Parashat Tazria and Circumcision

Tazria By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Mar 26, 2014 / 5774

Parashat Tazria, at the heart of the book of Leviticus, presents a challenge of almost epic proportions in the search for modern, practical relevance. In particular, it opens by defining the different periods of “blood purification” with respect to the birth of a boy or a girl. We are instructed that when a woman gives birth to a male, the time of ritual impurity is seven days, while she remains in a state of “blood purification” (d’mei taharah) for 33 days; for the birth of a female, the time periods are doubled. In the course of explaining these details, the narrative flow is interrupted as we read of legislations regarding brit milah (circumcision): “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin will be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3). What can be learned about male circumcision from this particular verse?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches,

First, we learn the significant law that the mitzvah must be performed during the day and not at night . . . And then we learn that even if the eighth day falls out on Shabbat, the brit milah is performed. Circumcision at its proper time takes precedence over Shabbat. We have elsewhere showed how “Israel” not only was added to the seven works of the world’s creation, as the eighth, but quite actually stands as the visible bearer of the reminder of the Creator of the World that the Sabbath of Creation was meant to be. Israel, accordingly, exists as the “eighth” for the “seventh.” Just as the meaning of Israel, the eighth, lies entirely in the keeping of the Sabbath, the seventh, so has the Sabbath (the seventh) as its sole bearer among humanity have Israel (the eighth). Accordingly, by the performance of brit milah on the eighth day, the whole Abrahamic bond with God is demonstrated in its mission for the Sabbath. For it is the Sabbath—the principle of God being Master of Humanity and the World which the Sabbath teaches—which is demonstrated by such a sign of the Covenant, as receiving a new recruit to the House of Abraham to be its bearer, keeper and fighter. So it is perfectly understandable that, when the eighth day falls on a Sabbath, the circumcision is nevertheless done on that day. (Commentary on Leviticus, 323–324)

Hirsch’s explanation is intriguing and powerful. Though the origin of the people of Israel is not literally part of the days of Creation, it is as if it becomes an additional eighth day appended to the original count. Creation may only become complete through the work of human hands. In addition, the descendants of Abraham must be active participants in the observance of Shabbat; were it not for the Israelites who are party to the Covenant, Shabbat would not exist as a sacred institution. And so brit milah becomes a vital commentary on partnership and tikkun ‘olam (repairing a broken world).

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