“It is a sign between Me and you throughout your generation.”
I have learned from my more than six months of reading daily passages from the Talmud that it has a unique logic all its own. Frequent a fortiori inferences appear in the text between two seemingly unrelated concepts. Today’s text extends yesterday’s discussion of conducting circumcision on Shabbat to an analogy that compares the rite with saving a life. The circumcision ceremony represents the saving of a spiritual life through the original covenant between Moses and God, although it should be noted that the bond is with the men of the chosen people.
We are told that circumcision “pertains to only one of a person’s limbs” and because it is permissible to perform the ceremony on Shabbat, it is also permissible to save a life on Shabbat. This is because while circumcision “fulfills only one mitzva with just one of his limbs,” saving a life involves all of a person’s limbs. It’s an odd analogy that resides in the world of Talmudic logic; constructing an answer on an aptitude test that compares a foreskin with a limb and its excision to saving a life, will probably not yield a very impressive score.
We are introduced to a three-way verbal analogy which pairs three words together to further explain why it is permissible to perform circumcision on Shabbat: sign, covenant and generations. I am not sure why so much additional energy is expounded when we were introduced to the timebound concept in yesterday’s reading. The Rabbis in the Talmud are never satisfied with the simple answer and need to continue to expound further and further until sometimes the original thread of the discussion is lost.
The word covenant receives its power from its transmittal to Moses on Mt Sinai. We are told that it is mentioned thirteen times in the passage dealing with the circumcision of Abraham and by extension we are told that thirteen covenants emanated from it. The word sign is part of our tripod analogy, because circumcision is the “sign of the covenant” between God and the Jewish people. And while circumcision is the sign of the sacred covenant, we are told that it is a promise to be kept “throughout your generations.” From this three-way verbal analogy, and through a fortiori inference, “it is derived that circumcision, which is a sign, may be performed even on Shabbat, which is itself a sign.”
We are informed of another verbal analogy that supports the permissible act of circumcision on Shabbat: “And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” The text examines the consideration of circumcision of an older child or adult. We are told that they too can be circumcised on Shabbat. But what happened to the concept of timebound? I can understand the timebound necessity of doing it on the eighth day in the life of a baby, but anyone older could undergo the procedure any other day of the week.
What was seemingly simple, such as the timebound concept, is complicated by verbal analogies and a fortiori logic. However, I cannot conceive of three better words to represent our collective ancestral history than sign, covenant and generations. Sometimes I try to imagine what life was like for my ancestors in Lithuania who I discovered through research were traveling Rabbis that went from town to town conducting services and supporting themselves from the tithes that the townspeople filled their samovar with. We are living in places that our ancestors could have never imagined, but they are there within us, with all their hopes and dreams and covenants.