“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
I am learning more about circumcision from the past few days of readings than I ever anticipated when I entered this Daf Yomi cycle or have ever wanted to know. Undertaking the daily readings always delivers surprises and a lot of perplexity. And there are images in my head that I will most likely carry with me the rest of my life, such as the woman who asks for blue eye-shadow and a comb from the grave, the student hiding under a Rabbi’s bed in order to learn about marital relations, and from earlier in the week, the Mohel sucking blood from the wound of a circumcised baby. I have learned that like the blood covenant that Christians have entered into with God, there is an earlier one awash in blood between God and the Jewish people (actually, men). Today’s reading discusses the dripping of blood when a baby boy is born without a foreskin.
We learned over the last few days that circumcision is time-bound and as a result, a baby can be circumcised on Shabbat. The explanation for why the circumcision must be performed on the eighth day, and even on Shabbat, is explained in today’s text: we are told that a woman who undergoes a natural birth is impure for seven days. If an unnatural birth occurs, such as a cesarean, the circumcision can occur immediately. The principle is stated through Rabbi Asi: “any child whose birth renders his mother ritually impure due to childbirth is circumcised at eight days; and any child whose birth does not render his mother ritually impure due to childbirth, e.g., the birth was not natural, but by caesarean section, is not necessarily circumcised at eight days.”
Today’s reading discusses the case of a hermaphrodite baby who is born with male and female sex organs. Instead of asking directly from the start if a circumcision is even possible on the little one, the text takes a roundabout route and asks if one may desecrate Shabbat through performing the rite. We are told that if it is uncertain whether or not to conduct a circumcision, as in the case of the hermaphrodite baby, one does not desecrate Shabbat by performing the rite. This leaves the dilemma of what to do in this case, and whether the circumcision should occur in the first place. As always, there is a variety of opinions, and Rabbi Yehuda declares that circumcision of an “indefinite foreskin” should override Shabbat.
But what does one do when there is a “concealed foreskin” or one that is presumed to be present, but is not visible? Shammai says that one must “drip covenantal blood” from him, while Hillel says it is not necessary. This is where I become especially squeamish, because I am imagining cutting into a little baby without a visible foreskin in order to drip sacramental blood. And it is made all the worse by the tale of Rav Adda bar Ahava who had a “child that was born circumcised” (i.e., without a foreskin) and after being refused by thirteen mohels, performed the circumcision himself and damaged his child’s urethra by making too deep of a wound.
The circumcision ritual is a reminder of the covenant between God and let’s be honest – men. While men were busy being the “chosen one,” women were working in the background keeping the bones of society functioning. This included bearing the male babies that accepted the covenant through the rite of circumcision. It struck me, however, in today’s discussion of baby boys who are born without a foreskin who some Rabbis deemed already circumcised, that this could apply to women. Is it possible that women are born already circumcised and as a result, the covenant is extended to them as well? Perhaps they are the among the first chosen people, who are born pure and already ready to accept their place in the world? Is this too outlandish of a concept to consider?