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Home » Birth, Tazria

Tazria Mitzorah: Circumcision – The Mark of Truth

Submitted by on April 23, 2006 – 9:46 am2 Comments | 5,685 views

Eight Days

A baby is born, Mazal Tov, now the mad rush begins. Whom do you call first? Parents before siblings, siblings before friends and friends before colleagues. Every call brings new questions: what is the baby’s, weight, size, eye color and, of course, gender. Is it a boy or a girl? If it’s a boy, inevitably someone asks, have you called the Mohel yet? Oy, the Mohel, I almost forgot!
So you quickly call the Mohel to ask if he will be available in eight days. Nine days won’t do; neither will seven. It must be eight. Why eight? Because the Torah insists that circumcision, the mark of truth, be performed on the eighth day. So why is the Torah in such a rush? (1)

Perfection

We are born with natural instincts for self preservation. From our earliest moments we learn to place ourselves and our needs ahead of others. Babies are intrinsically selfish. They cry when they want to be fed, scream when they want to be held and take no interest in other people’s feelings and needs.

In a baby, this attitude is cute and charming, but left unchecked this attitude grows corrosive and quickly loses its charm. We become demanding toddlers then selfish children and finally self-absorbed adults. The work of purification and refinement must begin early. There really is no time to waste.

Circumcision purifies and refines. It forces us to make a sacrifice. mark of truth - innerstreamRemoving the foreskin diminishes the pleasure and enjoyment of intercourse. (2) We sacrifice such pleasure and proclaim that, on our scale, divine instruction is a greater priority than self-gratification. (3)

Males could have been created without the foreskin, yet G-d wanted us to remove it ourselves. This was to demonstrate that as we complete the physical appearance of our bodies, so can we perfect the contours of our personalities and the shapes of our souls. (4)

In Case of Illness

Circumcision is routinely delayed when a baby is, G-d forbid, jaundiced or otherwise ill.In explanation, Maimonides wrote, “Danger to the baby’s life is the overriding consideration. The circumcision,” he concluded, “can be performed later, but we can never bring back a Jewish soul.” (5)

Maimonides’ last comment is curious. That the circumcision must be delayed is true, the value of life overrides that of circumcision. However, the manner in which he suggests that the circumcision be performed later conveys a cavalier attitude towards the delay when it should be viewed as a tragic, though necessary, misfortune.

Universal Bond

Our sages saw circumcision as a feature of Jewish identity, a testimony that we are unique in body as we are in soul. (6)

The mystics explained that as we remove the foreskin and reveal the organ beneath, a veil is simultaneously lifted from our soul that reveals our intrinsic bond with G-d. This mark is universal to all Jews for we all share this intrinsic bond. (7)

Discovering Light

Circumcision does not forge this bond, but rather reveals it. In this sense circumcision is different from all other commandments. All other commandments forge new connections with G-d. Circumcision reveals our existing connection with G-d.

By way of illustration, consider a dark room that might be illuminated by one of two methods. One can either turn on a light or remove the opaque covering from the windows and allow the plentiful sunlight to stream in from outside.

The first method creates a limited amount of light where there was only darkness before. The second method reveals an unlimited source of light that is already in place. It is necessary only to uncover the windows or, in other words, discover the light.

Circumcision works in a similar vein. While the other commandments forge new connections with G-d, and draw new divine light into our world, circumcision reveals the intense, intrinsic bond that we already enjoy with G-d, the bond that G-d forges with all Jews at their moment of birth. (8)

If our bond with G-d were forged through circumcision, then even a one-day delay of circumcision would be catastrophic. It would mean losing a full day of divine connectivity. In truth, however, our bond is intrinsic. We are born with it. Delaying the circumcision does not affect the bond. It only delays the date by which it is revealed. Circumcision doesn’t create our truth it is our mark of truth. 

Deeper Meaning

We can now understand that Maimonides’ final comment was not cavalier toward circumcision. His earlier comment explained that protecting the baby’s life is our primary consideration His later comment explained that delay of circumcision would not affect the baby’s bond with G-d.

“The circumcision” he wrote, “can be performed later, but we can never bring back a single Jewish soul.” These words might be translated as follows. The delay of circumcision will not affect the baby’s divine bond because this bond is eternal. “A Jewish soul,” irrespective of circumcision, “can never be brought back.” It can never be made to turn back or away from G-d.

