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Why Does Circumcision Happen on the Eighth Day?

The ancient sign of the covenant between Jews and God.

Table for Five: Tazria

In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
Lev. 12:3

 

R’ Chanan (Antony) Gordon, Prominent Motivational Speaker

An analysis of the verbiage in our verse gives us a better understanding of the purpose of circumcision. While seemingly a physical act, the Bris Milah ceremony has a far more profound spiritual meaning.

When Abraham circumcised himself at age ninety-nine, G-d added the letter “heh” to his name. (Avram became Avraham.) “Heh” is part of Hashem’s own name, signifying that through Bris Milah, the human being adds a dimension of spirituality to the physical body.

It is a foundation of Judaism that we are to control our animal desires and direct them into spiritual pursuits. Nowhere does a person have more potential for expressing animalistic behavior than in the sex drive. That is precisely why the Bris Milah is done on this specific organ. If we bring holiness into our life there, then all other areas will follow.

The number eight is symbolic of something that is beyond nature. The fact that circumcision takes place on the eighth day is a reminder that not only on an individual level is the circumcision beyond the realm of just the physical, but on a macro level, the Jewish People should remember that we have capabilities that are beyond the scope of every other nation. May we accept our unique covenant with pride and achieve the level of greatness beyond the borders of nature.

 

R’ Yossi Eilfort, President, Magen Am USA

According to Kabbalah, the number Seven represents Nature and the Natural Order – as seen in the seven days of creation and seven days of the week. Indeed, many of our Mitzvot are rooted in this natural order. The number eight, therefore, represents that which is beyond nature. The commandment to carry out the Bris Milah on the eighth day is indicative of our relationship with G-d, which is above nature.

The whole of Jewish history and survival can only be understood as being supernatural – as even Mark Twain and Pascal have famously surmised. Statistically, our survival throughout these millennia should not have been possible. Yet, we have not only survived, but have been critical contributors to society in a variety of fields. We see this connection especially between the number eight and miraculous survival in the story of Chanukah.

One might argue that performing a circumcision later on in life would be preferable. Perhaps the child is less susceptible to illness later on, or the child may make his own decision. However, these arguments are predicated on the natural/rational order. That would in turn suggest this commandment needs to fit within the confines of humankind’s intellect.

Instead, our faith guides us to follow G-d’s command, not because of our own understanding, but out of acceptance for this miraculous relationship. While the world may tell us we are primitive or antiquated, our message to an eight-day-old child is simple: “YOU are a miracle.”

 

R’ Lori Shapiro, Founder/Open Temple

Form follows function is the architectural design principle that the form of something should relate to its primary function or purpose. A 19th century design concept, its common wisdom makes for a curious assay of Brit Milah, begging the question: if we are created “B’tzelem Elohim,” then why do male babies require a bissel surgery on Day 8?

The primacy of Brit Milah may grant insight into the answer, as the mitzvah itself is under the rabbinic category of “Mitzvah Overet,” meaning, a mitzvah whose prominence overrides all others. On the 8th day, nothing stands in the way of Brit Milah; Creation was 6 days; Shabbat 7, and the on 8th day the transmission of the work of creation is passed from God to humans as we take the perfection of human form into our own hands, and nothing is permitted to get in our way.

Circumcision is an ancient rite of tribal marking, practiced throughout space and time from Australian aborigines to South Sea Islanders; Incas, Aztecs and Mayans. Its significance ranges from a form of “sympathetic magic” to fertility. Scientifically, the data for its benefit or its harm cancels each other out. So why circumcise? The simplest response: it is a brilliant and visible sign of where the human experience of creation begins, perhaps also revealing the true origins of the notion Form Follows Function: Creation-Creator-Create.

 

R’ Miriam E. Hamrell, MHL, MAEd, ahavattorahla.org

About twenty-five years ago, I was serving as the Jewish chaplain in Santa Monica Hospital. A Jewish mother asked me if she should circumcise her newborn boy. I gasped for air. She saw my horrified face. “What?” I asked in a whisper. I thought I did not hear her right. She explained that she read some articles that claimed that circumcision has no health benefits and it is barbaric. “He can decide when he is an adult if to have a circumcision,” she added.

A bombshell! I grew up in Israel where all males were circumcised. There was never any doubt in anyone’s mind that eight days after a healthy male infant is born a circumcision ceremony is held. Many times, it is held in a celebration hall with two hundred or more guests. It is a huge Simcha.

After recovering from my shock, I explained to the young mother that it is commanded in the Torah. Circumcision was established by Abraham. It signifies the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people. It represents the covenantal relationship between the baby, his father, and God. It is the first and most important Mitzvah without which the child will not be considered a Jew. At the circumcision the child is given his Hebrew name establishing his Jewish identity and place in the Jewish community around the world. This family did the Brit-Covenant ceremony with fifty family members on hand. Another Jew joined the tribe. Thank God.

 

Ilana Wilner, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yeshiva University

I’ve always been intrigued by the significance of a brit milah occurring specifically on the eight day. Especially since Jewish culture has already placed emphasis on the number seven, why not have brit milah on day seven? Why day eight?

Throughout our parsha and the surrounding parshiyot there is a pattern of seven days and then the culmination event on the eighth. The first, from parshat Tzav, the seven days of inauguration for the mishkan, and ba’yom hashmini, and on the eight day, the climactic revelation. The second, is our pasuk – the seven days of impurity followed by the brit milah on the eighth. The third is the seven days of purification for a leper, and the eighth day, the metzorah is deemed pure.

Rav Hirsch beautifully compares the pattern of seven days followed by the eighth to a musical octave. An octave is a scale of eight musical notes. The eighth note isn’t the peak, rather it’s the repetition of the first note at a higher pitch. Similarly, the cycle of days doesn’t peak on the eighth, it’s the fresh beginning of yet another cycle, but at a higher level only made possible by the prior notes, or days. The inauguration of the mishkan didn’t conclude with God’s revelation on the eighth, a new cycle began with God’s constant presence.

This teaches us that the pattern is not seven days culminating on the eighth but rather a continuous cycle, each new moment drawing on those before it. The brit milah is performed on the eighth day, which is also the fresh beginning of a new cycle, at a higher level, as a child enters the history and the future of am Yisrael.

 

With thanks to Chanan (Antony) Gordon , Yossi Eilfort, Lori Shapiro, Miriam E. Hamrell, and Ilana Wilner

Image: Rabbi Shlomo Katz receives the baby’s name from the father at a bris in Efrat, 2014 – Mazal Tov!

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