Circumcision in Maimonides' Oxford Manuscript

Friday, 21 December, 2018 - 6:02 am

MS. Huntington 80 Fol. 165a copy.png

 A rare autograph of Maimonides exists at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, consisting of a brief text with Maimonides’ signature, authenticating an early copy written during his life time of the first two books of his legal compendium Mishneh Torah:[1] Book of Mada (knowledge) and Book of Ahava (love).[2] The manuscript is known in the Bodleian Library as MS Huntington 80 and in rabbinic works as the ‘Book of the Signature’ (Sefer Hachatum).[3] The Bodleian Library bought this text in 1693 from Dr. Robert Huntington, who acquired it while serving as chaplain to the English merchants in Aleppo. The autograph states:[4] ‘Corrected against my own book, I Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory. This manuscript is important as it attests to the accuracy of the text after Maimonides had compared it against his original text. For this reason Jewish scholars[5] have sought out this manuscript as a reference to verify the authenticity of the Mishneh Torah text of the first two books of Mada and Ahava.[6]



On the folio where it appears Maimonides’ signature is the text pertaining to the laws of circumcision, known as Brit Milah, literally translated as the covenant of circumcision. The laws of circumcision consists of three chapters, the end of which, where the signature appears, contains a text that appears not to be detailing any specific legal aspects of the laws pertaining to circumcision but rather a collection of homiletic teachings from the Talmud regarding the great importance and virtue of performing circumcision. In this essay, we will aim to understand the unique perspective of Maimonides regarding circumcision, as reflected in Maimonides’ formation of these Talmudic teachings, the order in which he places them and the specific language he uses in variation from the original source when quoting these homiletic teachings. We will argue that while many teachings regarding circumcision aim to present it as a foundation in Jewish tradition that is beyond mere law, Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, appears to focus on the fact that circumcision is in fact a law of, not beyond, the Torah, and indeed the greatest of all such laws.


Biblical text – Pre-Sinai


There are numerous biblical texts regarding circumcision in the Pentateuch, some explicit and some understood through midrashic exegesis. The first to perform circumcision was Abraham, followed by Isaac and Ishmael[7] and their household told to Abraham in a vision when he was ninety-nine years old. It states in Genesis:[8]



And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him, "I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be perfect. And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you very greatly." And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you very greatly." And Abram fell upon his face, and God spoke with him, saying, “As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God." And God said to Abraham, "And you shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. And is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and between you and between your seed after you, that every male among you be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and between you. And at the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations, one that is born in the house, or one that is purchased with money, from any foreigner, who is not of your seed. Those born in the house and those purchased for money shall be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant. And an uncircumcised male, who will not circumcise the flesh of his foreskin-that soul will be cut off from its people; he has broken My covenant." And God said to Abraham, "Your wife Sarai-you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name. And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her, and I will bless her, and she will become [a mother of] nations; kings of nations will be from her. " And Abraham fell on his face and rejoiced, and he said to himself, "Will [a child] be born to one who is a hundred years old, and will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?" And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael will live before You!" And God said, "Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. And regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him, and I will make him fruitful, and I will multiply him exceedingly; he will beget twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year." And He finished speaking with him, and God went up from above Abraham. And Abraham took Ishmael his son and all those born in his house and all those purchased with his money, every male of the people of Abraham's household, and he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that very day, as God had spoken with him. And Abraham was ninety-nine years old, when he was circumcised of the flesh of his foreskin. And Ishmael his son was thirteen years old, when he was circumcised of the flesh of his foreskin. On that very day, Abraham was circumcised, and [so was] Ishmael his son. And all the people of his household, those born in his house and those bought with money from foreigners, were circumcised with him.


The second biblical pre-Sinai text regarding the circumcision is from the interaction between sons of Jacob and the people of Shechem,[9] indicating that circumcision had been accepted among the children of Jacob, following the covenant made with Abraham. This is related to when the family of Jacob and people of Shechem agreed to marry each other once the people of Shechem performed circumcision, only to be deceived and punished for violating their sister Dina. In the proposal to the people of Shechem it states:[10] ‘With this, however, we will consent to you, if you will be like us, that every male will be circumcised.’


When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, he did this by showing himself circumcised. The verse states: ‘Joseph said to his brothers, "Please come closer to me," and they drew closer. And he said, "I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.’ The Midrash[11] expounds that Joseph called them ‘tenderly and pleadingly and showed them that he was circumcised.’


