Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Survey Shabbat 131-135 (Sept. 10-14)

All of the previous 130 pages of rules for Shabbat are all well and good, but as we saw in our last survey there are times when real life interferes with absolute rest. In today’s survey, we see more examples of other Jewish obligations that directly impinge on Shabbat observance. While the original Mishnah text asks what actions may be taken on Shabbat to prepare for a Brit Milah [ritual circumcision], the Talmud broadens the exception to include the gathering of the omer [wheat sheaves] and preparation of two loaves for Shavuot, preparing the lulav and sukkah for Sukkot, matza [unleavened bread] for Passover, or the shofar for the New Year. After all, if the day before such important holidays happened to be Shabbat, without these exceptions who could prepare for the major festivals? The Talmud is very interested in how Rabbi Eliezer came up with all of these exceptions, though none of them are eliminated or really even modified by the subsequent discussion of their reasons. But Rabbi Akiva has the last word, and from a Talmudic perspective it makes sense: anything that can be done on the eve of Shabbat cannot supersede Shabbat, but that which could not be done then may be done on Shabbat. In other words, forgetting or being lazy is no excuse to break Shabbat!

A major part of this survey concerns the initial topic of the Mishnah passage – circumcision and Shabbat. The debate here is not whether one may circumcise on Shabbat or not, but rather whether one may do work on Shabbat to prepare the circumcisions “preliminaries” (i.e. its tools) as well. And how does everyone agree that circumcision supersedes Shabbat? The Talmud’s initial answer: halakha – it’s just the law. The medieval commentator Rashi uses the expanded formula of halakha l’moshe mi’sinai – it is a law from Moses on Sinai. In other words, this practice goes so far back that no can remember it ever being different, so that’s the way it is. There is much further discussion trying to find Scriptural connections for the rule, but in the end we know what the conclusion will be. Even the more interesting philosophical debate of whether or not one may save a life on Shabbat is derived from this question – if circumcision, which affects only part of a man, supersedes Shabbat, kal va’khomer [how much more so] saving the entire person.

Anthropologically, circumcision has been an important part of Jewish civilization for a long time, claiming mythological origins with Abraham but historically part of the culture of that part of the Middle East. It assumed greater importance during the clash with Hellenistic culture, which abhorred what it considered to be bodily mutilation, and by the time the Mishnah and Talmud were written it was the major baby welcoming ritual in Jewish life (there was a minimal ceremony for girls, but we have already seen plenty of other evidence of Talmudic patriarchy). This section of the Talmud provides a wealth of information on the rabbinic approach to this ritual in this period – by detailing the essentials that could be performed on Shabbat, we can learn what the general procedure was. The child would have the foreskin removed, the head of the penis uncovered, the wound would be sucked (to remove excess blood), and a compress with cumin would be placed on the wound. He would be washed both before and after the circumcision, and on the third day after as well.

We also learn some interesting details about infant care in general – Abaye has a series of sayings amra li ima “Mother told me”. If the baby doesn’t suck, its lips are cold so warm them up with a hot coal; if it doesn’t breathe, fan it with a fan or rub the placenta on it. And if a child is too red, its blood has not yet been absorbed; if too “green,” it is lacking blood. In either case, circumcision should be delayed until the child is healthier. And according to rabbinic law, circumcision could only supersede a major festival or Shabbat when being performed on the prescribed eighth day after birth, but not if delayed because of illness, because the baby’s survival is in doubt because of premature birth, or if it is hermaphroditic to a different day.

And what of the rare case of a child “born circumcised?” It is agreed that for that case, the foreskin has been suppressed and a ceremonial hatafat dam brit [drawing a few drops of covenant blood] is required. Whether Shabbat be superseded to do so is the point of debate. And for a convert who is already circumcised before his conversion, there is also a disagreement – Beit Hillel [the house of Hillel] would exempt him, but Beit Shammai would not. We can also read here about the requirements for circumcising slaves as they are acquired, or if they are born into a Jewish household based on the rules for circumcision described in Genesis 17.

In the end, what is our reaction to these discussions of circumcision for adults, infants and slaves, other than crossing our legs? We may be surprised by the imposition of circumcision on slaves (a barrier to Jews buying European slaves in the Middle Ages, by the way, since conversion to Judaism from Christianity was very dangerous), and the medical procedures for infant care and circumcision may seem quaint at best. But the institution of circumcision itself, as the Talmud itself concedes, is so far back in cultural memory that its practice is as deeply rooted in Jewish life as any one can imagine. As for the ethics of the ritual, that is not the Talmud’s concern.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

For more information on issues concerning circumcision, you can read the statement on Brit Milah of the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews at