Brit Millah on Shabbat

Shabbat (19) | Natan Rickman | 17 years ago

The nineteenth perek of Shabbat raises a question that has many different halachic and hashkafic implications. When the Torah commands one to perform an act that would normally be forbidden, does the prohibition remain albeit unpunishable or has the prohibition been taken away? One implication of the way this question is answered is whether one must now perform the action in the shortest and quickest way. According to the first option, one would have to ensure that it is completed in the most efficient manner while according to the second understanding there would be no such requirement.

The Tana Rebbi Eliezer raises this point with regards to the question of a brit millah on Shabbat. The question arises from the pasuk, “as it shall be on the eighth day that you have circumcised”. The question is what should one do if the eighth day falls on Shabbat? The problem is that one must desecrate the Shabbat to fulfil this mitzvah. We know, for example, that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat we do not blow the shofar. We have a clear rule that even though there is a commandment, Shabbat over rides and prevents me from doing this act. However, by the brit millah everyone agrees that it has to be performed on Shabbat if that is the eight day.

The philosophical question is why does the Torah instruct man to do millah on Shabbat and not let Shabbat over ride the mitzvah? The Rabbis have explained three ways of understanding the commandment to have the brit:

  1. The action of the brit is a fulfilment of a commandment.

  2. The person should be in the state of having had a brit millah.

  3. There is a prohibition for a Jewish male over the age of eight days to have a foreskin.

It appears that only according to the last reason could one argue that having a brit might override Shabbat; the Jewish baby is in an incomplete state while he is still uncircumcised.

The Midrash Tanchuma (Tazriah 19) brings a discussion between a Roman general Turnus Rufus and Rabbi Akiva. He asked Rabbi Akiva why Jews circumcise their sons. Do Jews believe that they can improve on G-d's creation of man?

Rabbi Akiva placed grain and bread before the general and asked him which one he would prefer to eat. The general made the obvious choice and took the bread, representative of man's improvement on nature. Just as baking bread is an act of improving wheat, so is circumcision an act of improving man.

This helps us understand the first two reason of why one would allow the brit on Shabbat. The action is the completion of the creation of man where man stretches outside his existence and becomes more G-dlike. To understand the second reason, we explain that one must be in the most complete form possible, as the Jew is the tzelem Elokim, he therefore cannot be lacking spiritually.

This helps us understand Shabbat in a clearer way. On Shabbat we move closer to the real ideal - how man should be. He is drawing closer and nearer to the source. Therefore when the Torah gives us a commandment to physically change ourselves bringing us closer, it is clear that this should be permissible. The brit on the eight day is bringing time and matter to the service of HaKadosh Baruch Hu. However interestingly this is only when the eighth day is on Shabbat. If the brit is postponed it cannot be performed on Shabbat. This is due to the fact that the part of the mitzvah, the control over time being on the eighth day, is no longer.

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