Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Birth Right

You wouldn’t expect that the tractate on Shabbat would be the place to discuss circumcision. You’d be wrong.

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
Related Content

Can’t Touch This

Talmudic rabbis debate the reach of permissions and prohibitions, and Jews are rewarded for virtuous behavior

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

When my son was born on a Friday and I contacted a mohel to schedule the bris for the following Saturday, I was surprised to be asked whether the baby had been delivered by Caesarean section. If boys are delivered traditionally, I learned, they must be circumcised on their eighth day of life; but if they are delivered by C-section, the ritual can be postponed if the eighth day falls on Shabbat. I didn’t ask the mohel for the halakhic reasoning behind this distinction—as a new parent I had enough things to think about—but I finally learned it from reading the Talmud this week.

In Shabbat 135a, Rabbi Asi explains that the distinction has to do with the ritual purity status of the mother. Vaginal delivery renders the mother impure, tamei, for seven days, and it is only at the expiration of this term that circumcision takes place, as we learn from Leviticus: “If a woman bears seed and gives birth to a male, she shall be impure seven days, and on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.” The rabbis drew the corollary that, if a woman is not impure because she delivered by C-section, her son does not need to be circumcised on the eighth day. And since it is preferable not to perform a circumcision on Shabbat unless absolutely necessary, the circumcision or milah can be postponed until the ninth day in such cases. Of course, in Talmudic times Caesarean section would have been a very rare and dangerous operation, performed without anesthetic using unsterilized tools. The rabbis could hardly have imagined that in our day almost a third of births would happen this way.

You might not expect that Tractate Shabbat would be the place where the rabbis discuss the rules of circumcision. But this week’s Daf Yomi reading, covering Chapter 19, was devoted entirely to the medical and legal issues surrounding milah. The connection between Shabbat and circumcision is made at the beginning of the chapter, when the ongoing discussion about carrying and transferring on Shabbat focuses on the specific question of carrying a scalpel to perform a circumcision. Is it permitted to bring a scalpel through a public domain for this purpose?

The answer, the Mishnah tells us, is that ideally the scalpel should be brought to the place it will be used before Shabbat. If for some reason this can’t be done, the scalpel can be carried—but it should be carried uncovered, so that everyone can see that Shabbat is only being violated for the sake of milah. The rabbis allow an exception “in times of danger”—a reminder that, in many periods of Jewish history, circumcision was illegal and could only be done clandestinely. If carrying a scalpel openly might expose the mohel to persecution, he should cover it in the presence of witnesses, so that at least two Jews could testify as to what he was carrying on Shabbat and why.

This narrow ruling opens the way for an extensive discussion of circumcision. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel sets the tone by explaining that milah, despite its quasi-medical nature, is meant to be an occasion for rejoicing and festivity among Jews: “they perform it with joy.” (He contrasts this, in what seems like a wry spirit, with the wrangling that usually accompanies drawing up a marriage contract: “there is no marriage contract in which contentiousness does not arise.”) Shimon ben Elazar adds that circumcision was one of the crucial mitzvot that Jews under the Roman Empire died for rather than give up: “Any mitzvah for which the Jews sacrificed their lives at the time of the decrees of the empire, such as the prohibition of idolatry and the mitzvah of circumcision, is still steadfastly observed.”

Clearly, milah is one of the most important commandments for a Jew. The Gemara observes that “thirteen covenants were established over it,” because the word brit or “covenant” appears thirteen times in the discussion of milah in Genesis. But how do we know that it is so important that it even supersedes Shabbat? After all, we are not allowed to violate Shabbat in order to perform just any mitzvah. As the amoraim show in a long and intricate discussion, there must be a specific biblical warrant to show that a mitzvah takes precedent over Shabbat. Several examples are offered: Certain Temple offerings have to be performed even on Shabbat, as do the shaking of the lulav on Sukkot and the eating of matzoh on Passover. On the other hand, attaching tzitzit to a garment and putting up a mezuzah are not time-bound commandments, so they cannot be performed on Shabbat.

Circumcision, the rabbis conclude, is time-bound, since the Bible makes clear it must take place on the eighth day: “And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you throughout your generations,” reads Genesis 17:12. This means that it takes precedence even over Shabbat. Likewise, it takes precedence over the laws dealing with leprosy. Ordinarily, it is prohibited to cut off skin that bears signs of leprosy, such as a white spot; but if a foreskin has a white spot, it can be cut off. (I wondered whether this discussion was purely theoretical or not: Can a newborn contract leprosy?) This is established by means of what Latin calls an a fortiori argument and the Talmud calls a kal vachomer argument: If circumcision overrules Shabbat, and Shabbat laws are more important than leprosy laws, then circumcision must overrule leprosy too.

This point settled, the Talmud goes on to offer specific recommendations for how to perform a circumcision. Once the foreskin is removed, the wound must be salved with cumin and bandaged. More problematic is the instruction that the mohel must suck the blood from the penis with his mouth. This is the warrant for the practice of metzitzah b’peh, “oral suction,” which is still standard among some haredim. In recent years the practice has made headlines when it was discovered that some babies who underwent the procedure contracted herpes from the mohel. Before that publicity, I’d guess that the vast majority of Jews would have been shocked to learn that the practice even exists.

I’m no expert, of course, but based simply on what I read this week it doesn’t seem hard to justify abandoning the practice, even on the Talmud’s own grounds. The rabbis recommended metzitzah b’peh as a hygienic measure. That is why Rav Pappa said, “A craftsman who does not suck the blood after every circumcision is a danger to the child, and we remove him from his position.” This made sense at the time, because there was no better method of hygiene available—just as the rabbis recommended using cumin as a balm because herbal medicines were all they had. Today, when we know much more about infection and can take advantage of sterilized instruments and antibiotic salves, we can meet the Talmud’s goal—a safe milah—much more effectively using modern methods. (After all, we don’t perform C-sections using fifth-century surgical techniques.)

