Circumcision in the Wilderness

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: V’Zos HaBerachah

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Was the tribe of  Levi right to endanger their children by circumcising them in the wilderness?

הָאֹמֵר לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ לֹא רְאִיתִיו וְאֶת־אֶחָיו לֹא הִכִּיר וְאֶת־בָּנָו לֹא יָדָע כִּי שָׁמְרוּ אִמְרָתֶךָ וּבְרִיתְךָ יִנְצֹרוּ׃

Who said of his father and mother, “I consider them not.” His brothers he disregarded, Ignored his own children. Your precepts alone they observed, And kept Your covenant. (Deut. 33:9)

Rashi (Deut 33:9, s.v. u’Berischa), referencing the Sifrei (B’ha’alosehca, no. 67), comments that the words “and kept Your covenant” refers to how the tribe of Levi scrupulously maintained the mitzvah of circumcising their children in the wilderness, while the rest of the Jewish people did not do so. While at first glance the tribe of Levi would appear to be the scrupulous ones, the Talmud in Yevamos (71b-72a) provides a legitimate basis for why the rest of the Jewish nation refused to circumcise their children during their travels in the wilderness:

וּבַמִּדְבָּר מַאי טַעְמָא לָא מְהוּל? אִיבָּעֵית אֵימָא מִשּׁוּם חוּלְשָׁא דְּאוֹרְחָא, וְאִיבָּעֵית אֵימָא: מִשּׁוּם דְּלָא נְשִׁיב לְהוּ רוּחַ צְפוֹנִית. דְּתַנְיָא: כׇּל אוֹתָן אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר לֹא נָשְׁבָה לָהֶם רוּחַ צְפוֹנִית. מַאי טַעְמָא? אִיבָּעֵית אֵימָא מִשּׁוּם דִּנְזוּפִים הָווּ, וְאִי בָּעֵית אֵימָא דְּלָא נִבַּדּוּר עַנְנֵי כָבוֹד.

And what is the reason that they did not circumcise themselves in the wilderness after the Torah had already been given? The Gemara answers: If you wish, say it was due to the weariness caused by their journey. Since they were traveling continuously, they were too weak to undergo circumcision. And if you wish, say instead that it was because the north wind did not blow for them, and the hot weather was likely to lead to medical complications following the procedure. As it is taught in a baraita: All those forty years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, the north wind did not blow for them. The Gemara asks: What is the reason that this wholesome wind did not blow all those years? If you wish, say it was because they were under censure following the sin of the spies and were therefore undeserving of this salutary wind. And if you wish, say instead that it was so that the clouds of glory covering the Tabernacle should not disperse.

After reading this passage one can be left with the impression that the rest of the Jewish nation took the right course of action in refraining from circumcising their children in order to preserve their lives. How then could the tribe of Levi be praised for carelessly endangering their children’s lives? We will provide several approaches to answer this question.

1) Chasam Sofer, in his responsa (O.C. 208), elaborates on the passage in Yevamos, suggesting that the two explanations given for why the north wind did not blow through the camp (thereby making it safe to circumcise) actually go hand-in-hand. Originally, the wind would blow through the camp and miraculously it would not disperse the Clouds of Glory. However, once the nation had sinned by worshiping the Golden Calf, God ceased the miracle and halted the wind in order to at least preserve the Clouds of Glory. However, since the tribe of Levi sided with God they merited for God to continue sending the north wind exclusively through their camp while maintaining the miracle of preserving the Clouds of Glory. Thus, the tribe of Levi was actually obligated to perform circumcisions since it was safe for them, while the rest of the nation was forbidden, since the hot weather would pose a danger to their children. If so, why is the tribe of Levi praised for simply performing their duty? It would seem the praise due to the tribe of Levi is that they remained faithful to God during the sin of the Golden Calf, thus enabling themselves to remain obligated to perform circumcisions for their young.

2) R. Shmuel Landau (Shivas Tzion, no. 54) suggests that the danger present was not clear cut, aino barur hezeika. The end of the passage in Yevamos would seem to indicate this middle ground when it introduces the concept of shomer pesayim Hashem which means that God preserves the simple folk who engage in questionably perilous activities. Thus, in a case where there is an unclear danger, it is left to how much faith one places in God. While the rest of the nation did not feel confident, the tribe of Levi placed their trust in God and commendably pursued the mitzvah of circumcision. (R. Landau also uses this distinction to resolve the question of Tosafos (Yevamos 72a, s.v. Mishum) regarding why the nation did not practice the Passover offering during almost all of the years in the wilderness. While being circumcised is a requirement, can could the fathers not claim that they were in a position of ones, in which they had no choice but to refrain from circumcising their children? R. Landau answers that they were still held accountable, since they should have placed more faith in God.)

3) The Avnei Nezer (Y.D. 323) makes a radical suggestion based on his reading of Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Circumcision 1:18): 

אֵין מָלִין אֶלָּא וָלָד שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ שׁוּם חלִי. שֶׁסַּכָּנַת נְפָשׁוֹת דּוֹחָה אֶת הַכּל. וְאֶפְשָׁר לָמוּל לְאַחַר זְמַן וְאִי אֶפְשָׁר לְהַחֲזִיר נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל לְעוֹלָם:

We should not circumcise a child who is afflicted with any sickness at all, since the danger to life takes precedence over everything. Circumcision can be performed at a later date, while it is impossible to bring a single Jewish soul back to life.

The Avnei Nezer infers from the Rambam’s language that the only reason that pikuach nefesh, the value of preserving  life, supersedes the mitzvah of circumcision is because the latter can always be performed at a later date. However,  if the circumcision cannot be performed at a later date then one would be obligated to perform it even as a risk to the child’s life. Thus, the Avnei Nezer asserts that since the Jewish people were condemned to spend forty years in the wilderness with countless it was conceivable that many males would never have the opportunity to receive a circumcision under safe and sterile circumstances – therefore the Jewish nation was indeed obligated to pursue the mitzvah of circumcision regardless of the danger posed.

4) R. Mordechai Carlebach provides a final approach based on the Chayei Adam (8:19) who questions whether one would be obligated to leave their city in order to perform mitzvah. This is supported by instances in the Talmud, such as Rosh Hashana (34b), which addresses a case in which a city did not possess a shofar.  The fact that the Gemara does not mandate that these people travel to another town to hear shofar indicates that, perhaps, we generally do not expect an entire city to uproot itself in order to perform a mitzvah that is not available to them. On this premise, R. Carlebach suggests that the Jewish people were exempt from performing circumcisions since it would entail leaving the boundaries of the Clouds of Glory in order to benefit from the cool northern winds. Whereas, the tribe of Levi went beyond the call of duty and persevered to safely circumcise their children beyond the clouds of glory, despite the inconvenience.

May we merit to perform the mitzvah of circumcision under less trying circumstances. And may we learn from the dedication of the tribe of Levi to conscientiously perform the will of God.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth that the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon has to offer and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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