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