Despite circumcision performed by the sons of Jacob, during the exile in Egypt, circumcision was abolished, as the Jewish people did not want to circumcise, aside for the Levite tribe,[12] as it says in Deuteronomy in the blessing from Moses to the Levite tribe: ‘For they observed Your word and kept Your covenant.’ We are told that the life of Eliezer, the son of Moses, who was a Levite, was in mortal danger for merely delaying his circumcision during travelling from Midian to Egypt, as it states:




Now he was on the way, in an inn, that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. So Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son's foreskin and cast it to his feet, and she said, "For you are a bridegroom of blood to me." So He released him. Then she said, "A bridegroom of blood concerning the circumcision."


It was only before the Exodus in order to partake of the Pascal offering on the night of their departure the entire people performed circumcision, due to the prohibition:[14] ‘No uncircumcised male may partake of it (the Pascal offering).’ The Midrash recounts[15] that the Jewish people had no merit for the Exodus, so G-d asked Moses to circumcise them. Many of them would not agree to be circumcised until the desire to partake of the Pascal lamp offering was so strong that they offered themselves for circumcision to partake in it, thus the verse in Ezekiel reading the Exodus:[16] ‘And when I passed by thee, and saw them wallowing in thy blood, and I said to you, in thy blood live, in thy blood live.’ The Midrash quotes an opinion that credits Joshua for the performance of this circumcision, as it states:[17] ‘Lord said to Joshua, Make for yourself sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.’ The reference to Joshua circumcising Israel a ‘second time,’ indicates he also performed it the first time, during the life time of Moses, before they left Egypt.


According to Maimonides, Jewish law derives from this circumcision that a convert must perform circumcision as one of the three things to convert during the Temple period: circumcision, immersion in a Mikveh and a sacrifice.[18] According to Midrash Tanchuma[19] the verse in Exodus:[20] ‘And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth,’ refers to this pre-Sinai circumcision.




Post Mount Sinai


The biblical text about circumcision after Mount Sinai may be found in the book of Leviticus, thereby establishing circumcision as law:[22] ‘And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.’ During the forty years in the dessert, however, according to some opinions, the Jews reverted to not performing circumcision again, aside for the Levite tribe, as testified by the above statement in Joshua: ‘That time the Lord said to Joshua, Make for yourself sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.’ The reason for this is since for the entire forty years that they were in the desert, the north wind did not blow for them, allowing for the sun to appear, which required for healing. They therefore did not have any day suitable for circumcision.[23] Another reason is due to exhaustion of the journey.[24] Another opinion is that the Jews did perform circumcision in the dessert. The ‘second time’ that is mentioned in the time of Joshua refers only to uncovering the corona at circumcision, [i.e. splitting the membrane and pulling it back] which Abraham was not commanded to do.




The circumcision in the book of Joshua is as follows:




It came to pass, when all the kings of the Amorites, who were on the side of the Jordan westward, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan from before the children of Israel until they had passed over, that their heart melted, nor was there spirit in them anymore, because of the children of Israel. At that time the Lord said to Joshua, Make for yourself sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time. And Joshua made for himself sharp knives, and circumcised the children of Israel at the hill of the foreskins. And this is the reason why Joshua did circumcise: All the people that came out of Egypt, that were males, all the men of war, had died in the desert by the way after they came out of Egypt. For all the people that came out were circumcised, but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, they had not circumcised. For the children of Israel walked forty years in the wilderness, until all the people, the men of war, that came out of Egypt, were consumed, those who did not listen to the voice of the Lord, to whom the Lord had sworn that He would not show them the land, which the Lord had sworn to their forefathers that He would give us, a land that flows with milk and honey. And their children, whom he raised up in their stead, them Joshua circumcised, for they had not circumcised them by the way. And it was, when all the people were finished being circumcised, that they remained in their places in the camp, until they recovered. And the Lord said to Joshua, This day have I rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you. And he called the name of the place Gilgal to this day. And the children of Israel encamped in Gilgal, and they made the Passover sacrifice on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho. And they ate of the grain of the land on the morrow of the Passover, unleavened cakes and parched grain on this very day.


