenant with Avraham, and in that covenant, there was no peri’ah.

After that berachah, the baby’s father (or the local court, if the father is not present) recites the blessing on the overall mitzvah, le-hachniso bi-verito shel Avraham Avinu, with all present responding “as he merited being ushered into the covenant, let God grant him the merit to achieve Torah, marriage, and good deeds. [I don’t remember him too often getting into the details of Rabbinic ceremonies, including the response of the crowd, so something is going on here, I’m not sure what.]

A start on remembering the significance and practicalities of circumcision, the first mitzvah given to Avraham, a physical marker of our Jewishness.

About Gidon Rothstein

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