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Birth Right

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

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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.


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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.

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.

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.

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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”

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?


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Birth Right

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

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