The Book of Vayikra is also called “Torat Kohanim” – “The Laws of the Priests”. The first portions of the Book of Vayikra pertain to sacrifices, which fall in the bailiwick of the Priests. The portions of Tazria and Metzora discuss the laws of ritual purity. These laws are particularly relevant to the Priests inasmuch as a person who is ritually impure may not administer in the Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash) nor offer sacrifices.
The first type of ritual impurity that the Torah discusses is brought on by childbirth and its associated uterine bleeding. A woman who gives birth to a son becomes ritually impure for seven days and then becomes ritually pure for another thirty-three days, regardless of any related bleeding. After imposing the initial seven-day period of impurity after the birth of a son, the Torah slides in a seemingly unrelated verse [Vayikra 12:3]: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised”. What is the Torah’s innovation here? The commandment of circumcision was given hundreds of years earlier to Abraham, who was explicitly told [Bereishit 17:12] “Every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days”. Why does the Torah repeat itself?
Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy at the turn of the sixteenth century, suggests that the Torah is offering a medical justification as to why a child is circumcised specifically on the eighth day of his life. When a foetus is in his mother’s womb, he is nourished by her blood, blood that the Torah has just rendered impure. According to the Seforno, eight days are required for the mother’s blood to be cleansed from her infant son’s body so that he can attain the spiritual purity required to enter into a holy covenant with G-d.
Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco during the first half of the eighteenth century, takes a different direction. He quotes our Sages in the Midrash [Devarim Rabbah 86]: “Why does the baby have to be circumcised on the eighth day after its birth? Because G-d exercised His mercy on the baby by waiting until it was strong enough to endure this operation.” The Or HaChaim attempts to pinpoint the source teaching that a baby is strong enough to survive circumcision only after it is eight days old and suggests that this source is the Zohar, the primary book of esoteric Torah. The Zohar [Parashat Emor] writes, “The experience of a single Shabbat in its life confers such additional physical strength upon the baby… The Shabbat experience provides a life-sustaining force. You will also find the comment of [the Midrash] that prior to the first Shabbat, the universe was in a very unstable condition. It was only the Shabbat which helped stabilise the entire universe. This is what the Sages meant when they said that the experience of a Shabbat helps stabilise the vital signs of new-born babies”.
What makes the Shabbat so powerful? What enabled it to “stabilize the universe”? To understand the Zohar, I suggest looking at something much less esoteric: the thirty-nine actions (“melachot”) that are prohibited on Shabbat. A common misconception posits that on Shabbat, which is defined as a day of rest, man is forbidden from engaging in physical labour. This is patently untrue. Breaking a sweat on Shabbat is not forbidden while certain actions as simple as flicking on a light switch are forbidden. What is forbidden on Shabbat is an action that demonstrates man’s mastery over the world. On Shabbat, we take a step back in recognition and affirmation that G-d is the designer, the owner, and proprietor of our world. Acknowledgement of G-d’s mastery is achieved in two parallel paths: via actions that we must perform and via actions that we may not perform. The Torah commands us [Shemot 20:7] “Remember the Shabbat” and it also commands us [Devarim 5:11] “Keep the Shabbat”. “Remembering the Shabbat” means sanctifying it upon its entrance, via Kiddush, and upon its exit, via the Havdalah ceremony. These ceremonies are verbal declarations that direct our cognizance to the division between Shabbat and the other days of the week. “Keeping the Sabbath” means abstaining from performing those actions that display our own mastery. The combination of attraction – the recognition of G-d’s mastery – and repulsion – the prevention of the exercising of our own mastery – is a force multiplier. Man is both pushed and pulled towards the recognition of his place in the universe. This force multiplication the source of the power of Shabbat.
A similar mechanism of force multiplication is built into circumcision. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveichik, known as the “Beit HaLevi”, who lived in Belarus in the nineteenth century, analyses the underlying spiritual mechanics of the circumcision. The Beit HaLevi asks whether the circumcision imparts a measure of holiness or whether it removes an inherent profanity. He concludes that it does both. The circumcision is a two-phased process. First, the foreskin is amputated and then the epithelium, an outer mucous membrane layer, is rolled back to uncover the glans. The first phase is called “milah” while the second phase is called “pri’ah”. The Beit HaLevi asserts that milah removes a layer of unholiness while pri’ah supplements an additional layer of holiness.
The innovation of the Beit HaLevi enhances the explanation of the Or HaChaim. A child is circumcised after he has experienced a Shabbat so as to accentuate the parallels between the two concepts. The repulsion-attraction of Shabbat stabilised the entire universe while the repulsion-attraction of the circumcision stabilises the soul of the newborn child.
We can continue down this path to reveal a potential linkage between the portion of Tazria and Israel Independence day, Yom HaAtzma’ut, which normally falls during the week in which Tazria is read. Rabbi Berel Wein, a contemporary rabbi and historian, compares the reaction of much of the religious Jewish world to the creation of the modern State of Israel to the reaction of a young child upon receiving a birthday present. A parent will frequently spend equal amounts of time choosing the present as he does wrapping it. The result is that the wrapping is all too often more enticing to the child than the gift itself. The child is more interested in the faux-silk ribbon that is destined for the waste bin than in the “Bob the Builder Construction Site Vehicles Toy Set” that set you back fifty dollars. Rabb Wein suggests that we are reacting in the very same way. After two thousand years of exile and persecution, G-d, in His infinite Grace, gave us a place of our own, a place in which we are free to rule ourselves and to choose our own destiny. Nevertheless, all too often what concerns us are issues such as “Should we say the Hallel prayer on Yom HaAtzma’ut with or without a blessing?” and “What kind of silly country needs four elections to choose a leader?”. We are more interested in the wrapping paper than in the present. Rabbi Wein is optimistic and so am I. Like circumcision, our redemption is a two-stage process. First, we must remove our unholiness. We must shake off all of the muck that we have accumulated over the past two-thousand years. We must become familiar with the idea of Jewish sovereignty and all that it entails. Only afterwards will we be able add an additional layer of holiness with a radiance that will shine outwards over the entire universe, a beacon that will enable us to transmit the message that G-d is One and His Name is One.
Speedily in our days, Amen.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag HaAtzma’ut Sameach,
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Iris bat Chana.
 At the birth of a daughter, both the period of impurity and the ensuing period of purity are doubled.
 The Or HaChaim connects this answer with its context: “If the baby’s mother is meticulous in her observance of the laws pertaining to menstruating women, her baby’s chances of living long enough to experience circumcision and not being harmed by it are improved.”
 Actually, this depends on the type of light-bulb: incandescent, fluorescent, or LED.
 According to our Sages in the Midrash, these two commandments were given simultaneously.
 The Beit HaLevi was the great-grandfather of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry during the second half of the previous century.
 Circumcision is actually a three-stage process. However, the third stage, metzitza, is not relevant to this discussion.
 He was sufficiently optimistic to come on Aliya at the age of 63.