Duty to Reveal

Yet, if the baby is healthy, the circumcision may not be delayed. This is because the purpose of Torah is to reveal the divine presence in our midst. It is not sufficient to enjoy our divine bond in our hearts. It is also necessary to reveal it through circumcision. To don our mark of truth. Absent cases of illness, circumcision must never be delayed. (9)

Footnotes

  1. Leviticus 12: 3. “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin must be circumcised.”
  2. Midrash Tanchumah, Tazriah 5 and Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvas Milah (The anonymous author, who identifies himself only as “a Levite from Barcelona,” was a student of the Rashba, Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, in the thirteenth century). Our sages further taught that circumcision is an offering to G-d that, like a sacrifice, atones for inherent human weaknesses (Pirkei R. Eliezer, ch. 29).
  3. Classical Jewish thought has long maintained this position. However, contemporary scientific studies on this matter have failed to produce conclusive evidence either way.
  4. Guide for the Perplexed, v. III, ch. 29 (Maimonides, R. Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1135-1204). See also R. Bachye on Genesis 17: 13 (R. Bachya ben Asher, Saragossa, Spain, 1255-1340) .
  5. Yad Hachazakah, Hilchos Milah, ch 1: 18.
  6. Guide for the Perplexed, v. III, ch. 29. See also Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvas Milah.
  7. Deuteronomy 30: 6. Ezekiel 36: 26. What of female Jews who do not carry the mark of the covenant on their body? The Jewish woman is from the Torah’s perspective a far more spiritual being than is the Jewish man. The Jewish woman need not remove a veil to uncover her intrinsic bond with G-d for her bond has never been concealed. She is holy from birth. Yet the Jewish woman carries her dignity and sanctity within, “The greater glory of the princess is within,” (Psalms, 45: 14) and therefore does not display outward physical signs of her inner spiritual beauty.
  8. Likutei Torah, Vayikra, p. 21a (R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813).
  9. Likutei Sichos, v. III, p. 979 (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994).
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2 Comments »

  • Anonymous says:

    I appreciate your kind words, but must attribute your compliments to the Lubavitcher Rebbe whose thoughts I was simply sharing in this essay. This is indicated in the footnotes.
    As to the lessening of pleasure through circumcision: you have an advantage on me since I was circumcised as an infant. Yet I think your description fits nicely with the point I was hoping to make. You wrote that the sensation post circumcision is of a calmer more aware form of pleasure than the hyper sensitive sensations of pre circumcision. This means that the experience is influenced by our human faculties rather than merely arousing the animal within us.
    As to the many health benefits you speak of, the medical literature does not suggest that there are health benefits though it is rather clear that there are no dangers inherent either.
    Thank you again for your comments.
    Rabbi Lazer

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Rabbi Lazer, The level of insight that you have shown here is amazing me. I believed these thoughts and images in my mind were no more than musings that went on in my head regardless. I am a bit of a dreamer so it was natural to assume that they were yet more of the same, so to speak.
    I had one 'dream' , or vision (?), where I was being circumcised. As I was cut it was like the sky in my universe was being ripped open revealing what looked like the inside of a spaceship control room. Blinds, or coverings were being removed from the windows revealing the whole of existence to infinity. All the universe was in sight.
    I get these 'visions' quite a lot at times. I try my best not to take any notice of them and just get on with my life as normally as possible. However, later on in time many of them come to pass both in my own life and in the lives of others. It's a very spooky feeling at times. Not at all nice. More filled will undefined dread than anything else.
    Back to the point. So much of what you have written here rings bells deep inside me. When you wrote of a room being filled with sunlight in place of a light bulb it connected me to this 'vision' inside me. And also “a veil is simultaneously lifted from our soul that reveals our intrinsic bond with G-d” again seems to point to the same experience.
    Circumcision certainly purifies. It protects us from a myriad of unpleasant infections and diseases. It strengthens and invigorates the male organ far beyond what it was. In this I see G-d's promise to Abraham made manifest through Brit Milah.
    it refines too not just because it shapes us physically but also spiritually. Our eternal essence is channelled by G-d through circumcision, and this guarantees that our life force will flow along the channel that G-d has chosen for us in a way that we cannot alter or destroy. This is for the best since we are but silly stupid creatures who are immensely over proud of our achievements and because of this we are tempted to err and stray from G-d's chosen path. Circumcision keeps us on this path despite ourselves. That is no mean feat given the infinite Human talent for creating disasters !
    I would take issue with you Rabbi Lazer when you write that “removing the foreskin diminishes the enjoyment and pleasure of intercourse.” I was circumcised later in life so I know both experiences. There is no loss of pleasure or enjoyment. The intense hyper sensitivity of the glans is reduced to a harmonious and balanced level which is more conducive to a calmer more 'aware' pleasure that an animal intensity of very short duration. It is for this reason that there exists such an obsession with sexual performance and its duration in the wider world. This is not conducive to a closer relationship with G-d. The frantic heartbeat of random empty excitement blinds and deafens men to their true calling.
    Thank You so very very much for this clarification. It has strengthened me ! There are some real gems here such as -“we perfect the contours of our personalities, and the shapes of our souls”
    I look forward to many more clarifications from you on this and a myriad of other topics.

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