Bris Milah: Identifying the Real Deal | Rabbi Dovid Abenson

Abraham was commanded by God to circumcise himself and his descendants. As the ספר החינוך brings down, the mitzvah of ברית מילה is stated in Parshas Lech Lecha (Bereishis 17:11) and again in Parshas Tazriah (Vayikra 12:3).

The root of the mitzvah, he explains, is to be a sign, distinguishing the bodies of the Jewish males, from those of the non-Jews. Just as our souls are different, so we will have a sign to show how our bodies are different too. Just as Hashem’s plan for the Jew is to perfect the form of his soul through his actions in this world, so too, we perfect our bodies through this mitzvah.

Rabbeinu Bachya writes in כד הקמה in chapter מילה, Abraham was promised that his descendants would receive three מתנות from Hashem for fulfilling the mitzvah of ברית מילה.

מלכות בית דוד would never cease ארץ ישראל will be given to his Descendants forever and that the Divine Presence will rest among the Jewish people. Yet we find that the Arabs and many non-Jews circumcise themselves. If so, how is circumcision serving as a unique distinguishing physical feature of the Jew? The question is even stronger when we look at the Rambam in הלכות מלכים פ״י:ח

אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁבְּנֵי קְטוּרָה שֶׁהֵם זַרְעוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם שֶׁבָּא אַחַר יִשְׁמָעֵאל וְיִצְחָק חַיָּבִין בְּמִילָה. וְהוֹאִיל וְנִתְעָרְבוּ הַיּוֹם בְּנֵי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בִּבְנֵי קְטוּרָה יִתְחַיְּבוּ הַכּל בְּמִילָה בַּשְּׁמִינִי.

Our Sages have said that the sons of Keturah, those who are the Descendents of Abraham who came after Ishmael and Isaac, are obligated with the mitzvah of ברית מילה. However, today, since the Descendents of Ishmael have commingled with the children of Keturah, all of them are obligated with ברית מילה on the eighth day.

So it appears today there is no difference between the Jews and Arabs. Both are commanded to perform ברית מילה on themselves.

This clearly contradicts what we learn from the Sefer HaChinuch. How can we resolve this apparent conflict in opinions?

The מנחת חינוך offers an answer to this question. The main mitzvah of ברית מילה is פריעה which uncovers the skin by removing the thin membrane beneath the foreskin:

הנה בודאי פריעה הוא מגוף המצוה כמבואר בשבת פרא דמילה מל ולא פרע כאילו

……….לא מל לשיטת הרמבם מהמלכים דבני קטורה חייבים עתה גכ במילה .

אינם חייבין רק במילה ולא בפריעה כיון דהוא הלכה למשה מסיני והלכה למשה מסיני לא נאמרה רק

לישראל לבד…… אם כן נהי דבני קטורה חייבים דהם זרעו של אאעה אינם חייבין רק במילה ולא בפריעה כנלעד

Behold for sure פריעה is the main part of the mitzvah as it explains in the Gemara Shabbos פרא that circumcision without פריעה is considered as if no circumcision took place, according to the opinion of the Rambam in מהמלכים that the sons of Keturah are obligated also for circumcisions they are obligated just for circumcision, not פריעה since פריעה is הלכה למשה מסיני, and הלכה למשה מסיני was only said to the Jewish people it comes that out although the sons of Keturah are obligated for circumcision because they are from the seeds of Abraham they are only obligated for the circumcision not for פריעה this is how it appears to me.

If we take this approach, then the actual mitzvah given uniquely to the Jews is not the procedure of circumcision per se, which is done the world over for both religious and health reasons, but rather פריעה as given to us as הלכה למשה מסיני. The obligation of the Arabs mentioned by the Rambam is simply circumcision, removing the foreskin.

The Arabs only do a partial ברית. Superficially it looks very similar to ours but it is not. It is more like a Chinese imitation of a designer brand. To the outsider, the two may be indistinguishable but to those in the know, the imitation lacks certain features and is of far lesser value.

We have the complete sign of what Hashem wants us to do. However, since the Arabs have a partial mitzvah of ברית מילה, they are still rewarded. What is their reward?

Rabbi Novick brings down in his Sefer “Fascinating Torah Prophecies” pages 53-56 the Zohar 11 32a ויהב להו חולקא לתתא בארעא קדישא בנין ההוא נזירו דבהון וזמינין בני ישמעאל למשלט בארעא קדישא כד איתי ריקניא מכלא זמנא כמה דגזירו דלהון בריקיא בלא שלימו

Hashem will give the Arabs control over ארץ ישראל because of the bris. And it will be that Arabs will rule over ארץ ישראל while it is barren just as their bris is barren and not completed.