The importance of circumcision is reflected in it being a criteria for the resurrection of the dead in the Messianic era, as the Midrash Tanchuma[27] interprets the verse in Isaiah:[28] ‘Awaken, awaken, put on your strength, O Zion; put on the garments of your beauty, Jerusalem the Holy City, for no longer shall the uncircumcised or the unclean continue to enter you.’


Circumcision as part of the Torah


The verse in Leviticus post Sinai provides the principle scriptural source for circumcision as a part of Jewish law, as recorded by Maimonides in his numbering of the Mitzvot.[29] Accordingly, circumcision is considered merely another legal injunction in Judaism that one should circumcise a male child at eight days old and the many details pertaining to the law, including when the eighth day falls out on Shabbat, as discussed in length in chapter Rabbi Eliezer D’Milah in tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud and the Laws of Milah of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. Leviticus does not seem to place the commandment of circumcision less or more important than any of the other mitzvot.




Circumcision equal to the whole Torah


There is however a further perspective regarding circumcision that it as not just another law of the Torah but equal to the entire Torah, as the Mishnah states: circumcision is of equal weight to the whole Torah. The reason is since they are both referred to as covenant.




Torah and Circumcision as covenant


This leads to a third aspect of circumcision that it is not just a general mitzvah that carries the weight of all the mitzvot but is also a covenant, similar to the covenant of the Torah itself. The reference to the Torah as covenant is discussed in the Midrash[32] and the Talmud[33] that Moses sealed a covenant with the Jewish people for the observance of the Torah on three occasions: 1. At Mount Sinai, known also as Chorev. This refers to the blessings and the curses in the end of the book of Leviticus.[34] 2. The Plains of Moav.[35] This refers to the teaching of the Torah in the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy:[36] On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses commenced and explained this Law, culminating with the blessings and the curses at the end of the book of Deuteronomy that is described as a covenant. 3. At Mount Grizim and Mount Eval.[37] This refers to the blessing and curses at the end of book of Deuteronomy that will be repeated by Joshua after crossing the Jordan River and arriving at Mount Grizim and Mount Eval.[38] These three covenants are indicated in the verse cited after the blessings and curses to be said at Mount Grizim and Mount Eval: ‘These are the words of the covenant that G-d commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moav, in addition to the covenant that He established with you in Chorev.’


Sixteen, forty eight, 603,550 covenants


In detail, the Talmud writes that each miztvah consisted of sixteen covenants. The calculation is: a general blessing and detailed blessing for each mitzvah and general curse and detailed curse for each mitzvah, thus four covenants. These four are applied to four aspects of the observance of a mitzvah: study, guard (not to forget), teach and perform,[39] thus sixteen covenants per mitzvah. As the sealing of the covenant was repeated three times – at Sinai, Plains of Moav and Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval. This makes forty-eight covenants fro each mitzvah. The Talmud sums this up: There is not a single commandment written in the Torah in connection with which forty-eight covenants were not sealed. According a view in the Talmud, one should add to this number the concept of guarantor[40] that each Jew has for one’s fellow, thus multiplying this by 603,550, corresponding to the Jews in the wilderness at the time the covenant was sealed.[41] Despite the calculation of a possible great number of implicit covenants for each mitzvah giving to the Jewish people, the Talmud in tractate Berachot clarifies that the Torah was explicitly given in only three covenants.




Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038)[43] suggests the three covenants are connected with the giving of the second tablets in the following three verses in the book of Exodus: 1. ‘And He said: "Behold! I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth and among all the nations, and all the people in whose midst you are shall see the work of the Lord how awe inspiring it is that which I will perform with you.’[44] 2. ‘The Lord said to Moses: “Inscribe these words for yourself, for according to these words I have formed a covenant with you and with Israel.”’[45] 3. ‘He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and He inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments.’




Maimonides writes in his Laws of Blessings[47] and Laws of Circumcision[48] that the third biblical verse illustrating the third covenant is in Deuteronomy:[49] ‘You are all standing this day before the Lord…that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your G-d, and His oath, which the Lord, your G-d, is making with you this day in order to establish you this day as His people, and that He will be your G-d, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.’ The unanimous view is that explicitly the Torah was given with three covenants.




In summary, both the Torah and circumcision are referred to as covenants, which is the idea that the Jewish people through the Torah and circumcision enter into a sacred bond and relationship with G-d.


