Follow by Email

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Is Circumcision Healthy?


Rosh Hashanah 34

Today's Life Yomi is dedicated in memory of Simon Allen z"l, by his children Clive & Luba Allen.  May the neshama have an aliyah and may you have long life.

There is a disturbing new trend amongst some intermarried couples to abstain from providing their children with a bris, fifty percent of whom are one hundred percent Jewish.   They call themselves ‘intactivists’ and claim that it is an archaic act that does not help the child.

The good news is that the latest medical news on circumcision lets us all breathe a sigh of relief.  The Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal recently reported that "circumcision significantly reduced the chances of contracting a number of diseases, including urinary tract infections, human papillomavirus and HIV."

Should we be basing our religious practice on contemporary science?

One of the hallmarks of Protestantism is Sola Scriptura, which means that the true interpretation of the Bible is the one that accords best with the plain meaning of the text.   Judaism does not believe in this concept.  When Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, he received the Written Law and the Oral Law, the latter being the explanation of the text.

Thus, for example, if I would literally expound the verse, “Do not cook a goat in its mother’s milk,” the application would be very narrow.  With the Oral Law, we understand that this law has wider ramifications, extending to the prohibitions of cooking, eating and even so much as deriving benefit from any form of meat and milk mixtures. 

Nevertheless, our pashtanim – Biblical exegetes – have always looked to the text in an effort to understand and derive lesson and law, in such cases where there is no Oral tradition of requisite exposition. 

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow a long sound, called tekiah, followed by a broken start-stop sound, called in the Torah teruah followed by another tekiah.   There is a Talmudic debate concerning the nature of the teruah sound and so we blow a couple of different star-stop sounds to cover all opinions. 

Why do we blow the tekiah-teruah-tekiah?  Regarding the shofar blast in the Jubilee year, the Torah states, “You shall carry a blast (teruah) of the shofar in the seventh month on the tenth of the month, on Yom Kippur you shall carry the [sound of the] shofar throughout your land.”  The Talmud explains that the ‘carried note’ is the tekiah which is long.  It is then followed in the verse by the “teruah of the shofar,” and finally we are told to “carry the shofar” a second time.  And so we have the obligation to blow tekiah-teruah-tekiah.

The Talmud inquires why the Torah mentions that Yom Kippur is in the seventh month, when even the most ignorant Jew knows when Yom Kippur is!   And the Sages answer that from these extra couple of words, we derive that every time we blow shofar in the seventh month, it should follow this sequence of tekiah-teruah-tekiah.  This derivation is a form of Biblical exegesis.  The words “seventh month” are unnecessary for the Jubilee year instructions and so the Rabbis use the redundant words for an alternative teaching, namely that every year on Rosh Hashanah (the beginning of the seventh month) we blow tekiah-teruah-tekiah.

The Talmud then quotes three verses where the word teruah is used, which teaches that we must blow the tekiah-teruah-tekiah sequence three times. 

How can we utilize the word teruah, which is found once concerning the Yom Kippur Jubilee and twice concerning Rosh Hashanah, to teach us that on each of these occasions we must blow three times?  The Talmud answers that we know this law due to a gezerah shavah.

A gezerah shavah is an Oral Law teaching given to Moses whereby the Torah uses the same word in two places to teach us that the same law applies to both situations.

The gezerah shavah here is the word shevii (seventh), mentioned both in connection to Rosh Hashanah and the Yom Kippur Jubilee. Says the Talmud, our Oral tradition teaches that all laws pertaining to the shofar on each of these two occasions are the same.

Asks the Talmud: If all the laws are the same, why did we need the Biblical exegesis above?

The Talmud answers:  True, we didn’t really need it.  The gezerah shavah trumps any rational exegetical exercise.  But the rabbi who taught the piece wanted to demonstrate that sans gezerah shavah, we’d have been able to derive part of the law with our own rationale.  Now that we have the gezerah shavah, that’s the true source for our shofar practice.

We do mitzvos, whether they be shofar or bris milah, not because we can rationally explain them.  We do it because G-d told us to.  The Talmud is teaching us that even if we can find a way to explain the law, that becomes irrelevant once we know that G-d has mandated it.

Gezerah shavah trumps Biblical exegesis means that a tradition given by G-d to Moses is the most pressing reason to do a mitzvah.  No rational explanation can match that.  Medical opinion fluctuates as new scientific discoveries are made.  Torah is a constant. 

While we certainly have a tradition of taamei hamitzvos – making an effort to figure out the rationale behind the mitzvos – that’s not our primary motivation.  We do it because the Almighty told us to do it.  If we can figure out the reason, that’s a bonus.  It’s helpful, but it’s not why we do it.

All mitzvos have a reason.   King Solomon said that he was able to understand the rationale behind all the mitzvos bar one.  He could not fathom the process of purification associated with the red heifer.  Even that mitzvah has a reason, perhaps known only to the Almighty Himself.  But understanding the rationale was not Solomon’s motive for his performance of mitzvos.  He did them because G-d told Moses on Mt. Sinai that we must do them.


Strive to do mitzvos because the Almighty has instructed you to do them!  He has given you an abundance of opportunities to connect with Him and to achieve merit in this world and the next.  Don’t serve yourself, serve Hashem!