Talmidav Shel Aharon
17-5767: Mitzvah 47
March 13, 2007
Mitzvah 47 – It is a positive commandment to circumcise every male at the age of eight days
Hafetz Hayim:As Scripture says: “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male.” (Gen. 17:12) I must be specifically by day as Scripture says, “On the eighth day the flesh of the foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3). And the circumcision shall be done after the dawn came up, he fulfilled the duty . When both the obligation and the time of the circumcision are certain, it thrusts aside Shabbat (usually it is a violation of Shabbat to make a wound that draws blood) Circumcision is a positive commandment that for its violation involves “Karet”, (Divine severance of existence) since Scripture says, “and any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off” (Gen. 17:14). It is a religious duty for the father to circumcise his son; and if the father transgresses and does not have him circumcised, he disobeys this positive commandment but he is not punished with “karet”, since “karet” is meted out to none but the uncircumcised person himself. For if the father did not circumcise him, he himself has the duty to circumcise himself when he grows up, and every day that passes by from the time he is grown, and he does not circumcise himself, he disobeys the positive commandment and deserves “karet” if he dies having deliberately not circumcised himself. Whoever thus violates the covenant, even if he has Torah learning and good deeds to his credit, has no share in the world to come. And how great is this religious duty, since thirteen covenants were made over it. It is in effect everywhere and every time.
We can understand most of this mitzvah if we remember that this is the second mitzvah found in the Torah, one of only three mitzvot in the entire book of Genesis. Jews have chosen to risk their very lives to make sure that a child is brought into the covenant through the ritual of Brit Milah, the ceremony that includes circumcision. In ancient Egypt, Jews circumcised their boys even though they were to be thrown into the river by Pharaoh. The Maccabees fought the Syrian-Greeks over the issue of circumcision. Jews in Europe risked Nazi wrath in Ghettos and continued to circumcise their sons. It is also clear that at many points in history, Jews who have sought to be accepted by non-Jews tried to cover over, remove or refuse circumcision. We can begin to see why the Hafetz Hayim spells out this duty so clearly.
I also want to clarify that what the Hafetz Hayim is referring to is not the surgical procedure called “circumcision” in medical texts. Rather he refers to an ancient ceremony, that includes bringing a boy into the covenant of Abraham by circumcising the child on the eighth day and then giving that child a Hebrew name. If the surgery is done before the eighth day, it does not fulfill the mitzvah. It can be done later but then it will not, as above, be permitted to violate Shabbat for it. If the surgery is done without the blessings and rituals, it does not fufill the requirements of Brit Milah and one has not fulfilled the Mitzvah described above.
The mitzvah is the responsibility of every Jewish male. We are required to be circumcised properly. Since it has to be done on the eighth day, Fathers are required to act on their son’s behalf. If a father fails to do this, than, once the boy becomes an adult (at age 13 in Judaism) the boy becomes responsible. Practically, it means that when he turns 18 and no longer needs his father’s approval, he can arrange for the ceremony himself (it is a much bigger operation at 18 years than it is at 8 days) he does not have to do the surgery himself, on himself, rather he consults the proper doctors and Rabbi to see that it is done properly. If a man is circumcised already but it was done incorrectly (or he was born circumcised) a different procedure is used, called Hatafat Dam Brit, where a drop of blood is drawn from the scar of the original circumcision so that the blessings and prayers may be recited. Boys are not given Hebrew names until they are circumcised.
The professional associated with circumcision in Judaism is called a Mohel. He is the one who is responsible for the prayers, the naming and the surgery. He is trained medically to be able to inspect the child to make sure there will not be any complications and trained ritually to make sure that all is done properly.
As we may expect, there are a lot of traditions and superstitions that have crept into the Brit Milah ceremony. For example, there is a long tradition that Elijah the Prophet is at every Brit Milah. This is because he told G-d that the people would never keep this Mitzvah. To prove Elijah wrong, G-d ordained that he be in attendance at every one. We reserve a chair for him in his honor. There is a superstition that at the end of the ceremony, a woman who sits in the chair will give birth to a boy before the year is over. (I do not recommend this particular fertility treatment but hey, if you want to give it a try, it can’t hurt!)
The other person who is involved in this ceremony is called the “Sandek” this is the honor given to the one who will hold the child during surgery. Usually this is not done by a parent, who is to close to the child for this, but a religious relative who would feel honored by his or her selection. The ceremony is concluded with a Seudah Mitzvah, a special meal of celebration.
Converts to Judaism are circumcised (or hatafat dam Brit is performed) before their immersion.
This is not some barbaric rite of passage or blood ritual. It is the mark of the agreement made between Jews, as descendants of Abraham, and G-d. Many have made all kinds of claims against this ritual but it had endured. Many of the attacks against Brit Milah have been shown to be anti-Jewish in nature. On the other hand, whether or not there are any health benefits to circumcision is not relevant to the Jewish ritual of Brit Milah. We do it because G-d commands it and that is enough.
One final note on the punishment of “karet”. This refers to a punishment by G-d after a person dies. It is the total elimination of that soul. What exactly that means is really in G-d’s hands. It does mean, however, that the punishment is not in human hands. There is no punishment in this world for failure to be circumcised.