Circumcision as covenant


The verse in Genesis expressing that circumcision is the sealing of a covenant between the Jewish people and G-d, and not just law, is derived from the circumcision of Abraham, the first to be told to perform circumcision. It is first mentioned in the Covenant between the Parts:[51] ‘On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river.’ According to the Midrash Tanchuma[52] this is in the context of the performance of circumcision, not just the giving of the land to Abraham. In the vision to Abraham commanding him to perform circumcision, it mentions the word covenant: ‘I will place My covenant between Me and you.’




Talmud – circumcision as many covenants


In addition to the circumcision as a covenant on par with the covenant of the Torah, the Talmud argues that the covenant of circumcision consists of not just three covenants like the Torah but numerous covenants. The Babylonian Talmud states:




Rabbi Yishmael says: So great is the mitzva of circumcision that thirteen covenants were sealed with regard to it, for the word covenant appears thirteen times in the biblical passage that discusses circumcision.




The Jerusalemite Talmud has a similar statement:




Rabbi Yochanan ben Mariya says: It is written:[57] ‘On that day, the Lord formed a covenant with Abram, saying, etc. until ‘And I will establish My covenant with Isaac.’[58] These consist of thirteen covenants.


The thirteen covenants are mentioned in the same vision to Abraham to perform circumcision:


1.     "I will place My covenant between Me and you" [Genesis 17:2],

2.     "And I, behold, My covenant is with you" [ibid.:4],

3.     "I will establish My covenant between Me and you" [ibid.:7],

4.     "For an eternal covenant" [ibid.],

5.     "And you shall observe My covenant" [ibid.:9],

6.     "This is My covenant which you shall observe" [ibid.:10],

7.     "It will be a sign of the covenant" [ibid.:11],

8.     "My covenant will be in your flesh" [ibid.:13],

9.     "For an eternal covenant" [ibid.],

10.  "He will have nullified My covenant" [ibid.:14],

11.  "And I will establish My covenant with Him" [ibid.:19],

12.  "For an eternal covenant" [ibid.],

13.  "And I will establish My covenant with Isaac" [ibid.:21].


Circumcision and Torah as equal covenants


While the above texts of the Talmud point out the concept of circumcision as a covenant, not merely as a law, it does not necessarily imply circumcision is a greater covenant than the Torah covenant. The fact that there are thirteen covenants in relation to the single performance of circumcision does not necessary imply that the covenant itself is of greater importance than the covenant of the Torah. On the contrary, an exploration of a few interpretations implies that they may be seen as equal covenants. At Mount Sinai, when the Jewish people accepted the commandments, it says:[59] ‘And now, if you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples, for Mine is the entire earth.’ As mentioned earlier, the Midrash Tanchuma refers the word covenant to circumcision, while Rashi refers it to the observance of the Torah, indicating them as on equal footing. Similarly, in Jeremiah it states:[60] ‘So said the Lord: If not My covenant with the day and the night, that the statutes of heaven and earth I did not place.’ Midrash Tanchuma[61] and the Talmud[62] refer it to circumcision: because of circumcision heaven and earth were created. Another interpretation of the Talmud is that the covenant refers to the Torah, as per the Talmudic dictum: ‘Covenant refers only to Torah.’




This is also expressed in Psalms:[64] ‘He remembered His covenant forever, the word He had commanded to the thousandth generation, Which He had made with Abraham, and His oath to Isaac, and He set it up to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant.’ Midrash Tanchuma refers ‘covenant’ to circumcision as an eternal statute, while Rashi explains the verse to refer to the Torah, without which the world would not be sustained.


Circumcision greater covenant than covenant of Torah


There is however an additional text of the Talmud that suggests that the covenant of circumcision is not merely equal to the covenant of the Torah, but is of greater importance. The Talmud presents this in the context of the liturgy of the Grace After Meals. The Talmud in tractate Berachot (Blessings) states:




With regard to the formula of Grace after Meals: It was taught in a baraita: Naḥum the Elder says: One must mention the covenant of circumcision in the blessing of the land. Rabbi Yosei says: One must mention the Torah in the blessing of the land. Pelimu, one of the last tanna’im, says: He must make mention of the covenant of circumcision preceding mention of the Torah, as this, the Torah, was given to the Jewish people with three covenants, and that, the covenant of circumcision, was given with thirteen covenants, as the word brit, covenant, appears thirteen times in the portion dealing with the circumcision of Abraham.




