The time for the mitzvah
of circumcision is the eighth day after birth, as it is written:
"On the eighth day, you shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin."
If a child is not circumcised on the eighth day, the act may fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision, and a blessing is recited, but the mitzvah lacks the distinction of a mitzvah bizmano, a mitzvah performed at the appropriate time.
When the mitzvah is performed at the appropriate time, it has a unique quality, as reflected by the fact that it (and all the activities necessary to perform it) supersede the prohibitions against labor on Shabbos as our Sages comment on the above verse. When circumcision is not performed on the eighth day, however, it does not supersede the Shabbos laws.
This seems to imply that when a child is circumcised after the eighth day -- even when it was impossible to circumcise him earlier because the child was sick, for example, the circumcision is not considered to have been performed "at the appropriate time." Moreover, it would appear that circumcision after the eighth day affects only the coming days, and has no retroactive effect.
The father in such a case is not considered to have transgressed G-d's commandment. On the contrary, he is forbidden to circumcise a sick child, for pikuach nefesh, a threat to life, supersedes all the Torah's commands. Nevertheless, the actual performance of the mitzvah is lacking. As the Rambam explains, we are permitted to circumcise a child only when he is healthy, because: "A threat to life takes precedence over everything. It is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards, but it is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]."
The above conclusion is, however, unwarranted, as can be seen by a careful examination of the wording used by the Rambam, who alludes to two reasons for the delay of the mitzvah: a) "a threat to life takes precedence over everything," and b) "it is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards...," i.e., the mitzvah is not nullified.
The first reason states the importance of pikuach nefesh. Even if there is no possibility of performing the circumcision afterwards, the threat to life takes precedence. By adding the second reason, the Rambam implies that the mitzvah which one fulfills afterwards makes up for the previous days, and even enables one to attain the advantages of circumcision "at the appropriate time." If the mitzvah affected only the coming days, the rationale that "it is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards" would not be sufficient in its own right, for the uncircumsized state of the initial days would not have been corrected, and the advantage of fulfilling the mitzvah at the appropriate time would be lacking.
This is somewhat difficult to comprehend: How can a mitzvah have a retroactive effect? True, there are instances in which the Torah states that an activity will affect a previous time, but such activities are not intended to effect a new status, but rather to clarify the nature of an existing situation, or cause an act that was performed conditionally to become binding. Because the later activity merely clarifies the previous situation, it is understandable that it can have a retroactive effect. But when an act brings about a new status, it seems logical that it can only affect the future. How then can circumcision affect the previous days?
Also, the order of the Rambam's words raises a question: After stating "It is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards," the Rambam adds: "but it is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]." The latter phrase seems to relate more to the first reason stated by the Rambam -- the preeminence of pikuach nefesh. For once it is explained that through circumcision at a later date, one can rectify the lack in previous days, it is seemingly unnecessary to state: "It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]."
The above questions can be clarified based on a passage in Likkutei Torah
which states that circumcision draws down a level of Divine light which transcends the levels attainable by mortal efforts. Such a light is drawn down only on G-d's initiative. Nevertheless, the act of circumcision is necessary because it is only when the foreskin is removed that this light will reveal itself.
Similar concepts apply with regard to the fact that the entry of the holy soul into the body takes place through the mitzvah of circumcision. This refers to a level of soul which transcends our powers of understanding. There is no way we can tap this level through our own efforts. Instead, every Jew shares an inherent, essential bond to this level. Nevertheless, it is through circumcision that this inherent connection is revealed.
On this basis, we can understand how circumcision affects the past. For it, like the situations mentioned previously, is not bringing about a new development; it is revealing something which existed previously.
To cite another example: Teshuvah motivated by love has a retroactive effect, transforming one's earlier sins into merits. For teshuvah does not bring about a new situation. Even at the time a person sins, his soul remains faithful to G-d, though its connection with Him is hidden. Since teshuvah brings this inner bond back to the surface, it has a retroactive effect, elevating one's previous conduct.
Similarly, with regard to circumcision, if one does not perform the deed afterwards, the child's inherent connection to G-d remains hidden. This runs contrary to the intent of creation as a whole, and to the purpose of that particular soul's descent. For the purpose of creation is that a Jew should -- by virtue of his Divine service -- reveal the G-dly nature of his soul. But when a Jew who was not circumcised at the appropriate time circumcises himself afterwards, he reveals this inherent, [timeless] connection. Therefore this has an effect on the previous days.
