The mitzvah of circumcision in the portion of Tazria appears in the midst of the discussion of the impure and pure periods immediately following childbirth. Our Sages derive from this ordinance that the ritual of circumcision overrides Shabbat: “‘On the eighth day, [the child’s] foreskin shall be circumcised’ – even if it occurs on Shabbat” [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 132a]. Why express this crucial significance of circumcision – its precedence even over Shabbat – within the context of ritual impurity? What is the connection?
Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel links the two issues by interpreting: “And on the eighth day, when [Biblically] she is permitted [to have sexual relations with her husband], on that [day] is [the baby] to be circumcised.” He is citing the view of our Sages, who understand that the circumcision must be on the eighth day following the birth “so that everyone not be happy while the parents will be sad” if they cannot properly express their affection toward one another [Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nidda 31b].
I would like to suggest an additional connection. When a woman is in a state of ritual impurity, she and her husband are forbidden from engaging in sexual relations until she immerses in a mikveh (ritual bath). Obviously this restriction demands a great deal of self-control and inner discipline. The major symbol that graphically expresses the importance of mastering one’s physical instincts is the command of circumcision: even the sexual organ itself, the physical manifestation of the male potency and the unbridled id, must be tempered and sanctified by the stamp of the Divine.
A well-known midrash takes this even one step further:
Turnus Rufus the Wicked once asked Rabbi Akiva: “Whose works are better, the works of God or the works of human beings?” He answered him, “The works of human beings…” [Turnus Rufus] said to him, “Why do you circumcise?” [Rabbi Akiva] said, “I knew you were asking about that, and therefore I anticipated [the question] and told you that the works of human beings are better.”
Turnus Rufus said to him: “But if God wants men to be circumcised, why does He not see to it that male babies are born already circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva said to him…”It is because the Holy One Blessed be He only gave the commandments to Israel so that we may be purified through them.” [Midrash Tanĥuma, Tazria, 5]
I see in the words of the midrash as well as the context of the commandment in the Torah a profound message. The human being is part of the physical creation of the world, a world that is subject to scientific rules of health and illness, life and death. The most obvious and tragic expression of our physicality is that, in line with all creatures of the universe, we humans as well are doomed to be born, disintegrate and die. And therefore the most radical example of ritual impurity is a human corpse, avi avot hatuma.
However, an animal carcass, a dead reptile, and the blood of the menstrual cycle (fall-out of the failed potential of fertilization) likewise cause ritual impurity. A woman in childbirth has a very close brush with death – both in terms of her own mortality as well as during the painful anguished period preceding the moment when she hears the cry of a healthy, living baby.
God’s gift to the human being created in the Divine image, however, is that in addition to physicality there is also spirituality, in addition to death there is also life eternal, in addition to ritual impurity (tuma) there is also ritual purity (tahara). Hence, the very human life that emerges from the mother’s womb brings in its wake not only the brush with death, tuma, but also the hope of new life, tahara – and while the tuma is for seven days, the tahara is for thirty-three! The human being has the power to overcome his physical impediments and imperfections, to ennoble and sanctify his animal drives and instincts, to perfect human nature and redeem an imperfect world.
This is the message that Rabbi Akiva attempted to convey to Turnus Rufus the Wicked. Yes, the world created by the Almighty is beautiful and magnificent, but it is also imperfect and incomplete. God has given the task of completion and redemption to the human being, who has the ability and capacity to circumcise himself, to sublimate his “sub-gartelian” (beneath the gartel, or belt) drives, to sanctify society and to complete the cosmos. Indeed, the works of the human being are greater! And thus the command of circumcision belongs within the context of impurity and purity.
This is also the meaning behind the principle that circumcision overrides Shabbat: the Sabbath testifies to God’s creation of the world – impressive and inspiring, but deliberately imperfect. Circumcision testifies to the human being’s challenge to redeem himself and perfect the world. Indeed, circumcision overrides Shabbat.
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.