Maimonides codifies the view of the Talmud in his Laws of Blessings:




A person must mention the covenant of circumcision and the Torah in this blessing, mentioning the covenant before the Torah. The reason for this order is that the covenant mentioned in the blessing for Eretz Yisrael refers to the covenant of circumcision, concerning which thirteen covenants are mentioned in the Torah. In contrast, the Torah mentions only three covenants with regard to the Torah, as states:[68] ‘These are the words of the covenant... in addition to the covenant He established with you at Chorev,’ and states:[69] "You are standing... to establish a covenant."


This view of Pelimu arguing that covenant of circumcision is greater than the covenant of the Torah is reflected in the liturgy of the Grace After Meals that mentions the covenant of circumcision preceding mention of the Torah:


We offer thanks to You, L-rd our G‑d, for having given as a heritage to our ancestors a precious, good and spacious land; for having brought us out, L-rd our G‑d, from the land of Egypt, and redeemed us from the house of bondage; for Your covenant which You have sealed in our flesh; for Your Torah which You have taught us; for Your statutes which You have made known to us; for the life, favor, and kindness which You have graciously bestowed upon us; and for the food we eat with which You constantly nourish and sustain us every day, at all times, and at every hour.


Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi


The idea that the covenant of circumcision is greater than the covenant of the Torah itself is explained in the work of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1740-1813), in a discourse from 1803, entitled B’etzem Hayom Hazeh, published in Torah Ohr.[70] He argues there are two concepts of circumcision: a lower circumcision that man performs in coming closer to G-d. This is circumcision that is part of the Torah. A second idea of circumcision is greater than the Torah, whereby G-d comes close to man. This second concept of circumcision that is greater than the Torah is indicated in the following five ways: 1. The statement in the Talmud[71] that Abraham fulfilled the whole Torah while he waited to be commanded separately to perform circumcision indicates it being of a higher virtue than the Torah.[72] 2. The statement in the Talmud:[73] ‘So great is the mitzvah of circumcision that thirteen covenants were sealed with regard to it.’[74] The word ‘great’ indicates it being greater than the rest of the Torah. 3. The number thirteen covenants mentioned in circumcision correspond to the thirteen attributes of G-d’s mercy[75] that forgives sin. Forgiveness of sin implies a power that is greater than sin, which is stipulated by the Torah. 4. The use of the passive in the verse regarding Abraham’s circumcision:[76] ‘On that very day, Abraham was circumcised,’ as opposed to the earlier verse in the active form regarding his household:[77] ’And he circumcised the flesh of their foreskin on that very day.’ 5. The Zohar[78] explains that the Hebrew word Milah contains the acrostic: ‘Who will go up to heaven (mi ya’aleh lonu hashomayma).’[79] As the verse continues to state that the Torah ‘is not in heaven,’ the encrypted word Milah embedded in its proceeding sentence: ‘Who will go up to heaven,’ indicates that circumcision is in the heaven, greater than the Torah that is not in the heaven, but on earth.




This brings us to the text of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, the folio on which can be found the rare signature of Maimonides, authenticating the text. Based on the view that the covenant of circumcision is a greater covenant, not merely equal to, than the covenant of Torah, Maimonides appears to describe at the end of his Laws of circumcision, the importance of circumcision in Jewish tradition that it is indeed greater than the covenant of the Torah. He writes:


Come and see how severe a matter circumcision is. Moses, our teacher, was not granted even a temporary respite from fulfilling this mitzvah. The Torah mentions only three covenants regarding all its mitzvot, as states:[80] "These are the words of the covenant that G-d commanded... in addition to the covenant that He established with you in Chorev." And states:[81] "You are all standing today... to enter into a covenant with G-d, your Lord." Thus, there are three covenants. In contrast, thirteen covenants were established with Abraham, our Patriarch, with regard to circumcision: "I will place My covenant between Me and you",[82] "And I, behold, My covenant is with you,"[83] "I will establish My covenant between Me and you,"[84] "For an eternal covenant,”[85] "And you shall observe My covenant,”[86] "This is My covenant which you shall observe,"[87] "It will be a sign of the covenant,”[88] "My covenant will be in your flesh,"[89] "For an eternal covenant,”[90] "He will have nullified My covenant,”[91] "And I will establish My covenant with Him,“[92] "For an eternal covenant,”[93] "And I will establish My covenant with Isaac.”




