We read in our parashah, “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall
be circumcised.” The Gemara (Sanhedrin 59b) says that, though this mitzvah
was taught earlier in the Torah, it is repeated here to emphasize, “On the
eighth day” – even when it falls on Shabbat.
Why does brit milah supersede the prohibitions of Shabbat?
R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z”l (see back page) explains: Unlike most
mitzvot, brit milah and Shabbat both involve an act of self-sacrifice in the
present that creates holiness affecting the person’s entire future. When a
baby is circumcised, he undergoes self-sacrifice--a physical operation--but
is instilled with a spirit of kedushah which remains with him for his entire
life and which influences his future actions. Likewise, when one observes
Shabbat, he undergoes self-sacrifice--refraining from work--but is instilled
with a neshamah yeteirah / “extra soul” which makes his Shabbat “m’ein Olam
Haba” / “a foretaste of the World-to-Come.” Because brit milah thus
complements the message of Shabbat, it is permitted on Shabbat.
The Gemara says that mitzvot which are mentioned in the Torah both before
and after the story of the Giving of the Torah (for example, the prohibition
on murder; see Bereishit 9:6) apply to both Jews and non-Jews. Why then,
does brit milah (which is mentioned in Parashat Lech Lecha and here) not
apply to both Jews and non-Jews? The Gemara answers that brit milah does
not count as a mitzvah that is mentioned twice because it is repeated in our
parashah only to teach the detail that it supersedes Shabbat. In light of
the above, R’ Kook adds, we can say that it is not merely a detail that brit
milah supersedes Shabbat. To the contrary, this fact teaches us the very
nature of the mitzvah. (Shemuot Ha’Raiyah: Bereishit p.57)
“On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.”
The Gemara (Menachot 43b) relates that King David was in the bathhouse and
felt himself devoid of mitzvot, as one cannot wear tefilin or tzitzit or
study Torah while taking a bath. The he remembered that he was circumcised,
and he rejoiced. Upon leaving the bathhouse, he exclaimed (Tehilim
119:162), “I rejoice over Your words like one who finds a great treasure.”
R’ Shalom Rokeach z”l (1779-1855; the first Belzer Rebbe) asks: Why is
finding a great treasure an appropriate metaphor for the mitzah of brit
milah? He explains:
Most mitzvot require some form of preparation. Some mitzvot, like Shabbat,
require a few days of preparations. Others, such as Pesach, require weeks
of preparations. The mitzvah of eating the fruits of a four-year-old tree
in Yerushalayim requires years of preparation. Performing these mitzvot can
feel anti-climactic, since one has been anticipating them throughout the
period of preparation.
One doesn’t prepare for his brit milah; in fact, he is barely aware that it
is being done. Then, one day, he realizes that he is circumcised. This is
indeed like suddenly finding a treasure. (Midbar Kodesh)
“Upon the completion of the days of her purity for a son or for a
daughter, she shall bring a sheep . . . This is the law of one who gives
birth to a male or to a female. But if she cannot afford a sheep . . .”
R’ Avraham Elkanah Kahana-Shapira z”l (1914-2007; rosh yeshiva of Merkaz
Harav and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel) quotes one of the Belzer Rebbes
as asking: Why is the phrase “This is the law of one who gives birth” placed
between the rich woman’s korban and the poor woman’s korban? Shouldn’t this
phrase be the conclusion after all of the childbirth-sacrifices have been
described? The answer, said the Rebbe, is that after describing the rich
woman’s sacrifice, the Torah says, “This is the law of one who gives birth,”
as if to say: Ideally, this is the way it should be, i.e., all Jews should
be financially comfortable. But, if there is a poor woman, she should bring
the following sacrifice after giving birth.
R’ Shapira adds: This may explain also why Yaakov blessed Yosef (Bereishit
48:20), “Through you shall Yisrael bless [their children] saying, ‘May
Elokim make you like Ephraim and like Menashe’.” Why Ephraim and Menashe,
not Reuven, Shimon, Levi, etc.? The answer is that all of Yaakov’s sons
experienced poverty and deprivation at some point in their lives, for
example, in Lavan’s house. When a Jew blesses his children, he should bless
them with the ideal--that, like Ephraim and Menashe, who were raised as sons
of the Egyptian viceroy, they should never know any deprivation. (Imrei Shefer)
“[Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to his students]: Go out and discern which
is the evil path from which a person should distance himself. Rabbi Eliezer
says, ‘A bad eye.’ Rabbi Yehoshua says, ‘A wicked friend.’ Rabbi Yose
[Hakohen] says, ‘A wicked neighbor.’ Rabbi Shimon [ben Netanel] says, ‘One
who borrows and does not repay.’ . . . Rabbi Elazar ben Arach says, ‘A
wicked heart’.” (Ch. 2)
Rabbeinu Yonah Gerondi z”l (Spain; died 1263) comments: In the immediately
preceding passage, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked his students what is the
proper path to which a person should cling. Why is he now asking their
opinions of the evil path from which a person should distance himself?
