“Circumcision and Shabbat”
(updated and revised from Tazria-Metzorah 5764-2004)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In order to properly coordinate the weekly Torah readings with the Hebrew calendar, two parashiot are read this week–Tazria and Mezorah. While the basic subject matter of these two parashiot concerns the biblical disease tzaraat, (for more information, see weekly message, Tazria 5763-2003), the opening portion of parashat Tazria is concerned with the laws of childbirth, circumcision and purification.

Leviticus 12:2-3 reads: אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ וְיָלְדָה זָכָר…וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ . When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male child…on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Because of the emphasis on the word וּבַיּוֹם –and on the (eighth) day, the rabbis, in Tractate Shabbat, 132a, conclude that circumcision supersedes Shabbat. And, so, the Jewish practice is that if a child is born on Shabbat (natural birth, no Caesarean), when we know for certain that it is Shabbat (not during the period of dusk or sunset), the circumcision normally takes place on the following Shabbat.

That circumcision should override the prohibitions of Shabbat is quite radical, since on numerous instances in Jewish law many essential practices and rituals are cancelled or suspended due to Shabbat. So for instance, despite the biblical rituals of Shofar and Lulav, when Rosh Hashana occurs on Shabbat, we do not sound the shofar, nor do we make blessings over the Lulav and Etrog when Sukkot occurs on Shabbat.

Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni, in an illuminating study on this issue found in his erudite “Reflections on the Weekly Portion,” cites Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, who explains that since our calendars today are no longer based on the actual sighting of the moon, the dates of the Jewish holidays are no longer definitive. Consequently, the actual day that we celebrate Rosh Hashana and Sukkot may not be the actual Biblical day. Concerning Shabbat however, there is no question regarding its proper observance–since Shabbat is always the seventh day of the week. Therefore, we may not compromise the sanctity of the Shabbat by sounding the Shofar on Rosh Hashana that occurs on Shabbat or taking the four species on the Shabbat of Sukkot, since we are not absolutely certain that we are celebrating the actual festival day. Our rabbis are concerned that a person may carry a Shofar or Lulav in the public domain in order to ask a question about its validity, and thus violate the Shabbat. But, since there is no question about the requirement to perform the brit on the eighth day, the brit does override Shabbat.

Why, after all, should a brit supersede Shabbat? Aside from the fact that the Torah clearly states (Leviticus 12:3) that “on the eighth day he shall be circumcised,” our rabbis explain that the Hebrew word אוֹת , which means “sign,” is found in the Torah with regard to both Shabbat–(Exodus 31:17) אוֹת הִוא לְעֹלָם , it [the Shabbat] is a sign forever, and circumcision (Genesis 17:11), וְהָיָה לְאוֹת בְּרִית בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם , and my sign [in your flesh] shall be between me and you.

In his commentary on the Bible, known as the Torah Temimah, Rabbi Baruch Epstein maintains that the power of Shabbat stems from the fact that it is a sign—אוֹת of a covenant between G-d and the Jewish people for all generations. Because of its great sanctity, the Sabbath is not pushed aside for other mitzvot. However, since circumcision is also a sign—אוֹת of a covenant for all generations between G-d and the people of Israel, its power is equal to that of Shabbat. Consequently, circumcision supersedes Shabbat and, under normal circumstances, is to be performed at its proper time.

We see then, that two of the most powerful forces in Jewish life, circumcision and Shabbat, converge to form a potent sign of eternity, melding the Jewish people and its practices to the Creator.

May you be blessed.