by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The ancient Israelites did not invent circumcision. It was practiced in Egypt even before 2400 B.C.E.. Biblical references indicate that although some tribes living in the ancient Near East did not practice circumcision, the Midianites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Edomites did.
However, all of these peoples circumcised boys either at puberty or in preparation for marriage. The Israelites were unique in circumcising their males at the age of only eight days.
The first time the Torah mentions circumcision, God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males in his household, from infants to old men. (Abraham himself is 100 at the time.) Then God declares:
U-nemaltem the flesh of your foreskin, and it will be the sign of the brit between Me and you. At the age of eight days every male among you yimmol, throughout your generations… (Genesis/Bereishit 17:11-12)
u-nemaltem (וּנְמַלְתֶּם) = And you shall be circumcised.
brit (בְּרִית) = covenant, treaty, pact.
yimmol (יִמּוֹל) = he/it shall be circumcised.
Why does the Torah change the age of circumcision to eight days, and make it part of a covenant with God?
In Biblical Hebrew, the idiom for formalizing a covenant is “cutting” it, not sealing or signing it. One method of concluding a covenant in the ancient Near East was to cut one or more animals in half and walk between the pieces. (See my blog post Lekh-Lekha: Cutting a Covenant.) If you wanted a more impressive and lifelong covenant, what could you cut?
The directions for Abraham to cut a covenant with God by circumcising all the males in his household conclude:
A foreskinned male, one who has not yimmol the flesh of his foreskin: that soul shall be cut off from its people; my brit he has broken. (Genesis 17:14)
Ironically, this leaves male Israelites with a choice between two kinds of cuts: cut off the foreskin, or be cut off from your people.
In fact, only a convert gets to make a personal choice. Fathers in the Torah have their eight-day-old sons circumcised, and household heads have their newly-acquired male slaves circumcised, without their consent.
Circumcision on the eighth day is mentioned again in this week’s Torah portion, Tazria (“She makes seed”). At first glance, it appears to be a gratuitous aside in a passage about how long after childbirth a woman is ritually impure and must stay away from public worship:
God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, saying: When a woman makes seed and gives birth to a male, then she is ritually impure for seven days: as in the days of menstrual flow of her menstruation she is ritually impure. (Leviticus/Vayikra 12:1-2)
On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin yimmol. (Leviticus 12:3)
And for 33 days she shall stay in her bloodshed of ritual purification; she shall not touch anything holy, and she shall not come into the holy place, until the days of her ritual purification are completed. (Leviticus 12:4)
In 1517 C.E., Rabbi Yitzchak Karo wrote: “If the Torah deems it necessary to repeat the law of the circumcision … this is not the right place! Surely the Covenant of the Circumcision is holy and pure—why then associate it with uncleanness, as if placing a kohen into a graveyard?”
Why does the Torah bring up circumcision in this context?
The obvious connection is that two things happen on the eighth day after a boy is born: the son is circumcised, and the mother transitions from one state of ritual impurity to another. For the first seven days after the birth of as son (while her blood flow is like that of menstruation) the mother’s bedding and anything she sits on is considered “impure”; anyone who touches these things must immerse himself and his garments in water, and refrain entering the sanctuary or temple the rest of the day. The mother herself must abstain from sexual intercourse as well as from going to the sanctuary.
On the eighth day after a boy is born, the places where the mother lies and sits are no longer ritually impure, and she may have intercourse again. But she still may not come to the sanctuary or touch objects used in the sanctuary until 40 days after her son is born. Then she immerses herself in water and brings two sacrificial birds to the priest at the entrance of the sanctuary. These acts return her to her former state of ritual purity and reintegrate her into public worship.
According to 16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno, even the blood that nourishes an infant in the womb counts as menstrual blood, and it takes seven days after the umbilical cord is cut for a son to become ritually pure from his mother’s blood. He cannot be circumcised until he is ritually pure.
But I doubt that this is the reason the Torah calls for circumcision on the eighth day. After all, the Torah does not require immersion or animal sacrifices on behalf of the infant. Instead, a son’s circumcision is a religious promotion, turning him into an Israelite dedicated to God through the brit milah, the “covenant of circumcision”, as it came to be known in the Talmud.
milah (מִילָה) = circumcision (a noun in post-Biblical Hebrew, derived from the Biblical Hebrew noun mulah, מוּלָה).
Other commentary points out the connection between the circumcision of an Israelite boy and the sacrifice or a calf, lamb, or kid. In two places, Exodus/Shemot 22:29 and Leviticus/Vayikra 22:27, the Torah says herd and flock animals must stay with their mothers for the first seven days after they are born. On the eighth day, they can be brought to the altar as an offering to God.
According to the Zohar (written in the 13th century by the Kabbalist rabbi Moses de Leon) the drop of blood from a circumcision brings atonement to the father—just as an animal sacrifice brings atonement to the man who offers the animal.
The custom of circumcision faded among most Near Eastern peoples as the uncircumcised Greeks became dominant. Many Semitic tribes began imitating the Greeks even before they were conquered by the Seleucid Empire in the fourth century B.C.E. Circumcision continued only among some Egyptians and Arabs, and Jews. The ruling classes—first Greeks, then Romans, and then Catholics—identified Jews in the Near East and Europe by their circumcisions.
The practice of circumcision did not spread to non-Jewish Westerners until the early 20th century. Today the pendulum of public opinion is swinging against circumcision again. Yet even Jewish atheists commonly circumcise their sons on the eighth day. Even if they do not believe in a covenant with God, they still believe in a covenant between their own family and the rest of the Jewish people.
I was not a Jew when my son was born, and even if I had been, I doubt I would have immersed myself in a mikveh 40 days later. To me, the categories of ritually pure and impure are merely historical.
But when I converted to Judaism, I had my two-year-old son circumcised. Was I dedicating him to the God of Israel? Not really; I expected he would make his own decisions about religion when he came of age. I did want him to fit in with other Jewish boys. And I did want him to at least grow up as Jew, as a member of the people whose religion I had dedicated myself to. Thus, in a roundabout way, my son’s circumcision was part of my own covenant with the God of Israel.
One way or another, the tradition continues.