This coming November, the people of San Francisco will vote on a referendum to make it a misdemeanor to circumcise any male under the age of 18. And while many Americans were surprised by the proposal, and great debates are raging on the internet, if the referendum passes, this will certainly not be the first time that circumcision has been outlawed. The most famous prohibition of circumcision occurred during the rule of the Syrian-Greeks during the era of the Maccabees. At that time, however, circumcision was actually a capital offense.

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar, as quoted in the Talmud: “Every precept for which Israel submitted [themselves] to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g. idolatry and circumcision, is still held firmly in their [the Jews’] minds” (Shabbat 130a).

Brit Milah, as circumcision is called in Hebrew, is a mitzvah that has withstood the test of time. Even Jews with only a tentative connection to Judaism still have their sons circumcised. Perhaps it is because this is a mitzvah that is done joyously (accompanied as it is with a festive meal) as it not only affirms the parents’ connection with Judaism, but the child’s link as well. According to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, the joy with which the Jewish people accepted this mitzvah is the reason that it is still observed.

Brit Milah is so important a mitzvah that the Talmud states: “Great is circumcision, for it counterbalances all the [other] laws of the Torah” (Nedarim 32a).

To those who oppose circumcision, the practice seems bizarre and arcane. And while numerous explanations for the ritual have been suggested by different sages throughout the generations, circumcision is a chok, a law that is performed as God’s decree, and no further explanation is needed.

Copyright © 2011 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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