Brit Millah

Nedarim (3:11) | Yisrael Bankier | 15 years ago

A majority of the third perek dealt with the law that when interpreting the terms of a neder we see what is generally implied by people when they use such terms. The final Mishnah in the perek mentions that if a person makes a neder against gaining benefit from mulim (circumcised people), the term would only include Jews, whether or not they were circumcised, as that is what is implied by the term.

This leads the Mishnah on to a discussion about the greatness of the mitzvah of brit millah, illustrating the point with various proofs, e.g. the mitzvah overrides Shabbat. One such case is as follows:

R’ Yishmael said, great is the mitzvah of millah for thirteen covenants were made over it.

The Rambam explains that in the parasha where Hashem instructs Avraham in this mitzvah, the words “brit” (covenant) or “briti” (my covenant) is repeated thirteen times.

The Tosfot Yom Tov asks a number of questions. Firstly not every instance where the word brit is mentioned implied the formulation of a covenant. Furthermore what is R’ Yishmael adding by saying that thirteen covenants were made through the brit millah? Surely, one covenant would be enough to demonstrate its importance!

The Tosfot Yom Tov suggest that the mentioning of brit thirteen times indicates the power of this brit as being equivalent to and as great as the brit that was made over the thirteen midot. After Hashem instructed Moshe in the thirteen attributes of mercy (which we recite when we say slichot) the pasuk continues “Behold, I formulate a covenant” (Shmot 34:10). The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17b) explains that a covenant was formed that whenever Am Yisrael prayed and recited these thirteen attributes of mercy, none of the attributes would go unanswered. The Tosfot Yom Tov explains, the Mishnah is teaching us that the mitzvah of brit millah is so powerful, like the thirteen attributes of mercy, that it “never goes unanswered”.34

The Ben Yehoyada explains the significance of the number thirteen in a different manner. Thirteen is the numerical equivalent of the word echad (one); he provides two explanation for this. The first is that the brit testifies to the oneness of Hashem. Other beliefs maintain that there are two separate divinities, one good and the other evil. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 39a) recounts that consequently a particular sorcerer maintained that the upper half of the body belonged to the good one, while the bottom half, the region of waste, belonged to the evil one. The brit millah, a means of spiritual elevation, is performed precisely in the bottom half of the body to reaffirm Hashem’s Oneness. The second significance of echad refers to the oneness or separateness of Am Yisrael. The brit millah is the mitzvah that has kept Am Yisrael separate from mixing with the other nations – “goi echad ba’aretz” (See Sanhedrin 39a).

The Tiferet Yisrael also makes reference to the connection between thirteen and echad taking a position in between the two explanations just presented. He explains that this brit millah resembles a oneness between Am Yisrael and Hashem. It presents an indelible mark the we are His servants forever.


34 The Tosfot Yom Tov continues to explain that both the thirteen attributes of mercy and the thirteen mentioning of brit are divided into two groups – of three and ten. By brit millah the split is textual, and by the midot the division is the three words that refer to Hashem that may not be erased and ten regular words. By brit millah the order is the group of ten, then three, while by the midot, it is three then ten. He explains that the grouping of three is more elevated (as by the names of Hashem in the midot). By brit millah the spiritual movement is one of elevation thus the transition from ten to three. Conversely by the attributes of mercy, they are the means of bringing divine mercy down, hence the transition from three to ten.

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