Delayed Berit Milah on Shabbat
The berit milah of a newborn baby was delayed past his eighth day. His parents now wish to schedule that ceremony on a Shabbat, since Shabbat is a day when family and friends can attend the simchah. According to tradition, a delayed berit milah may not take place on Shabbat. Is that the position of Reform Judaism as well? (Rabbi Eric Slaton, Lexington, KY)
This question, as we understand it, concerns the nature and standing of both berit milah and Shabbat as they are observed or ought to be observed in our communities. Is the celebration of the mitzvah of circumcision, truly a powerful Jewish moment, so important and central that it should supersede the restrictions that customarily define Shabbat? Or does the reverence we accord Shabbat demand that other mitzvot, should they interfere with its observance, be set aside? Our answer will consist of two parts: first, a brief survey of the halakhah on the timing of the berit milah, and second, a look at the issue from the standpoint of our own Reform Jewish tradition.
Milah on Shabbat in Jewish Law. The Torah states twice that the ritual circumcision (berit milah) of a Jewish boy is performed at the age of eight days (Gen. 17:12 and Lev. 12:3). The latter verse reads: “And on the eighth day (uvayom hashemini) his foreskin shall be circumcised,” from which the rabbis deduce that the circumcision must take place on that very day, even if it happens to fall on Shabbat.1 The traditional expression is milah bizemanah dochah shabbat, “circumcision at its proper time supersedes the Shabbat”: that is, we do procedure even though it requires actions that otherwise violate the prohibitions against doing work (melakhah) on the Sabbath. It follows that a circumcision done prior to or later than a boy’s eighth day (milah shelo bezemanah) does not supersede the Shabbat and may not take place on that day.2
Of particular interest is the precise way in which circumcision at its proper time may take place on Shabbat. The Mishnah records a famous dispute over the issue.3 According to Rabbi Eliezer, since one is permitted to perform the circumcision itself, one may also perform a variety of other actions normally prohibited on Shabbat in order to prepare for
the milah. Thus, one may carry the izmil, the mohel‘s knife, through the public thoroughfare; one may even make a knife if none is available. Rabbi Akiva, however, forbids these actions according to his rule: any labor that could have been performed before Shabbat does not supersede the Shabbat, and any labor that could not have been performed earlier does supersede the Shabbat. Thus, it is forbidden to carry or prepare the knife on Shabbat, even though the circumcision cannot be performed without it, since the knife could have been brought the day before. The halakhah follows Rabbi Akiva’s more stringent position.4 And through that determination, the tradition teaches an important point: though the performance of a mitzvah may entitle us to take actions that normally violate the Shabbat, we are to keep those actions to a minimum.5 Even if it is the day of a boy’s circumcision, it remains Shabbat for the entire community; Shabbat continues to make its legitimate demands upon the Jew, demands that cannot be ignored or forgotten.6
Reform Approaches. This Committee has consistently held to this position in questions which have come before us. Like Rabbi Akiva, we have held that Shabbat is a sacred span of time, an institution of Jewish life which makes its own legitimate demands upon us. The fact that Shabbat “conflicts” with another mitzvah or worthy cause does not mean that it is Shabbat which must give way. Indeed, the reverse is often the case. Put differently, Shabbat is more than merely a good day on which to schedule good deeds. It is Shabbat kodesh, a holy day; we do not violate or trespass upon it, even for the sake of mitzvot, unless those mitzvot must be performed on it.
In 1977, for example, the Committee was asked whether weddings might take place on Shabbat or festivals. Theoretically, there might be any number of practical reasons why a couple would wish to schedule their wedding on Shabbat, and one could even argue that, as a holy day, Shabbat is an especially meet time to hold the ceremony of marriage, which is in our tradition an act of consecration (kiddushin). Yet the Committee, concerned with “the sanctity of Shabbat as understood and encouraged by the Reform movement,” recommended that the traditional prohibition against weddings on that day be maintained. “We encourage our members to make Shabbat a `special’ day upon which we do not carry out duties and acts performed on other days. Countenancing marriages on Shabbat would detract from this objective and weaken our efforts.”7 In 1986 and again in 1993, the Committee declared that Reform synagogue groups ought not to participate in tzedakah projects, such as the building of houses for the poor, which take place on Shabbat. Although the importance of social action in Reform Jewish thought can hardly be overstated, the importance of Shabbat as a refuge from activity defined as work is also a sacred value to us. Since the tzedakah work is not an emergency and since it could be performed on another day, it ought to take place on a day other than Shabbat.8
Our attitude has been similar with respect to berit milah. We have ruled that circumcision ought to take place on the eighth day, even if another day might be more convenient to the family.9 And we have recommended that a berit milah not be scheduled at night, inasmuch as tradition calls for circumcision to be performed only in the daytime.10 In these cases, we have argued that berit milah is to be distinguished from “circumcision”. The latter is a mere surgical procedure; the former is a ritual act whose parameters are discerned in the rules set down in the Jewish tradition. It is precisely when we conduct it according to those rules that we transform the surgical procedure into a religious observance.
There are times, of course, when berit milah must occur on Shabbat. This, however, is not one of those times. We recognize that it would be more convenient for the family to schedule their son’s circumcision on Shabbat. But if convenience is the only justification for their request, it is, in our view, an insufficient reason to accede to it. If we are
serious, as we say we are, about keeping Shabbat and observing berit milah within our Reform communities, we have no choice but to respect and revere the lines which define them as religious acts.
- 1. Shabbat 132a. The word uvayom seems superfluous; the verse would bear the same sense had it read uvashemini. The Rabbis reason, therefore, that the word comes to teach another detail, i.e., “on that day, even Shabbat.”
- Yad, Hilkhot Milah 1:9; SA YD 266:2.
- M. Shabbat 19:1.
- See note 2.
- Similarly, when one needs to eat or drink on Yom Kippur, “we feed him little by little”, i.e., the minimal amount necessary to sustain him, so as to avoid a wholesale abandonment of the commandment to fast on that day; Hilkhot HaRosh, M. Yoma 8:13; SA OC 618:7-8.
- For the sake of thoroughness, it should be noted that even Rabbi Eliezer, who assumes a more lenient position in the mishnah, would answer our she’elah in the negative. The circumcision may not take place on Shabbat, since that is not the child’s eighth day.
- American Reform Responsa, # 136, pp. 412-415; see Gates of Shabbat, 58. The latter work, in particular, is evidence of our rabbinate’s commitment to the observance of Shabbat as a holy day within Reform communities.
- The responsa are, respectively, Contemporary American Reform Responsa, # 176, pp. 265-267, and our responsum 5753.22, in this volume, pp. 169-170 .
- ARR, # 55-56, pp. 143-146.
- See BT. Megillah 20a, BT. Yevamot 72b, Yad, Hilkhot Milah 1:8, SA OC 262:1; R. Walter Jacob, Questions and Reform Jewish Answers, # 99, pp. 159-161.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.