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The Mitzva of Mila: Fundamental Concepts

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file


Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Yitzchak Barth
Translated by David Silverberg


     The mitzva of mila (circumcision) appears twice in the Chumash, in elaborate form in Parashat Lekh-Lekha, and only very briefly in Parashat Tazria: "… and on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Vayikra 12:2).  A careful reading of the relevant verses reveals several differences between the two contexts, differences which touch upon a number of fundamental principles of this mitzva.  In Parashat Lekh-Lekha, God instructs Avraham to circumcise himself and "your offspring after you, for all ages" (Bereishit 17:9).  This would imply that every individual is required to circumcise himself.  Alternatively, we may understand that everyone must circumcise his offspring.  In Parashat Tazria, the Torah mentions nothing regarding on whom the obligation rests.  (As for the halakha, obviously an eight-day old child does not circumcise himself.)  We will discuss this question and its various implications, but we must first note that the issue of "upon whom does the obligation rest" actually consists of two distinct questions.  First, to whom does the mitzva apply; to which group of people?  Secondly, specifically upon whose shoulders does this obligation rest? 

Which Group of People? 

     In essence, it is the verse in Parashat Tazria that obligates us in this mitzva, as it, unlike the verses in Parashat Lekh-Lekha, was stated after Matan Torah.  Nevertheless, the question arises as to how we view the section in Lekh-Lekha once the mitzva was repeated at Sinai: Does the section in Lekh-Lekha remain as a source of obligation, or does the command issued after Matan Torah constitute a new obligation that eliminates the previous one? 

     The Gemara in Masekhet Sanhedrin (59a) discusses the mitzvot given to the benei Noach and repeated at Sinai.  The Gemara writes: 

"Every mitzva that was said to the benei Noach and repeated at Sinai - it applies to both.  If it was said to the benei Noach and not repeated at Sinai - it applies to Israel, but not to the benei Noach.  But was not mila said to the benei Noach and repeated at Sinai, and yet it applies to Israel and not to the benei Noach!  That [verse, stated after Matan Torah] came only to permit it [circumcision] on Shabbat." 

Meaning, although generally mitzvot presented both before and after Matan Torah oblige both benei Noach and Benei Yisrael, the former group is not bound by the mitzva of mila, because the mitzva's repetition serves only to require circumcision even on Shabbat.  This seems to mean that before Matan Torah the mitzva was issued to a certain group from among the benei Noach, and that group later became known as "Am Yisrael." 

The Gemara proceeds to bring a second explanation: "Mila - originally the Torah instructed only Avraham, and 'You shall observe My covenant, you and your offspring after you, for all ages' comes [to teach that] you and your offspring - yes; others - no."  According to this approach, God initially transmitted the mitzva of mila only to Avraham and his family; therefore, we do not classify this mitzva as one issued to benei Noach and repeated at Sinai.  On this basis, the Gemara addresses the possible obligation of the offspring of Yishmael, Esav and benei Ketura (who all descend from Avraham Avinu) in the mitzva of circumcision.  The Gemara concludes that the verse, "for it is through Yitzchak that offspring shall be continued for you" excludes Yishmael and Esav from the obligation of mila.  The sons of Ketura, however, are obligated in the mitzva.  Rashi there explains that this refers only to Ketura's six sons, not their descendants. 

We can understand this position, that the obligation does not bind the descendants of benei Ketura, if we view the commandment to Avraham as consisting of two distinct parts: the command to Avraham himself, and the command to his offspring.  Indeed, God declared that the mitzva be observed by "you, and your offspring after you for all ages," suggesting two different components of this obligation.  The command to Avraham included all his sons, including Yishmael, Esav and benei Ketura, whereas the obligation for all ages does not include them. 

The Rambam (Hilkhot Melakhim 10:7) disagrees, and maintains that the mitzva applies even to the descendants of benei Ketura.  He adds that since they have become ethnically joined with the descendants of Yishmael, they all - even those descended from Yishmael - must undergo circumcision on the eighth day.  The Rambam's position appears to better accommodate the Gemara than does Rashi's, as the Gemara discusses benei Ketura and benei Yishmael equally, without ever clarifying that "benei Ketura" refers only to Ketura's six sons, and not their offspring. 