On this basis, we can understand why, after giving the two reasons spoken of previously, the Rambam
adds: "It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back [to life]." In addition to the obvious meaning of the phrase, it also explains why, when a child is circumcised after the appropriate time, the act has a retroactive effect.
A Jew's connection with G-d continues at all times, regardless of his conduct, as it is said: "Regardless, they are My children; to exchange them for another nation [heaven forbid] is impossible."
With the words "It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back," the Rambam alludes to another act that can never be retracted: G-d's covenant with the Jewish people. Moreover, this covenant does not merely involve the nation as a whole; it affects every individual Jew. G-d has bound Himself to every individual Jew with a bond that cannot be retracted, for G-d loves every Jew with essential love. As the Baal Shem Tov would say: "Every Jew is cherished by G-d like an only child born to his parents in their old age; indeed, he is even dearer to Him."
The universe was created "for the sake of the Jews, who are called 'first.' " This applies not only with regard to the Jewish people as a whole, but with regard to every individual. The intent of the creation as a whole depends on every individual Jew, and therefore "everyone is required to say: 'The world was created for me.' " This is why someone who saves one Jewish soul is considered to have saved the entire world.21 For when a lack is experienced by one Jew, the entire world is effected.
"It is impossible to ever bring a Jewish soul back," and the bond between G-d and every Jew is always completely intact; all that is necessary is that it be revealed. For this reason, "It is possible to circumcise [a child] afterwards," and there will be a retroactive effect, because circumcision reveals the connection to G-dliness which exists at all times, even before the circumcision.
As mentioned previously,
of circumcision alludes to our Divine service as whole. It teaches that work must be accomplished. One may not be content with the promise that ultimately "No one will ever be estranged from Him,"
and thus decide that his conduct today is of no significance. For the inner connection must be revealed, and this can be accomplished only through work.
This work involves both milah, cutting the thick foreskin, and priyah, ripping open the thin membrane, which on a spiritual plane alludes to the subduing of our material desires. Afterwards, one must perform metzitzah (sucking out the blood), thus removing the excitement generated by material things from one's body as a whole.
On the other hand, a person must appreciate that his efforts to "circumcise the foreskin of [his] heart" will have far greater effects than could be brought about through his own labor. These endeavors will lead to a revelation from above, and the fulfillment of the promise: "And G-d your L-rd will circumcise your heart," which in a complete sense will be manifest at the time of the ultimate Redemption to be led by Mashiach; may it take place in the near future.
(Adapted from Sichos 10 Shvat, 5713)
- (Back to text) Vayikra 12:3.
- (Back to text) See the sichah to Parshas Lech Lecha in this series, which explains that in addition to the positive dimension of the mitzvah of circumcision, there is another dimension: it prevents one from being uncircumcised.
We cannot, however, say that the blessing is recited because of this factor, because a blessing is not recited over an activity performed to prevent the violation of a prohibition. For example, there are authorities (see Issur ViHeter, Shaar 58, sec. 104) who explain that a blessing is not recited before nikkur, the removal of forbidden fats and blood vessels from meat, because the object of the activity is to prevent transgressions.
Accordingly, the fact that a blessing is recited in this instance indicates that the positive dimension of the mitzvah of circumcision is indeed fulfilled even when the circumcision takes place after the eighth day.
- (Back to text) Shabbos 132a.
- (Back to text) See the Rambam's Commentary on the Mishnah, the conclusion of Chapter 19 of Shabbos and the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 1:1.
- (Back to text) Yoma 82a.
- (Back to text) Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Milah 1:18.
Tosafos (Shabbos 131a) states that "Even if the time for circumcision passes, the mitzvah is not nullified. For the very same circumcision which he is obligated to perform on the eighth day is performed on the ninth." This reflects the view that all the advantages of performing circumcision at the appropriate time are retained even when the mitzvah is performed at a later date. Seemingly, this would apply even when one willfully delayed. But see footnote 11.
Nevertheless, this concept still requires consideration, for Tosafos concludes "If he had circumcised [the child] on the eighth day, he would not circumcise him on the ninth day." Seemingly, this is self-evident. It is possible to say that Tosafos' intent is that one attains the advantage of circumcising the child at the appropriate time, but does not retroactively amend the lack.