Wouldn’t he expect them to just give the opposite of their prior answers?
R’ Yonah explains: At first glance, the opposite of a good trait is not bad.
For example, the trait of “chassidut” refers to going beyond the letter of
the law. One who is not a “chassid” is not bad. To the contrary, if he
observes the letter of the law, he is a “tzaddik” / righteous person.
R’ Yonah continues: Rabbi Eliezer identified “a good eye” (i.e., generosity)
as the proper path, and “a bad eye” (i.e., miserliness) as the path to
avoid. One might have argued that generosity is good, but the absence of
generosity is neutral, since it does not deprive others of what belongs to
them. Rabbi Eliezer teaches that this is not the case. In fact, Rabbi
Eliezer is teaching us that our initial assumption is incorrect. It is bad
not to strive to be a “chassid.” This is what King Shlomo meant when he
wrote (Kohelet 10:1), “Dead flies putrefy the perfumer's oil; a little folly
outweighs wisdom and honor.” One might argue: Flies are so tiny! How can
they spoil a large vat of perfume?! Nevertheless, it is a fact that they
do. So, too, a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. The absence of
even one good trait has a significant effect on a person’s overall quality.
Regarding the responses of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yose (respectively, “A
wicked friend” and “A wicked neighbor”), R’ Yonah comments: Do not be one!
[By this comment, R’ Yonah is teaching that the focus is not on our friends’
and neighbors’ behavior, but on our own.]
Finally, regarding the observation of Rabbi Shimon, that the path to avoid
is that of a person who borrows and does not repay, R’ Yonah comments: Rabbi
Shimon said that the proper path is to foresee the future. One might think
that a person can’t be criticized for not foreseeing the future; maybe that
requires special talent. Rabbi Shimon is illustrating, however, that there
are everyday consequences to failing to foresee the future. One example,
which is all-too-common, is that a person borrows money without having any
idea of where he will obtain the funds to repay his debt. (Commentary to
Letters from Our Sages
This letter was written by R’ Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z"l
(1865-1935), who later would become the first Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of
Eretz Yisrael, when he was rabbi of Yafo (Jaffa). When this letter was
written, its destination, the settlement of Rechovot – now a city of more
than 100,000 – was a new settlement under the jurisdiction of the rabbi of
Yafo. The letter is printed in Igrot Ha’Rayah, Vol. I, No. 35.
B"H, in the holy city of Yafo, may it be built and established,
17 Adar 5666 
To the honorable council of Rechovot, may it be built and established,
Shalom and berachah!
I received your letter regarding the incident involving Rabbi K and Mr. A.
Before I comment, you must understand the pain that such incidents cause me,
especially in a place so precious to my soul. Thus, I hope this is no more
than a spat between brothers, which will quickly pass leaving no painful
repercussions, and that we will be able to look back with a strength that
allows us to withstand the feelings of sickness [paraphrasing Yirmiyahu 8:18].
It is my strongly held position to stand behind the internal administration
of the settlements and to accustom people to do the same. Therefore, it is
very appropriate to validate the judgment of the council and public meeting
regarding penalizing an individual. On the other hand, Rabbi K is an
outstanding Torah scholar and the author of important Talmud commentaries.
I believe that it would not reflect well on the council or the settlement if
there is an impression, even a false one, that hatred of Torah scholars,
which sometimes motivates individuals, played role in the severity of the
judgment. Moreover, we cannot escape the obligation to honor the Torah and
its students even if such a student acts mistakenly. Therefore, my opinion
is that Mr. A and Rabbi K should be kind enough to come here [Yafo] and,
with G-d’s help, I will endeavor to make peace with honor between them.
I sign with blessings and expressions of honor.
The editors hope these brief 'snippets' will engender further study
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your letters are appreciated. Web archives at Torah.org start with 5758 (1997) and
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