Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shemini 5759/1999

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shemini 5759/1999

On the Importance of the Eighth Day:

"On the Eighth Day the Flesh of his Foreskin Shall Be Circumcised"

Rabbi Samuel Ingber


Circumcision is first commanded in the Bible when G-d says to Abraham, "And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days" (Gen. 17:12). This verse, however, does not explain the reason for circumcision being performed precisely on the eighth day. The command appears again in Parshat Tazria, in the discussion about a woman at childbirth being unclean: "When a woman at childbirth bears a male, she shall be unclean seven days; she shall be unclean as at the time of her menstrual infirmity. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall remain in a state of blood purification for thirty-three days; she shall not touch any consecrated thing, nor enter the sanctuary until her period of purification is completed" (Lev. 12:2-4). The main point we seek to understand is why circumcision is to be performed precisely on the eighth day?[1]

Three explanations are given in tannaitic commentaries. The reason given in the Talmud revolves around the issue of strengthening the marital bond. As we have seen, in Parshat Tazria the commandment to circumcise on the eighth day was written in the context of laws about the uncleanness of a woman at childbirth, indicating that the answer to our question is to be found in this juxtaposition. Indeed, the only reason explicitly cited by the Talmud is based on this semichut parshiot. According to this explanation the eighth day was chosen precisely because one had to wait until the woman's seven unclean days were over. This idea is suggested by R. Simeon bar Yohai: "Why did the Torah establish circumcision on the eighth day? So as not to have everyone rejoicing while the father and mother are sad"[because they cannot be together] (Niddah 31b).[2]

Another explanation, concerning the vigor of the newborn, is cited there in the name of R. Yudan bar Pazi: "Why is the newborn circumcised on the eighth day? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, bestowed His mercy on him, waiting until he be strong. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is merciful to humans, so too to animals. How do we know this? From the words, '[When an ox or a sheep or a goat is born], ... and from the eighth day on ... [it shall be acceptable as an offering]' (Lev. 22:27)" (Deuteronomy Rabbah, beginning of Parshat Ki Tetze).

A third explanation, having to do with enhancing spirituality, is offered by Leviticus Rabbah, Parshat Emor (27.10). This midrash maintains that circumcision is put off until the eighth day so that the newborn will live through one Sabbath before he is circumcised. We quote from the Vilna edition of this midrash: "'It shall stay seven days with its mother' (Lev. 22:17): Rabbi Joshua of Sakhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: It is like a king who comes to a certain state where he issues an edict as follows: No visitors here shall be received by me until they first pay their respects to the Madame. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: Do not bring me a sacrifice until it has lived through a week, for there are no seven days without a Sabbath, and there shall be no circumcision without a Sabbath."

This homily is explained by R. Samuel Yaffe Ashkenazi in his commentary, Yefe To'ar:

The Sabbath is referred to as "Madame,"[matrona] in the way that we speak of the Sabbath Queen. The point of this homily is that the Sabbath teaches us about renewal of the world and G-d's providence over earthly beings; faith in this must come before all else. Therefore, whoever would bring a sacrifice, giving an offering to the Lord without faith in His renewing the world and extending His providence over it, performs a religious act in vain. Hence it says that a Sabbath must pass before bringing a sacrifice or performing circumcision.

Thus, tannaitic scholars give three reasons for circumcision being on the eighth day. One explanation is sociological--concerning relations between spouses. This is the only explanation that is based on the written Torah, on a verse in Parshat Tazria, and it is the only one explicitly mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah, in the name of R. Simeon bar Yohai. The second explanation is medical, concerning the weakness of the newborn; the third is spiritual, concerning the spiritual benefit of the Sabbath to the newborn. The last two explanations are not reinforced by a verse from the Torah, nor do they appear in the Talmud, rather, only in midrashic works.

The fact that the Torah explicitly alludes to the first explanation indicates that it puts priority on the happiness of the couple and on strengthening the relationship between them, even placing this above spiritual and medical explanations. The Babylonian Talmud apparently preferred this explanation because it is hinted at explicitly in the Torah, also because it reflects the view that a good marital relationship is the foundation of all human existence, reflecting the idea, "He ... called them [i.e. man and woman together] Man" (Gen. 5:2). A healthy marriage can be the basis for perfection in other material and spiritual realms.[3]

In view of the above, why did Maimonides ignore the explicit reason given by R. Simeon bar Yohai in the Talmud, preferring instead the reason cited in Midrash Rabbah which pertains to the newborn's lack of vigor: "The fact that circumcision is performed on the eighth day is due to the circumstance that all living beings are very weak and exceedingly tender when they are born, as if they were still in the womb. This is so until seven days are past. It is only then that they are counted among the living. Do you not see that this point is also taken into account with regard to beasts? 'Seven days shall it be with its dam, ...' (Lev. 22:27). It is as if before that period it were a fetus" (Guide of the Perplexed III.49).

It seems we should accept R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein's explanation in Torah Temimah (Parshat Tazria 22), that Maimonides preferred the reason based on strengthening the newborn since the reason concerning the woman's uncleanness was no longer significant, because the period of abstinence from marital relations in Jewish custom was not the seven days of Biblical law but twelve days.

