Rabbinic Sources on Circumcision

A selection of laws and stories about brit milah.

On the Importance of “The Covenant of Circumcision”

It was taught: Rabbi said, Great is circumcision, for none so ardently busied himself with [God’s] precepts as our Father Abraham, yet he was called perfect only by virtue of circumcision, as it is written, “Walk before me and be perfect” (Genesis 17:1), and it is written, “And I will make my covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:2).

Another version [of Rabbi’s teaching] is this: Great is circumcision, for it counterbalances all the [other] precepts of the Torah, as it is written, “For after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” Another version is: Great is circumcision, since but for it heaven and earth it would not endure, as it is written,

“[Thus says the Lord:] But for my covenant by day and night, I would not have appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:25).

— Sotah 12a

God Visits Abraham after His Circumcision

“And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre: and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.” What is meant by “in the heat of the day”? R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: It was the third day from Abraham’s circumcision, and the Holy One, blessed be He, came to enquire after Abraham’s health; [moreover,] he drew the sun out of its sheath, so that the righteous man [Abraham] should not be troubled with wayfarers.

[Abraham] sent Eliezer out [to seek travelers], but he found none. Said he, “I do not believe you.” So he himself went out, and saw the Holy One, blessed be He, standing at the door; thus it is written, “Pass not away, I pray you, from your servant. But on seeing him tying and untying [the bandages of his circumcision], He said, ‘It is not well that I stand here”; hence it is written, “And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him, and when he saw them, he ran to meet them.

–Baba Metzia 86b

On the Obligations of Parents and Community

Said Rav Judah: This is the meaning: All obligations of the son [which lie] upon the

father to do to his son, men are bound, but women [mothers] are exempt. We thus

learned [here] what our Rabbis taught: The father is bound in respect of his son, to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a craft.

Some say, to teach him to swim too….

“To circumcise him.” How do we know it? Because it is written: “And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac.” And if his father did not circumcise him, a Beit Din [a communal rabbinic court] is bound to circumcise him, for it is written: “Every male

among you shall be circumcised.” And if a Beit Din did not circumcise him, he is bound to circumcise himself, for it is written: “And the uncircumcised male who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off” (karet).

[The Torah provides three separate statements concerning circumcision:

·        And the uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off (karet) from his people (Genesis 17:14); this applies to an adult whom his father did not circumcise as an infant.

·        And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (Leviticus 12:3); this is a command to the father of the child.

·        Every male among you shall be circumcised (Genesis 17:10); this is a general command to the Jewish community at large, like to a beit din, for a child to be circumcised after his eighth day if not circumcised at the proper time.]

How do we know that she [the mother] has no such obligation? Because it is written, “[And Abraham circumcised his son . . .] as God had commanded him”: “him,” but not “her” [the mother].

–Kiddushin 29b

How Do We Know That It’s the Foreskin of the Penis That was Intended?

[It was asked of Rav]: How do we know that circumcision [must be performed] in that [particular] place? “His ‘orlah'” [foreskin] is stated here (Genesis 17:14), and “its ‘orlah'” is stated elsewhere (Leviticus 19:23 [regarding fruit trees]): just as there something that produces fruit [is meant], so here too something [the limb] that produces fruit [is meant].

Perhaps it means the heart, for it is written, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16)? Perhaps it means the ear, for it is written, “Behold, their ear is uncircumcised” (Jeremiah 6:10)?

We learn [something relevant about] the complete [word] “orlato” [“his foreskin,” or “its foreskin”] from [a usage of] the complete [word] “orlato,” but we do not learn something about the complete “orlato” from “orlat” [“the foreskin of…”] which is incomplete. [So the first parallel is the one which stands.]

These translations of passages from the Babylonian Talmud are from www.jewishgates.org, and are used with permission.

Discover More

Brit Milah: The Biblical Origins

Where the circumcision covenant comes from.

Circumcision is a Difficult Rite

Circumcision, with all its pain, reminds us of our partnership with God and the pain of fixing a broken world.

The Circumcision Debate

While Jewish critics have arisen in modern times, brit milah is still widely practiced.