Logically, however, the Rambam's view is far less intuitive.  If the mitzva of circumcision applies to the descendants of Ketura, why is it not listed among the Noachide laws?  We may perhaps answer quite simply, that the list of Noachide laws consists only of prohibitions, not obligations.  According to this explanation, benei Ketura are included in the covenant between the Almighty and Am Yisrael. 

     The Rambam's position gives rise to several interesting questions.  The first relates to the transformation in status generally associated with mila.  The Gemara in Masekhet Nedarim (31b) discusses a vow taken by which one forbids himself from deriving benefit from "nimolim" (circumcised people) or, conversely, from "arelim" (uncircumcised people).  The Gemara rules that in the former case, the individual may not derive benefit from any Jews and may from all gentiles.  This implies that even an uncircumcised Jew is formally considered "circumcised," and, by the same token, even a circumcised gentile has the formal status of "uncircumcised."  It emerges from the Gemara in Masekhet Yevamot (66a) that the "uncircumcised" status of a circumcised gentile has halakhic, and not purely linguistic, implications, and a circumcised gentile is deemed an "arel" for halakhic purposes.  (See Rashi to Shemot 12:48.)  According to the Rambam's view, the question arises as to the status of a circumcised ben Ketura, whether we should consider him for purposes of halakha an "arel" or a "nimol."  Additionally, the inclusion of benei Ketura in this mitzva gives rise to the question of whether or not they are obligated in all details of this obligation, including peri'a (the removal of the skin membrane after the actual circumcision) and hatafat dam berit (producing blood as symbolic of the covenant). 

Upon Whom Does the Obligation Rest? 

     The Torah writes in Parashat Shemini, "the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised."  In Parashat Lekh-Lekha, we read, "Throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised."  These verses give no indication as to on whom the obligation rests.  We could perhaps assume that the mitzva is charged upon the one responsible for the one being circumcised - a father for his son, and a master for his servant.  Indeed, the mishna in Masekhet Kiddushin (29a) establishes that "All mitzvot which a father must perform for his son - men are obligated, and women are exempt."  The Gemara cites as examples of this category the mitzvot of mila and pidyon ha-ben.  As a source for the father's obligation to circumcise his son, the Gemara cites a verse from Parashat Vayera (Bereishit 21:4): "Avraham circumcised his son, Yitzchak, at the age of eight days, as God commanded him."  The Gemara adds that if the father is unable to circumcise the son, Bet Din bears the responsibility to do so, as derived from the verse, "shall be circumcised FOR YOU ['lakhem' - in the plural form]."  If Bet Din neglects to circumcise the boy, he must circumcise himself. 

     With regard to the Bet Din's obligation, the Acharonim discuss whether this constitutes an obligation on Bet Din themselves, or on the community as a whole, on whose behalf Bet Din acts.  According to the second possibility, it turns out that if there is no Bet Din to see to the child's circumcision, every Jew bears a personal obligation to circumcise the child. 

     In any event, we see that on the basic level the mitzva rests on the shoulders of the father.  Indeed, the Rambam, in his koteret (heading) to Hilkhot Mila, describes the mitzva as, "to circumcise males on the eighth day."  In the first halakha he writes, "There is a mitzva for a father to circumcise his son, and for a master to circumcise his servants; if a father or master neglected to circumcise them, he has transgressed a mitzvat asei."  The Rambam similarly writes in Sefer Ha-mitzvot (215), "There is a mitzva to circumcise one's son, as it says, 'and on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised'."  

     Once we have established that it is the father who is charged with this mitzva, a question arises as to the precise definition of this obligation.  Must the father merely see to it that his son is circumcised, but bears no obligation to personally perform the ritual, or is he specifically charged with the obligation to personally circumcise his son?  This question would yield ramifications in cases where the father cannot personally perform the circumcision.  Must he formally designate a shalia'ch (messenger, or agent) to circumcise his son on his behalf, or is there no need to do so, since the father bears only an obligation to see to it that the circumcision takes place?  Or, if we claim that a father does, indeed, bear a personal obligation in this regard, perhaps shelichut is not an effective means of fulfilling this requirement. 

