In yesterday’s essay on Shabbat 131, we noted that when the eighth day of a baby’s life coincides with Shabbat, circumcision should be performed even though it’s the day of rest. But that’s not obvious to the casual reader of Torah. On today’s page, the rabbis spend a great deal of time searching for the origins of this rule. Let’s step through the complex chain of rabbinic logic together.
Frequently, the rabbis begin a discussion by asking how a certain law is derived from Torah. But in this case, the Gemara begins with the opposite perspective, with the assertion that the law (circumcision overrides Shabbat) cannot be derived from Torah at all. Both Ulla and Rabbi Yitzhak hold this view, stating quite simply: this is halachah. According to these two, this is just something God whispered in Moses’ ear on Mount Sinai and has had the force of law ever since.
The Gemara, however, is not satisfied (and explains why, but we’re going to leave that argument aside for the moment) and searches for a derivation of the law by means of a common midrashic technique, that of a verbal analogy. Here’s the first attempt:
Rabbi Elazar said: The halachah (that circumcision overrides Shabbat) is derived from the word “sign” that appears with regard to circumcision: And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you (Genesis 17:11), and the word “sign” appears with regard to Shabbat: However, you shall keep My Shabbats, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations (Exodus 31:13).
Both commandments in the Torah, the one for circumcision and the one for Shabbat, employ the word “sign.” Therefore, Rabbi Elazar argues, there is a deep connection between the two — namely, that circumcisions are performed on Shabbat.
Immediately, the Gemara overturns this argument. Not because it is fanciful (this kind of argument from verbal analogy occurs all the time in the Talmud), but because the Torah verse understood as a commandment to don tefillin also contains the word “sign” and yet tefillin are not worn on Shabbat.
But the project of searching for the biblical source of this law is not dead — nor is the technique of verbal analogy remotely exhausted. Turns out, the word “sign” is not the only one that connects Shabbat and circumcision; both commandments also contain the word “covenant.” (In this case, we have to look to a different statement about Shabbat, found in Exodus 31:16.) Perhaps, the Gemara suggests, this is the vital connection between the two commandments that lets us know that circumcisions are performed on Shabbat.
Nope! The Gemara knocks down the “covenant” argument too, then immediately suggests a third verbal analogy, based on the word “generations,” which is likewise found in both commandments (Exodus 31:16 and Genesis 17:7) — but also ultimately rejected.
For those keeping score: the rabbis began this page by noting that circumcision overrides Shabbat but we don’t know why. It is first suggested that this is simply a law given to Moses at Sinai — impossible to derive. But the Gemara sets about trying anyway on the basis of various verbal analogies. Three such analogies — based on the words “sign,” “covenant” and “generations” — are attempted, but each ultimately rejected in turn.
Then, just when the project of deriving this law seems to have run out of steam, we read this:
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said: This halachah is derived not from one word alone, but based on the three words: “sign,” “covenant” and “generations” all appear with regard to circumcision and with regard to Shabbat.
None of these three words is individually strong enough to create a unique bridge between Shabbat and circumcision, but collectively they do! What a lovely reminder that the day of rest and the initiation of a baby into the Jewish people are each, in its own way, a sign of the Jewish covenant with God that endures for generations.