This week’s Torah portion is Tazria (Leviticus12:1-13:59), meaning “to conceive” – which is the opening topic of this week’s reading, focusing on circumcision.


By Rabbi Ari Enkin

Point of interest: In most years, Tazria is combined with the portion read the following week, Metzora. This year, however, is a Jewish leap year. Unlike the leap year on the secular calendar, in which only a single day is added to the end of February (the day on which I was born!), a Jewish leap year has the addition of an entire month! As such, we separate some of the normally combined Torah portions in order to allow for the four extra weeks in the calendar to have their own Torah portion.

As the opening theme of the reading is conception, the mitzvah (commandment) of Brit Milah – circumcision – appears as well. As the Torah says, “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”

The question is asked: We already learned about the mitzvah of circumcision in the Book of Genesis, in connection with Abraham circumcising his son Isaac. What is it doing here now? Why do we suddenly need a refresher course?

The Talmud answers that although we did indeed learn about circumcision, the repetition here is to emphasize that a circumcision must take place “on the eighth day,” teaching us that performing a circumcision supersedes the laws of Shabbat.

As a general rule, surgeries and any other medical procedure that causes bleeding may not be done on Shabbat, except in life-and-death situations. We learn here that Brit Milah is an exception and must take place on the eighth day, even if it falls on Shabbat or any other holy day.

(Another example of this ruling is that it is forbidden to fast on Shabbat. However, since the Torah specifically says that Yom Kippur must be observed on the 10th of Tishrei, we understand that we must fast on Yom Kippur even when it falls on Shabbat.)

Circumcision and the Sabbath Have Something in Common

Why does the performance of Brit Milah (circumcision) take precedence over the laws of Shabbat?

They share a common denominator: both involve self-sacrifice.

It goes without saying that circumcision is a form of self-sacrifice – the baby is given a permanent physical change to his body (albeit against his will). This change, tradition tell us, instills within the child a holiness –a Jewish holiness- that remains with him throughout his lifetime.

So, too, when one observes Shabbat, he or she refrains from work and sacrifices potential income. As a result, God instills in the person a neshama yeteira on Shabbat, an additional soul, which makes him or her slightly holier than during the week. Since the message of Brit Milah and Shabbat are so similar, it is permitted to perform the circumcision on Shabbat.

Moving on to another teaching about Brit Milah, the Talmud relates an episode when King David, having entered a bathhouse, despaired that he was devoid of mitzvot. Unclothed, he was not wearing tefillin (phylacteries) or tzitzit (fringes on a prayer shawl), and therefore felt disconnected from God. He quickly recalled, however, that he had been circumcised, meaning that he had a mitzvah imprinted on his body at all times!

A lesson we can take from this week’s Torah reading is that God does not take self-sacrifice lightly. Each act we do that involves self-sacrifice is noted by God and rewarded accordingly.

We discussed a holiness that develops in one’s soul. We are also taught that financial self-sacrifice is reimbursed by God accordingly. Indeed, we are told that any money spent to enhance the Shabbat, such as purchasing delicious food, somehow finds its way back to our bank accounts!

Remember: God knows the efforts that you make!

Author: Rabbi Ari Enkin
Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
Date: Mar. 27, 2014

Click below to read more Living Torah articles on this week’s Torah portion:

1. Living Torah: Compassion for Sinners

2. Doves and Pigeons: Reading Between the Lines