     The Gemara in Masekhet Chulin (87a) tells that a person once slaughtered an animal and someone else came along and performed the kisuy ha-dam (the required covering of the blood).  Rabban Gamliel required the latter to pay the former ten gold coins for having stolen his mitzva.  The Rosh (Piskei Ha-Rosh, Chulin 6:8) writes that if a father wanted to circumcise his son but someone else performed the mitzva instead, he must pay the father ten gold coins.  If, however, the father did not want to perform the mitzva personally, and rather preferred to let somebody else do so, then the mitzva is charged upon all of Kelal Yisrael.  Consequently, whoever performs the circumcision need not pay the father.  The Rosh records that indeed such a case occurred and Rabbenu Tam exempted the mohel from paying.  The Rosh here clearly implies that the father bears personal obligation with regard to the mila, and this obligation is not subject to shelichut.  His student, Rabbenu Yerucham, writes similarly, as cited in the Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 382).  Accordingly, the Shakh there rules that whoever has the ability to circumcise his son personally but opts instead to have someone else do so has transgressed a mitzvat asei. 

     By contrast, the Ketzot Ha-choshen cites the Tevu'ot Shor as claiming that one may designate a shaliach to circumcise one's son on his behalf.  (See also Bet Ha-levi 1:7.)  Rav Chayim Brisker argued and felt that only two possibilities could potentially exist in this regard: Either the father does not bear any personal obligation to circumcise the child, or he does, in which case he does not have shelichut as an option.  Rav Chayim himself, as well as the Ketzot, adopt the first of these two approaches, that no personal obligation is cast upon the father. 

     The notion that shelichut would be ineffective with respect to a father's personal obligation to circumcise his son is based upon the view of the Tosefot Rid, that one cannot fulfill through the agency of a shaliach a "mitzva she-be'gufo" (a mitzva involving one's own body).  Just as one cannot appoint a shaliach to perform the mitzva of tefillin on his behalf, so can he not have someone else circumcise his son for him.  Rav Soloveitchik zt"l claimed that whether or not we apply this rule to mila depends on the precise definition of "mitzva she-be'gufo."  This rule, that one cannot appoint a shaliach to perform this type of mitzva, lends itself to two different understandings.  First, one could explain that shelichut is ineffective in such situations because the obligation relates not to the object (e.g. there is no obligation that the matza should be eaten), but to the individual (the person must eat matza).  According to this explanation, a mitzva she-be'gufo does not allow for shelichut for a purely technical reason: one person's fulfillment of a mitzva cannot be transferred to someone else. 

     Alternatively, however, one could argue that shelichut fundamentally cannot take effect when dealing with a mitzva she-be'gufo.  Shelichut involves the transfer of ownership or control, akin to transferring the keys to a building.  A person cannot transfer a mitzva to his fellow, because he has no personal control over the fulfillment of the mitzva. 

     Rav Soloveitchik claimed that the issue of applying shelichut to mila hinges on these two approaches.  According to the first understanding, one can fulfill the obligation of his son's mila through an agent because this mitzva is perfectly executed thereby (as opposed to the consumption of matza, which is not performed by the same person in a case of shelichut).  The second approach, however, would not, at first glance, allow for the option of circumcising one's son through a shaliach, since the mitzva of mila is not in one's "possession" to transfer.  Those who do allow for shelichut in this regard either adopt the first approach to mitzva she-be'gufo, or maintain that the mitzva of mila does, in fact, feature this element of ownership and control required for the efficacy of shelichut.  Given a father's control over his child, he bears a personal obligation with respect to the mila, which he can then transfer. 

     We may perhaps draw evidence from the ruling of the Rambam (Hilkhot Mila 3:1) by which the text of the berakha over the mitzva of mila depends on who performs the circumcision.  When a father himself circumcises his son, he recites the berakha, "asher kideshanu… la-mul et ha-ben."  When someone else performs the mila, he recites, "asher kideshanu… al ha-mila."  This distinction likely reflects the fact that this mitzva personally obligates the father, thus yielding a specific text for the berakha when the father performs the circumcision. 

     Another question arises in this context, as well, which we will not deal with here: Until when does the father's obligation to circumcise his son last, and when does the son's own obligation with respect to his circumcision begin?  Neither the Rambam nor Sefer Ha-chinukh set any limit on the father's obligation to circumcise his son, as opposed to pidyon ha-ben, regarding which the Sefer Ha-chinukh writes that the father bears responsibility "until he [the son] becomes an adult." 


(This shiur was delivered in the yeshiva in 5759. The summary was not reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.)




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