Why circumcision overrides Shabbat

This week’s Torah portion is Tazria-Metzora, Leviticus 12:1-15:33.

“And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3).

The mitzvah of circumcision in the portion of Tazria appears amidst the discussion of the impure and pure periods immediately following childbirth. Furthermore, our sages specifically derive from this ordinance that the ritual of circumcision overrides Shabbat. Why express this crucial significance of circumcision — its precedence even over Shabbat — within the context of ritual impurity? What is the connection?

Targum Yonatan Ben Uziel links the two issues by interpreting: “And on the eighth day, when [biblically] she is permitted [to have sexual relations with her husband], on that [day] is [the baby] to be circumcised.” He is thereby citing the view of our sages, who understand that the circumcision must be on the eighth day following the birth.

I would like to suggest an additional connection. When a woman is in a state of ritual impurity, she and her husband are forbidden from engaging in sexual relations until she immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). Obviously this restriction demands a great deal of self-control and inner discipline. The major symbol that graphically expresses the importance of mastering one’s physical instincts is the command of circumcision: even the sexual organ itself, the physical manifestation of the male potency and the unbridled id, must be tempered and sanctified by the stamp of the divine.

I see a profound message: The human being is part of the physical creation of the world, a world that is subject to scientific rules of health and illness, life and death. The most obvious and tragic expression of our physicality is that, like all creatures, we humans are doomed to be born, disintegrate and die. And therefore the most radical example of ritual impurity is a human corpse.

However, an animal carcass, a dead reptile, and the blood of the menstrual cycle (fallout of the failed potential of fertilization) likewise cause ritual impurity. A woman in childbirth has a very close brush with death — both in terms of her own mortality as well as during the painful, anguished period preceding the moment when she hears the cry of a healthy, living baby.

God’s gift to the human being created in the divine image, however, is that in addition to physicality there is also spirituality; in addition to death there is also life eternal; in addition to ritual impurity (tuma) there is also ritual purity (tahara).

Hence, the human life that emerges from the mother’s womb brings in its wake not only the brush with death, tuma, but also the hope of new life, tahara. And while the tuma is for seven days, the tahara is for 33. The human being has the power to overcome his physical impediments and imperfections, to ennoble and sanctify his animal drives and instincts, to perfect human nature and redeem an imperfect world.

Yes, the world created by the Almighty is beautiful and magnificent, but it is also imperfect and incomplete. God has given the task of completion and redemption to the human being, who has the ability and capacity to circumcise himself, to sublimate his drives, to sanctify society and to complete the cosmos. And the command of circumcision belongs within the context of impurity and purity.

And this is also the meaning behind the principle that circumcision overrides Shabbat: The Sabbath testifies to God’s creation of the world — impressive and inspiring, but deliberately imperfect. Circumcision testifies to the human being’s challenge to redeem himself and perfect the world.

Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat.

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