As mentioned above, the purpose of ברית מילה it is to perfect our souls. It is a lifelong struggle to reach this closeness to God as it states (כי־אדם לעמל יולד: (איוב פרק ה פסוק a man is born to labor

Maybe that could be the reason at the time of the circumcision we say:

כשם שנכנס לברית כן יכנס לתורה לחופה ולמעשים טובים

Just like he entered the bris, so shall he enter for Torah, the chuppah (wedding canopy), and the good deeds

He enters into the בּרית to reach the highest level of perfection that is humanly possible. How does he achieve this? Learning Torah brings a man closer to Hashem to serve him with happiness. True happiness depends on marriage as the Gemara (Yevamoth 63b) says the ultimate happiness a person can experience in this world is dependent upon marriage.

אמר רבי תנחום אר חנילאי כל אדם שאין לו אשה שרוי בלא שמחה בלא ברכה בלא טובה בלא שמחה דכתיב (דברים יד, כו) ושמחת אתה וביתך בלא ברכה דכתיב (יחזקאל מד, ל) להניח ברכה אל ביתך בלא טובה דכתיב (בראשית ב, יח) לא טוב היות האדם לבדו

Rabbi Tanḥum said that Rabbi Ḥanilai said: Any man who does not have a wife is left without happiness without blessing, without goodness.

And of course, a truly happy marriage is dependent on a lifetime of good deeds, thinking about the other and not himself.

Spiritual closeness in the physical world requires the removal of a physical barrier: ברית מילה. The בית אלהים (p.8) expounds a remarkably deep concept regarding the ברית מילה.

וזוו היא הוראת המילה ביום השמיני ללידתו,לומר שלא נברא האדם להתנהג על טבע העולם כבעלי חיים אלא לטרוח לפעול פעולויו מכוינות ליוצרו. ולהחליש בידיו דבר המבּיאו לידי עבירה,והיא הערלה,וביוםב השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו,להורות כי בזה יהיה גובר על טבע העולם,שהם שבעת הימים, ששת ימי המעשה ויום השביעי שנברא למנוחה,ואם כן האדם כולל המלכים שהם במדרגה עליונה, והבעלי חיים שהם במדרגה תחתונה

This is to teach us regarding the ברית מילה which is performed on the 8th day of the childbirth to say that a person is not created to accustom himself to the physical nature of the world — animalistic instincts solely for pleasure — but rather bother himself with his whole being to one who formed him (Hashem) and to weaken the thing which causes one to sin that is a foreskin on the 8th day he is circumcised of his foreskin to teach with this. Only by cutting off the foreskin can one be victorious over the nature of the world (Lust) which is 7 days (6 days were the days of creation and on the seventh day Hashem created rest). If so, man is in the category of מלכים which is the level of Heaven spirituality as opposed to animalistic lust which is the level of the physical world.

So cutting off the foreskin and completing the mitzvah with פריעה is the only way to achieve that spiritual closeness to Hashem in this physical world. In essence, true Bris Milah is a spiritual procedure. Hence the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (קיצור שולחן ערוך ה:טו🙂 who points out that whilst it is forbidden to say brachos or divrei Torah in the presence of nakedness, bris milah (where the baby is uncovered) is an exception. But why? It is still nakedness. Maybe one can answer that ברית מילה is a spiritual procedure even though it appears physical. As the בית יוסף writes in the טור יורה דעה סימן רוח :

מביא הראש שכתב וגם נראה דכיון דלתקוני המילה קא אתי הרינו ביה שפיר

והיה מחניך קדוש ואין בּו אותו שעה משום לא יראה בך ערות דבר דברים כג טו

The בית יוסף brings down the Rosh who writes that since he is completing the circumcision it is called “and so your camp shall be holy” and it is not at that moment “He will not see in you nakedness”.

The Rosh wants to teach us that even though ברית מילה may appear nakedness, since you are completing the spiritual aspect at that moment פריעה, it is purely holy therefore one can make a blessing in front of the baby fully uncovered. It is called

והיה מחניך קדוש “and so your camp shall be holy”.

In this way, the Jews are distinguished from the non-Jews. Even though their circumcisions may physically resemble ours, they remain physical procedures, whereas ours are spiritual ones.


Rabbi Dovid Abenson can be contacted at: Tel. 15147393629, Cell/Whatsapp 15149935300. Email: [email protected]. Rabbi Abenson is the founder and director of ShaarHatalmud, a unique yeshivah-based online program, which incorporates learning all Kodesh subjects, from Kriah all the way up to learning Gemara, Rishonim, and Shulchan Aruch. He also conducts evaluations, remediation, and training, and consults with Roshei HaYeshiva and Menahelim to improve students’ underdeveloped learning and textual skills.

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