While the overall statement about the greater value of circumcision is drawn from the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Berachot, the source for the quotation of the specific biblical verses for the covenant of circumcision is drawn from the Jerusalemite Talmud in tractate Nedarim. There are however a few differences that points to Maimonides own interpretation: 1. The Talmud states: ‘Great is the mitzvah of circumcision that thirteen covenants were sealed with regard to it.’ Maimonides replaces the word ‘great’ with ‘stringent.’ 2. The Jerusalemite Talmud quotes as its first of the thirteen verses from the Covenant between the Pieces, that follows the interpretation of Midrash Tanchuma that it refers to circumcision. Maimonides however omits this verse. 3. The Talmud in Berachot states: ‘The Torah, was given to the Jewish people with three covenants, and that (circumcision) was given with thirteen covenants.’ Maimonides, in the Huntington 80 manuscript, where his signature appears, adds to this statement the word ‘only.’ He writes: ‘The Torah mentions only three covenants regarding all its mitzvot. In contrast, thirteen covenants were established with Abraham, our Patriarch, with regard to circumcision.’ While this is merely meant for emphasis, it is an addition added by Maimonides. 4. The Talmud states: The Torah was given to the Jewish people with three covenants.’ Maimonides writes ‘all the mitzvot:’ The Torah mentions only three covenants regarding all its mitzvot. What is the reason for these variations?


Two aspects of a covenant


One may delineate the concept of circumcision into two categories: a. a sacred covenant sealed between the Jewish people and G-d, and b. a detailed covenant, as a law of the Torah (mitzvah). The phrasing of the text by Maimonides appears, as one would expect in a legal code, to be focusing more on the latter. For this reason, Maimonides makes a number of subtle changes in his wording of the Talmudic teaching. 1. In reference to the three covenants of the Torah he writes mitzvot (law), as the contrast between Torah and circumcision is in this context, and writes ‘stringent,’ as oppose to ‘great,’ a more suitable term to emphasise its legal stringency. In this context, Maimonides wants to emphasise the contrast by using ‘only,’ regarding the fact that the laws of circumcision have thirteen covenants, as opposed to the Torah that has only three. This repeated mention of covenant in a legal framework highlights stringency, similar to a biblical prohibition that may be repeated for stringency. In summary: Maimonides, while not negating the broader concept of circumcision as the sealing of a sacred covenant between the Jewish people and G-d, in his work Mishneh Torah, he is merely highlighting a legal point that a person who does not keep circumcision will be liable for greater punishment.[95]







[1] MS Hunt. 80

[2] The book of Mada includes laws of belief in G-d, ethics, Torah study and repentance. The book of Ahava includes laws of recitation of the Shema, Prayer, Tefilin, Torah Scroll, Mezuzot, blessings and laws of circumcision.

[3] Mishneh Torah by Moses Maimonides Book of Hamada, Published by Hotzaat Shabse Frankel Ltd (2001), 496.

[4] Fol. 165r.

[5] It serves as the basis for the Frankel edition of the two books of the Mishneh Torah published between 1973 and 2007.

[6] A second autograph is Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah, containing the tractates of Nezikin (damages) and Kodshim (consecrations). This was among the 420 manuscripts bought from the Regius Professor of Hebrew Edward Pococke. A third autograph is a draft copy of a section of the Mishneh Torah, containing Laws of Hiring (Sechirut) and Laws of Borrowing and Deposits (Sheilah U’fikadon), which was acquired as part of the Cairo Genizah.

[7] Some say he first circumcised his household and then himself. See commentaries on Genesis 18:1.

[8] Ch. 17.

[9] Genesis 34.

[10] Genesis 34:15.

[11] Genesis Rabbah 93:10.

[12] Exodus Rabbah 19:5.

[13] Exodus 4:24-26.

[14] Exodus: 12:48. Nedarim 32a.

[15] Exodus Rabbah 19:5.

[16] 16:9.

[17] 5:2. Exodus Rabbah 19:5.

[18] See Rashi commentary on Exodus 24:6. Talmud Yevamot 46b; Keritot 9a. Mishneh TorahHilchot Isurei Biah 13:1-2.

[19] Lech Lecha 20.

[20] 19:5.