See the analysis of this concept in the letter of the Rogatchover (printed in the miluim to the S'dei Chemed, Kuntres HaMetzitzah, sec. 6, p. 2735 and Tzofnas Paneach, Hilchos Milah, the conclusion of ch. 1).
- (Back to text) E.g., conditional agreements, alternatively, a situation similar to that described by Chullin 72b: "Anything which will surely be cut off is considered as if it is cut off already." See also commentaries to Shulchan Aruch, Even HaEzer 124:1; S'dei Chemed, Klallim 20, 142.
- (Back to text) Vayikra 21a; see also Derech Mitzvosecha 9b.
- (Back to text) Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Mahadura Basra 4:2. See the sichos to the parshiyos Lech Lecha and Yud-Tes Kislev in this series, where the concept is explained.
- (Back to text) See the maamar entitled Basi LeGani, 5713.
- (Back to text) To refer to the expression cited in note 7: "Anything which will surely be cut off is considered as if it is cut off already." For this reason, circumcision has a retroactive effect.
It must be clarified whether this also applies when one neglected to circumcise the baby at the appropriate time, for it is unclear whether the foreskin would be considered "surely [to] be cut off" in such a situation.
- (Back to text) See Yoma 86a and Rashi's commentary.
- (Back to text) Indeed, this concept is implied by the very word teshuvah, which means "return," coming back to one's essence, as explained in Likkutei Torah (Beginning of Parshas Haazinu, see also Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, p. 409).
On this basis, a distinction can be drawn between the repentance of non-Jews (for example, the inhabitants of Ninveh) and the teshuvah of Jews. With non-Jews, the concept of returning to an essential bond with G-d does not apply. Therefore their repentance effects only the future.
See also the commentary of the Tzemach Tzedek (Or HaTorah, Nach, Vol. II, p. 1062) to the verse (Eichah 1:8): "Israel has surely sinned." He writes: "It is with regard to Israel alone that the concepts of sin and teshuvah are relevant." See also the Jerusalem Talmud, Nazir 9:1; Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 21 (54b); Minchas Chinuch, the conclusion of Mitzvah 364.
- (Back to text) Tanya, ch. 24.
- (Back to text) See the opening phrases of Eitz Chayim, which states that the ultimate purpose of creation is that G-d's potentials will be revealed and recognized by mankind.
- (Back to text) To cite another parallel: Although a bill of divorce must be given willingly, if a Jew is compelled to divorce his wife by a Jewish court, the divorce is considered to have been given willingly because the true desire of every Jew is to perform G-d's will. If a gentile forces him to divorce his wife, the divorce is void (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Gerushin 2:20). Nevertheless, even when he is compelled to divorce by a Jewish court, he must make a statement that he wants to divorce his wife, for his true desire must be given expression.
- (Back to text) Kiddushin 36a (see Rashba, Responsum 194); Pesiktah, Rus Rabbah, sec. 3; Pesachim 87a.
- (Back to text) Kesser Shem Tov, Addenda, sec. 133.
- (Back to text) Osios d'Rabbi Akiva, Os Beis; Seder Rabbah d'Bereishis, sec. 4; Vayikra Rabbah 36:4; Midrash Tanchuma, Bereishis 3; Rashi and Ramban, commentary to Bereishis 1:1.
- (Back to text) Therefore when the Torah was given -- which is the purpose of the world -- the entire Jewish people, 600,000 souls, had to be present, (Mechilta, Shmos 19:11, Yalkut Shimoni, sec. 280).
- (Back to text) Sanhedrin 4:5.
- (Back to text) See the sichah of Parshas Lech Lecha in this series.
- (Back to text) Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:3; Tanya, ch. 3. The wording is based on II Shmuel 14:14.
- (Back to text) See the sichah of Parshas Lech Lecha in this series, which states that this is the lesson implied by the fact that the mitzvah includes the actual deed of circumcision.
- (Back to text) Rambam, Guide to the Perplexed, Vol. III, chs. 35 and 39; see also the sichah of Parshas Lech Lecha in this series, where this concept is discussed.
- (Back to text) Devarim 10:16.
- (Back to text) Ibid. 30:6. See the maamar entitled B'Etzem HaYom HaZeh in Torah Or, and in Toras Chayim, Parshas Lech Lecha.