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The Connection Between Circumcision and the Sacrifices

November 10, 2018

 

If you open up a traditional Edot Hamizrah prayer book and look for the pre-circumcision rites, you will find a recitation from the Zohar that equates the father’s voluntarily bringing his son to the circumcision with an act of animal sacrifice. Thereafter, you will find a prayer for the father to recite, which asks that God accept the father’s act as a “fragrant aroma,” the biblical term used to describe a sacrifice that is accepted with favor, and a prayer for the sandak to recite, that he serve as a proper altar. In the Shulhan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 264) it is written that if the father is not the mohel, he should stand over the mohel and observe the circumcision, because as the Vilna Gaon cites from the Tur, how can it be someone’s sacrifice is offered without him attending it? The Vilna Goan also points to a midrash in Wayiqra Rabba (Emor 27) that draws a halachic similarity between the animal intended for sacrifice and the child to be circumcised. Like many other kabbalistic ideas and concepts we have seen before, this one is implied by a careful reading of the relevant verses, the midrashic material, and, most importantly, the halacha, which, like in previous instances, draws an equivalence between sacrifice and circumcision.

The connections begin in Abraham’s story: At first He was instructed to just go to the land God would show him (Genesis 12:1), and when he got there, God promised the land to his descendants (12:7). Later, God also promised the land to Abraham himself (13:15). Still later, God initiated a covenant with Abraham (15:18), to give the land of Canaan to him and his descendants, a covenant meaning that the gift would be eternal, and that  it would be on condition that the people keep their side of the deal. As alluded to by the prophetic account of the covenant between the parts, Abraham was taught that the Jewish people would merit the land through their offering of the Temple sacrifices. Then, some years later, God added another condition: that His people should circumcise themselves (17:10). Abraham dutifully did so, and three days later he was awarded by having the opportunity to once again offer sacrifice, but this time in the presence of three angelic visitors. Ultimately, the two commandments that Abraham performed on God’s command, as tests of his faith, were to circumcise his son and to bring him as a sacrifice.

Therefore, because it is in the merit of both the sacrifices and circumcision that the Jewish people earn the right to posses the land of Israel, the texts of the prayers corresponding to the musafim invoke the ingathering of the exiles, and the post-circumcision blessing does likewise:

Therefore, in this merit O’ living God, our portion, our redeemer, commanded to save our dear remnant from destruction for the sake of the sign of the covenant He sealed in our flesh.

Saving the Jewish people is a liturgical expression for to the in gathering of the exiles, as I Chronicles 16:35: 

And say: ‘Save us, O God of our salvation, And gather us together and deliver us from the nations, That we may give thanks unto Your holy name, That we may triumph in Your praise.”

Later, we see that the commandment of circumcision directly connects to the fundamental paschal sacrifice,* both before the Exodus (12:43) and upon the begining of Joshua’s conquest (Joshua 5:1-10), and we find the words of the midrash to Ezekiel 16:6 that connects these two commandments: Rabbi Matthew ben Harash said that when the time came for the Exodus from Egypt, the Lord found the Israelites bereft of commandments to perform in order to merit redemption, and He therefore gave them the commandments of the blood of sacrifice and the blood of circumcision.

Most importantly, the halacha seems to equate circumcision with sacrifice, as all the laws of circumcision that have to do with the act have their parallel in the laws of sacrifices:

With regard to sacrifices, the main act is the ritual of the blood, which has to be received by the priest and thrown on the altar, while with regard to circumcision, the drawing of the blood is the main act, and therefore in cases where there is no foreskin, for example a child born without one or a convert who had previously been circumcised, blood must at least be drawn. 

Only animals at least eight days old may be brought as sacrifices, and only children at least eight days old are eligible for circumcision.

Only animals that are tamim, flawless, are to be made into sacrifices, and Abraham, when he was first given the commandment, was bidden to “walk before me and be tamim,” and as Rashi explains according to our sages, one who has a foreskin is considered to be blemished.

One who brings a sacrifice to the Temple celebrates the day as a personal yom tov, and one who circumcises his son has a personal yom tov, meaning that he is exempted from a public fast and its attendant prohibitions if it is on his yom tov.

The acts of circumcision and sacrifice override the Sabbath and yom tov when they are performed at their prescribed times.

Both are performed only during the day time, and ideally right at the begining of the day, and both should be done as soon as possible.

Circumcisions may be performed by any adult Jews, which technically includes women and “Canaanite” slaves, and similarly, the slaughter of all sacrifices may be performed by all.

Thus, circumcision is the only commandment that not only has blessings to be recited before the performance of the act, it has a blessing to be recited upon a cup of wine afterward, just like the sacrifices have a pre-performance blessing recited by the attending priests, and are followed by the singing of psalms upon the offering of the accompanying libations.

The bringing of the annual paschal sacrifice and the rite of circumcision are the only positive commandments that carry the penalty of kareth, excision from the rest of the nation, for one who fails to perform them.

We thus see that the sacrifices are the communal obligation to uphold the covenant, although each individual has a share in contributing toward the purchase of the sacrifices, while circumcision is the obligation incumbent on each every individual, although the authorities can and should intervene.

We also find that (Laws of Forbidden Relations 13):

 

Israel entered the covenant [with God] with three acts: circumcision, immersion, and offering a sacrifice. Circumcision took place in Egypt… Immersion was performed in the desert before the Giving of the Torah… Sacrifices [were also offered then], as [ibid. 24:5] states: “And he sent out the youth of the children of Israel and they brought burnt offerings…” For [all] future generations, when a gentile desires to enter into the covenant, take shelter under the wings of the Divine presence, and accept the yoke of the Torah, he must undergo circumcision, immersion, and the offering of a sacrifice.

That is, these two commandments are the ones that affect the sanctification of the individual as a Jew, and therefore we find all of these factors regarding Abraham and Isaac, whose acts of circumcision and sacrifice were mentioned above, and whose immersions in the purifying miqweh waters are also alluded to in the verses. With regards to Abraham, he invited his guests to “wash your feet and recline under the tree,” on which the Zohar comments that Abraham regularly encouraged his guests, that is, those who he wished to convert to monotheism, to wash themselves in the waters found near his tree, while with regard to Isaac we read that “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living waters… And he built an altar there, and called upon the name of the Lord, and pitched his tent there; and there Isaac’s servants dug a well,”** which plainly refers to a source of drinking water, but midrashically/metaphorically refers to a place of Torah study or slightly more literally, to a place of ritual immersion and purification. 

*As I was preparing this for publication, I just read this. If any of my readers know how to bring this to Rabbi Ziegler’s attention it would really help me.

** These verses also allude to the fact that Isaac’s tent, like that of his father’s, was a microcosm of the Temple: the altar was built outside of the tent, and there his students established a place of Torah study.

 

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