Circumcision is one of those ritual actions that overrides Shabbat. But today’s daf asks whether one can perform a circumcision on Shabbat if the foreskin in question has tzaraat, a kind of skin disease that causes white marks on the flesh. Removing signs of this disease is forbidden, while circumcision is required (even on Shabbat). So which concern takes precedence?
In addition to being oddly specific and strange, this might seem like one of those hopelessly arcane questions for which the Talmud is infamous. But it engenders a much more broadly applicable discussion about whether unintended consequences can prohibit an action.
The Gemara cites two opinions on this question of performing a circumcision on a baby with tzaraat over Shabbat. First, Rabbi Yehuda says that it is prohibited to perform an action on Shabbat if it will have unintentional consequences that violate the law (in this case, removing signs of tzaraat). Second, an anonymous rule, associated with Rabbi Shimon, states that it is permitted to perform an action on Shabbat even if it will have unintentional consequences that violate the law.
These seem like opposite opinions. Yet the anonymous voice of the Gemara insists that Rabbi Shimon actually agrees with Rabbi Yehuda if the prohibited action is inevitable — a halachic idea called a psik reisha (“cut off its head”). Whether or not you intend to kill a chicken, if you cut off its head, demise is inevitable. According to this vividly-named principle, if an unintended consequence is inevitable, the act itself is forbidden.
This discussion opens up a host of wider philosophical questions: do my intentions matter more than the consequences of my actions? If I am trying to do the right thing, is that more important than what I actually achieve? Am I responsible for the unintended side-effects of my actions? These questions are ancient, but also very modern. In our interconnected world, our actions often have consequences we can’t even imagine. This is the major plot point in the last season of the popular television show The Good Place, but the rabbis were aware of the problem 1500 years ago.
For the rabbis, the solution comes by way of a midrash. Today’s daf reads the biblical texts about circumcision and argues that a superfluous use of the word bassar (“flesh”) in Genesis 17:14 comes directly to teach us that one can perform a circumcision on Shabbat even when an inevitable consequence of the action will be the prohibited removal of the tzaraat. The rabbis’ commitment to finding a textual solution highlights the exceptional nature of this position. According to today’s daf, the Torah itself permits performing a circumcision even when it leads to an inevitable prohibited action — but only in this particular case.
The broader discussion on today’s daf suggests that, as a general rule, we are responsible not only for our actions, and not only for our intentions, but for the inevitable if unintended harms that our actions can cause. The rabbis ask that people live holistically, and thoughtfully — acting with deep awareness of the consequences, both intended and unintended.