The rabbis also express concern about the aesthetic dimension of the circumcision. “Beautify yourself before Him in mitzvot,” the Talmud quotes, explaining that rituals should be done in a pleasing fashion: “Make before Him a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit,” and by analogy, a beautiful circumcision. Thus a mohel should not leave “shreds of skin” behind, and if he does he is allowed to go back and remove them, even on Shabbat.

Since they are discussing newborns, it’s natural for the rabbis to expand on the subject of infant health. Abaye quotes his mother’s advice on what to do when a baby is born with an obstruction of the anus (tear it with a barley grain, not a metal instrument which could cause infection or swelling), or if a baby refuses to nurse (warm his mouth with heat from a coal), or if he refuses to urinate (“place him in a sieve” and shake him). Abaye’s mother also explained that if a baby is too red or too pale, he is suffering from a disorder of the blood and shouldn’t be circumcised until his color returns to normal. It’s significant that all this wisdom is attributed to a woman, though she is never named. Abaye is one of the greatest rabbinic authorities, but if the Talmud is a guide to life as much as a guide to law, then Abaye’s mother, too, deserves to be remembered as one of its sages.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

If the baby is born on a Friday before Shabbat, the circumcsion takes place the following Friday. In counting eight days the birth day is the first.

    Making it a taboo to
    compare male with female sexual mutilation is the biggest
    scandal of the controversy. In both instances the most
    sensitive and most erogenous zone of the human body is
    amputated and severely damaged. In both instances, what
    counts primarily is the cutting of human sexuality. The
    imposition of control by the patriarchy.

    What is lacking in all the talk about circumcision is
    discussion of its

    archeological dimension – that it is the left over of
    human sacrifice.

    Also, unfortunately it is / has been circumcision that
    has MADE for no end of anti-semitic sentiments. Freud
    found that it was the chief reason for unconscious
    anti-Semitism. And the myths surrounding it are at the
    core of the “blood libel.” Thus, it’s time to eliminate
    the Brit Milah because if that is the chief reason for
    being anti-Semitic or anti-Abrahamic [Islam too practices
    the rite] then why hang on to this left-over of human
    sacrifice? that traumatizesthe child, cutting off 5,000
    nerves, that is the equivalent of female circumcision in
    the sense that it eliminates everything but the
    clitoris,and only serves the UltraOrthodox to maintain
    their power? After all, reform Judaism sought to eliminate
    the rite in the 19th century, and Jewish identity depends
    on being born by a Jewish mother, or converting. Here a
    link to an archive of the entire German and then some
    debate, note especially Michael Wolffsohn’s two pieces .
    Circumcision has been controversial also within Jewry


      Thank you for your compassionate comments. Circumcision is a terrible thing for so many reasons.

        tzur says:

        None of those reasons hold up to serious scrutiny: they are just (often antisemitically motivated) mythology. For a good brief discussion of how and why they are groundless, see For a detailed medical scientist discussion of why infant circumcision is medically beneficial for children and not as painful nor traumatic as its enemies claim, see

        There is a very good reason why the World Health Organization has officially recommended circumcision as an important way to greatly reduce HIV infection and other genital diseases throughout Africa, where sexually transmitted diseases have killed so many: the lesser rates in cultures that circumcise their men have already saved millions of lives there. On this, see , based on numerous research studies whose findings are endorsed by the U.S. National Institute of Health (note its publications at

        But these matters do not just impact on Africa. A team of health economists and disease experts at Johns Hopkins cite the declining rates of U.S. infant male circumcision — from 79 percent in the 1970s to approximately 55 percent today — as responsible for billions of dollars spent in the U.S. on preventable infections. Further decline could add another $4.4 billion in costs in the U.S., according to the report on this study by ABC News in August last year. See

        And of course circumcision is commanded in the Bible, shaping Jewish religion and furthering Jewish identity, and in Islam as well, so it affirms religious affiliation and self-identification in two major world religions. Atheists consider it therefore a core part of their attempt effectively to outlaw or at the least to very negatively affect and stigmatize religious observance in groups they do not like.

          Tamar says:

          I find fascinating what you write, “The Jews, after all, have especially annoyed Western liberal egalitarians from the start of the modern period: Jews, the people of the Bible, have traditionally symbolized otherness, difference and dissent in the Christian world and this was secularized by anti-religious ideologues: in the “totalitarian democracies” of the modern period, whether Nazistic or Communistic, it is above all Jewish difference that is attacked on all levels. Thus the very special animus against circumcision.”

          QUESTION: Is the Christ killer charge relevant to your comment on roots of antisemitism?

Argaman says:

The word that’s usually translated as “leprosy” – צרעת – probably is another skin disease whose nature we really don’t know.

    Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

    It’s absolutely not leprosy or Hansen’s disease. The Torah and the Talmud are clear about this.

    francis321 says:

    Madelyn. I just agree… Lisa`s storry is really great… on monday I
    bought a great new Audi Quattro after I been earnin $7633 this month and
    over $10,000 last munth. it’s by-far the best work I’ve ever had. I
    began this four months/ago and right away began to bring home minimum
    $74.. per-hr. I went to this web-site, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

the fact that the laws of circumcision are presented in Tractate Shabbat is not a big deal; the laws of Hanuka are also in that tractate. The laws of phylacteries – t’philin – are in Tractate Menachot which deals with certain temple offerings.

The talmudic order of laws is a general one; and the “outliers” sort of wound up being discussed as “subplots”


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Birth Right

You wouldn’t expect that the tractate on Shabbat would be the place to discuss circumcision. You’d be wrong.