“Circumcision and Shabbat”

by Rabbi Ephraimn 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 D’var Torah, Tazria 5763-2003), the opening portion of parashat Tazria deals with the laws of childbirth and purification.

Leviticus 12:2-3 reads: “Ee’shah kee taz’ree’ah v’yal’dah zachar…ooh’vah’yom hash’mee’nee yee’mol b’sar ahr’lah’to.” When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male…on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. Because of the emphasis on the word “ooh’vah’yom –and on the (eighth) day, the rabbis, in Tractate Shabbat, 132a, conclude that circumcision supercedes 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 in 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 origin of the rituals of Shofar and Lulav, when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat, we do not sound the shofar, nor do we make blessings over the Lulav and Etrog when Sukkot falls on Shabbat.

In Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni’s illuminating study of this issue found in his erudite “Reflections on the Weekly Portion,” Rabbi Nachshoni cites Rabbi Baruch Epstein (1860-1941), 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. With regards to 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 Shabbat Rosh Hashana 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 one would 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.

But why, after all, should a brit supercede 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 “oht” which means “sign” is found in the Torah with regard to both Shabbat–(Exodus 31:17) “oht hee l’oh’lam” , it [Shabbat] is a sign forever, and circumcision (Genesis 17:11), “Ve’ha’ya l’oht brit bay’nee ooh’vay’nay’chem” , 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 states that the power of Shabbat stems from the fact that it is a sign– “oht” 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 of a covenant for all generations between G-d and the people of Israel, its power is equal to that of Shabbat. Consequently, a circumcision supercedes Shabbat and, under normal circumstances, is to be performed at its proper time.

We see then, that two of the most powerful forces found 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.