According to the Book of Joshua, the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River on the tenth day of the first month, which is the month of Nisan. After they crossed, God commanded Joshua to make stone knives and “proceed with a second circumcision of the Israelites.” (Joshua 5:3) Joshua then explains that none of the Israelites who had been born in the desert had been circumcised, but now that their wanderings were over, God required that they complete this ritual. So many Israelite men were circumcised that the hill became known as Givat Ha’Aralot — the Hill of Foreskins. What happens next?
“Encamped at Gilgal, in the steppes of Jericho, the Israelites offered the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month, toward evening.” (Joshua 5:10)
Today’s daf continues a conversation we started yesterday about this event. Yesterday, the Gemara discussed the logistics of the Israelites’ “second circumcision.” Today, it takes a step back and asks: Why hadn’t the Israelites been practicing circumcision in the desert? The Gemara offers two possible explanations:
If you wish, say it was due to the weariness caused by their journey.
And if you wish, say it was because the north wind did not blow for them. As it is taught: All those forty years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness, the north wind did not blow for them.
For context, the rabbis think the north wind is a good thing (which is particularly interesting given that Zoroastrian tradition at this time argued that the north was the place of demons and dangers). But as they seem to imply here, a cool breeze blowing in a hot desert could be the difference between heatstroke and comfort.
Both rabbinic explanations note that traveling through a hot desert is hard on one’s health. Whether the main issue was the effort of travel, or the effects of the heat, the situation was such that circumcision was dangerous. Because pikuach nefesh, the obligation to preserve life, overrides most other mitzvot, the Israelites correctly waited to circumcise themselves until their travels were done.
Of course, the next question we need to ask is why didn’t a north wind blow during these forty years? The Gemara again offers two possible explanations:
If you wish, say it was because they were under censure.
And if you wish, say that the clouds of glory should not disperse.
According to the first explanation, the lack of north wind was a punishment. The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that it was on account of the sin of the golden calf; the later medieval commentator Rashba proposes that it is instead part of the punishment for the sin of the spies. According to the second explanation, the north wind did not blow for purely functional reasons: The clouds of glory, which symbolized God’s presence in the mishkan, were, well, clouds. And strong winds have a tendency to blow clouds away.
But the Gemara almost immediately rebuts the original claim with an earlier teaching:
All those forty years that the Jewish people were in the wilderness there was not a day in which the north wind did not blow at midnight.
If the north wind did blow every night, then the Israelites could not have been delaying their circumcisions because of its absence. This rebuttal leaves only one explanation still relevant: the weariness caused by their journey. After all, anyone who’s ever taken a long trip knows — travel is exhilarating, but it is also exhausting. It’s certainly not a time to perform a major surgery without anesthesia.
Read all of Yevamot 72 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 18th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.