[21] Rashi comments that the covenant refers to the Torah: ‘And keep My covenant: which I will make with you concerning the observance of the Torah.’

[22] 12:3.

[23] Talmud Yevamot 72a. Rashi on Joshua 5:2.

[24] Talmud Yevamot 71b.

[25] Rashi on Joshua 5:2.

[26] Ch. 5.

[27] Lech Lecha 20.

[28] 52:1.

[29] Minyan Hamitzvot Aseh 215.

[30] The fact that circumcision overrides Shabbat is based on the biblical wording that ‘On this very day you should circumcise his flesh.’ This does not explicitly say that it is because circumcision is greater than Shabbat. As the Talmud itself argues that according to at least of the Sages, one should not suggest that circumcision overrides Shabbat but it rather permitted on Shabbat, as this should be viewed as the keeping of Shabbat itself in view of the permissibility the Torah itself allows for circumcision when the eighth day falls out on Shabbat.

[31] Nedarim 31b. See Rashi and Tosafot.

[32] Sifri Re’eh. Quoted by Rabbi Nissin Gaon (990-1062) in his commentary to Berachot 49a.

[33] Sotah 37a-b See Rashi commentary printed on 37a. Quoted by Rabbi Nissin Gaon (990-1062) in his commentary to Berachot 49a.

[34] Leviticus 26:3-46.

[35] Deuteronomy 1:5.

[36] 1:5.

[37] Deuteronomy 28:69.

[38] Joshua 8:33.

[39] Deuteronomy 5:1 and 11:19.

[40] This principle is derived from Leviticus 26:37: ‘Each man will stumble over his brother.’ Talmud Sanhedrin 27b. Rashi commentary on Leviticus 26:37.

[41] Numbers 2:32. An additional view in the Talmud says that the number should be forty eight times 603,500 squared taking into account being a guarantor for one’s fellow guarantorship. Talmud Sotah 37b.

[42] Berachot 49a.

[43] Quoted by Rabbi Nissin Gaon (990-1062) in his commentary to Berachot 49a.

[44] Exodus 34:10.

[45] Exodus 34:27.

[46] Exodus 34:28.

[47] 2:3.

[48] 3:9.

[49] Deuteronomy 29:9-11.

[50] The reason for three covenants was due to the time period between them, requiring a new covenant to inspire the new generation.

[51] Genesis 15:18.

[52] Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 20.

[53] Genesis 17:2.

[54] Nedarim 31b.

[55] Genesis, chapter 17.

[56] Nedarim 12b.

[57] Genesis 15:18.

[58] Genesis 17:21.

[59] Exodus 19:5. Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 20.’

[60] Jeremiah 33:20.

[61] Midrash Tanchuma, Genesis 20.

[62] Shabbat 137b.

[63] Shabbat 33a.

[64] Psalms 105:8-10.

[65] Berachot 48b-49a.

[66] Genesis 17:1-14.

[67] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Berachot 2:3.

[68] Deuteronomy 28:69.

[69] Deuteronomy 29:9-11.

[70] 13b.

[71] Yoma 28b.

[72] The Riva commentary on the Torah explains the reason for waiting was due to the fact that circumcision can only be performed once.

[73] Nedarim 31b.

[74] Genesis, chapter 17.

[75] Exodus 34:6–7.

[76] Genesis 17:26.

[77] Genesis 17:23.

[78] Tikkunei Zohar in the introduction.

[79] Deuteronomy 30:12.

[80] Deuteronomy 28:69.

[81] Deuteronomy 29:9-11.

[82] Genesis 17:2.

[83] Genesis 17:4.

[84] Genesis 17:7.

[85] Genesis 17:7.

[86] Genesis 17:9.

[87] Genesis 17:10.

[88] Genesis 17:11.

[89] Genesis 17:13.

[90] Genesis 17:13.

[91] Genesis 17:14.

[92] Genesis 17:19.

[93] Genesis 17:19.

[94] Genesis 17:21.

[95] Likkutei Sichot 19. In Guide to the Perplexed, Vol. III, Chapter 49, Maimonides explains that circumcision comes "to complete the perfection of our emotions... to reduce a person's lust and wild cravings." In addition, he writes brit circumcision is a sign of the covenant of the oneness of G-d. "When a person is circumcised he enters into the covenant of Abraham which obligates him to know [G-d's] unity."




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