Many of the classic medieval commentators wrote great works which enumerated the 613 commandments of the Torah. At the beginning of this week's portion, Hashem commands that all Jewish males must be circumcised.
Many of the classic medieval commentators wrote great works which enumerated the 613 commandments of the Torah. At the beginning of this week's portion, Hashem commands that all Jewish males must be circumcised. However, the mitzvah of circumcision is counted by the commentators much earlier, in Parshat Lech Lecha, where the anecdotal story of Abraham is told. Isn't it strange that every single one of these commentaries who count the mitzvot of the Torah, decide to count brit milah in Parshat Lech Lecha when the mitzvah was given to Abraham as an individual, rather than here in Parshat Tazria where the commandment is given to the Jewish people as a whole? The question is. . .why?
To try to answer, we must first look at the relationship of blessings and mitzvot. We know that the rabbis decreed that we must say a blessing before the performance of many mitzvot. Perhaps you may have noticed that there are two basic types of blessings that we say before carrying out any given mitzvah. One category of blessing reads, "Al haMitzvah - on the performance of this mitzvah". In this form of blessing, the mitzvah is named by using the noun form of the activity. For example, before we eat a meal consisting of bread, we ritually wash our hands and say "Al n'teelat yadayim - on the washing (noun) of the hands". This form is the same for eating matzah on the seder night: "Al achilat matzah - on the eating (noun) of matzah"; counting the omer, the mitzvah performed every night for the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot: "Al s'firat haOmer - on the counting (noun) of the omer"; reading the Megillah on Purim: "Al mikrah Megillah - on the reading (noun) of the Megillah"; and, of course, there are many others.
The other form of blessings on mitzvot reads "L'haMitzvah - to perform the particular mitzvah (that we are about to do)". This category of blessing is expressed by using the verb instead of the noun. For example, the blessing for lighting Shabbat candles is "L'hadlik ner shel Shabbat - to light (verb) the Shabbat candles". We use the same form of blessing when we hang a mezuzah on the doorpost, saying "Likbo'a mezuzah - to affix (verb) the mezuzah". For dwelling in the Sukkah, we say "Laishev baSukkah - to dwell (verb) in the Sukkah". And here again, there are many other examples. (Pay attention to which form your next blessing takes.)
Simply by reading the blessings, we can see that each blessing could have been put into the other form. We could have easily said "Al yeshiva baSukkah - on the dwelling (noun) in the Sukkah" or "Al hadlakat haNerot - on the lighting (noun) of the candles". On the other hand, we could easily say on Passover "L'echol matzah - to eat (verb) matzah" or "L'sapair haOmer - to count (verb) the omer". In fact, in every case, the blessing could easily be converted into the other form of blessing, and there are many discussions and disputes in the Talmud about which form to express many of the blessings. The final version in Jewish law is that each blessing has a specific form established by our sages, and we are prohibited from altering them in any way. That is to say that even if we were to make a mistake when lighting the candles on Shabbat and say "Al hadlakat haNerot", the noun form, instead of "L'hadlik ner shel Shabbat", the verb form, we would not fulfill our obligation and we would need to say the blessing again, only this time correctly.
The question is: Since there must be a reason that blessings were each established in their specific forms, with one having a noun in the formula and the other having the infinitive verb, what was the reasoning of the rabbis when they put each of these blessings into each of these specific forms? The following is a possible reason which seems to fit most cases.
There are some mitzvot which are completed in their entirety at the time of their performance. They are done from beginning to end, all at once. For instance, we are commanded to eat matzah on the seder night. After reciting the noun form of the blessing, "Al achilat matzah - on the eating of the matzah", we then eat the entire required amount of matzah within a certain required time limit. We begin the act and complete it all at once. Another example is on Purim when we say the blessing "Al mikrah Megillah - on the reading (noun) of the Megillah" and then we read the entire Megillah, completing the entire mitzvah all at one time. In the matzah case, the entire act takes a few minutes; in the Megillah case, we complete the entire mitzvah in about forty minutes. But in both cases, the entire act, from its beginning to its end, is done at once. All of these mitzvot that are executed in one shot get the noun form of the blessing, "Al haMitzvah - on the performance of the mitzvah".
There is another category of mitzvot in which we begin to fulfill the mitzvah, or we begin the mitzvah by setting something in motion, but we don't complete the mitzvah at the time of our first act. For example, when we light the Shabbat candles, we set the mitzvah into motion by kindling the flames, but we don't complete the mitzvah at the time of lighting. The candles will continue to burn on their own much longer than the original time of our saying the blessing. Similarly, when we put a mezuzah on the door, we begin a mitzvah that continues as long as we live in that house with that mezuzah. We go into the Sukkah on the first night of Sukkot, but we don't complete the mitzvah immediately upon entering. We eat the meal, live in the Sukkah, sleep there, etc. The mitzvot that continue after we first set them in motion receive the verb form of the blessing before we do them.
Now, back to our original question of why the mitzvah of circumcision is counted in Parshat Lech Lecha where we have the anecdotal story of Abraham, instead of in Parshat Tazria where the entire nation was commanded concerning circumcision. You may have noticed that at a brit milah, both categories of blessings are recited. Based on what was presented above, that would seem to imply that there are two mitzvot in the single ceremony, or maybe that the mitzvah has two parts. Immediately before cutting the foreskin, the father (or, in most cases, the mohel as the father's agent) says the noun form of the blessing, "Al haMilah - on the circumcision (noun)". This part of the mitzvah is completely performed at the time of the ceremony, usually in just a few seconds. As soon as the cutting is complete, the father says the second blessing: "L'hachniso b'brito shel Avraham Avinu - to enter (verb) into the covenant of our forefather Abraham". Note that the verb form of the blessing is used for this second part of the ceremony. This blessing is referring to the obligation and the responsibility of the parents to raise their child in a proper Jewish way. This is an "open-ended" mitzvah which is initiated at the ceremony of brit milah, but continues well beyond that time. Therefore, the blessing for this part of the mitzvah uses the infinitive verb form.
Perhaps that is the explanation of why the mitzvah of circumcision is counted in Parshat Lech Lecha instead of in this week's Torah portion of Tazria. One way to look at it is that the commandment in Tazria is concerning only the physical act of circumcision. It is in Parshat Lech Lecha that the more complete significance of the mitzvah is presented. Hashem tells Abraham to "walk before Him and be 'tamim' (pure)" (Genesis 17:1). This would correspond to the obligation of the father to raise the child in a Jewish way.
It is with this covenant, or promise of spiritual well-being in mind, that we ask Hashem to take notice that we have performed this mitzvah for over 4,000 years, demonstrating our faithfulness to His brit, His promise to us, and the agreement we made with Him. It's in the name of this mitzvah of brit milah, when we recall this agreement, that we ask Him to finally bring us our complete redemption, bringing all of our people home to Israel and sending us our anointed Mashiach (Messiah) quickly, and in our days.
Jeff Ram, formerly of Atlanta, has lived in Jerusalem for three years with his wife Diane. He is a former president of Yeshiva Atlanta and was a member of the Boards of Directors of Congregation Beth Jacob and the Atlanta Jewish Federation.
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