The reason based on the newborn's health is supported by medical research done in our generation. According to this study it was shown that during the first few days after birth a newborn has difficulty with blood-clotting, but by the eighth day the blood-clotting mechanism reaches its maximal function.[4] The entry "Circumcision" in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, Part 3 (edited by Dr. Abraham Steinberg, Jerusalem 1993) reads:

Immediately at birth the newborn has sufficient clotting factors, transferred to it from the mother. These factors rapidly break down, in two or three days, making it necessary for clotting factors to be produced independently, a process that takes place in the liver. However the liver of a newborn is not fully developed, therefore from age three to five days, every neonate, including healthy ones, suffers from a shortage of clotting factors; thus circumcision at this age is dangerous due to the risk of bleeding. From the sixth day on independent clotting factors begin to be formed by the neonate's liver, thus by the eighth day he is ready in this respect.[5]

Later exegesis has a tendency to prefer spiritual explanations. R. Solomon Ephraim of Luncz's Bible commentary, Kli Yakar, focuses on the uncleanness of the newborn. He explains that the woman's menstrual uncleanness is due to the sin in the Garden of Eden. Were it not for this sin, man would be like an angel of G-d, more elevated than the seven planetary systems, but due to his sin he fell from this lofty spiritual state. Everything natural is related to the number seven, and everything spiritual is above nature and therefore related to the number eight. Since the mother is unclean for seven days, this uncleanness also affects the newborn. Hence he can not bcircumcised until the eighth day, when he comes out of his uncleanness.

R. Judah Loew (Maharal), in Tifereth Israel, chapters 1-2, explains that the natural world was created in seven days, denoted by the number seven, and all that is above nature is denoted by the number eight. The uncircumcised state in which man is born symbolizes nature, which is lacking, and correcting this deficiency by circumcision is perfecting nature; hence circumcision is done on the eighth day, which is above nature.

In his commentary on the verse in Parshat Tazria, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch also saw the number eight as symbolizing the spiritual. He based his explanation of circumcision being on the eighth day on this, viewing circumcision as spiritual birth:

The seven days of uncleanness conclude a period of a condition which must be overcome. Man is distinguished from the generality of creation which is devoid of freedom of choice(created in six days) and became a person having freedom (on the seventh), but receives this gift only by virtue of a covenant with G-d (the circumcision). Then, on the eighth day he is born anew not only as Man but as a Jew. The eighth day is therefore a return to the first day on a higher level... Now the coercive force of the laws of nature, that was revealed in the mother and son and the moment of physical birth, caused the mother seven days of uncleanness of childbirth; this reason in itself requires, even with regard to the son in ordinary cases, that seven days be completed before the commandment of circumcision is performed.

We see that later commentators were more inclined to seek an explanation of this commandment not on the revealed level of the Torah but on the concealed level. As R. Abraham Bornstein wrote on this question in Resp. Avnei Nezer, Yoreh Deah 469.7: "But the real reason lies in the higher spheres, and the rabbis clothed this hidden reason in a revealed one."

Perhaps this inclination stemmed from the fact that the Talmudic explanation about the marital relationship no longer held because of changes in the halakhah on seven unclean days. The medical explanations, that relate to this commandment from the point of view of the health of the newborn and were taken up by Maimonides, apparently were off-putting. During this period science began to develop rapidly, bringing new discoveries, some reflecting scientific truth and others later to be shown erroneous. The need to explain the reason for things in the Torah according to scientific laws and discoveries could lead to trouble if a certain scientific discovery were found to contradict a law of the Torah. Perhaps for this reason the rabbis preferred the more spiritual and kabbalistic interpretations, which would always be acceptable to believers, with no fear of a conflict between the natural and the supernatural.

It should be noted that post-Talmudic interpretive trends, be it Maimonides' views or the approach of later commentators, do not present totally new ideas, rather they rest on the two midrashic interpretations that existed alongside the interpretative approach taken by the Talmud.

[1] For more on this subject, see the article of Dr. Yirmiyahu Malhi, Hebrew Parasha no. 129, 1996.

[2] Targum Jonathan on Parshat Tazria reads: "And on the eighth day she becomes permitted, and the son's foreskin shall be circumcised." In other words, only after the woman is permitted to her husband is circumcision to be performed. Likewise see the remarks by R. Abraham ha-Levi in Resp. Ginat Veradim, Orah Hayyim Rule 1, 25, s.v. "ve-li nireh," where he writes: "It is a self-evident interpretation, for why juxtapose the laws of circumcision to the laws of menstrual uncleanness?"

[3] It is interesting to note that even with regard to the abstinence from marital relations during the wife's seven unclean days, the gemara cites a reason which actually has to do with strengthening the bond between husband and wife. The following baraita is presented there in the name of R. Meir: "Why did the Torah dictate menstrual uncleanness for seven days? Because he grows accustomed to her, and tired of her; so the Torah said, let her be unclean for seven days so that she again be pleasing to her husband as when she first came under the bridal canopy" (Niddah 31b).

[4] Also with regard to the reason for menstrual uncleanness (cf. note 3, above), see the remarks of Dr. Jacob Smitlein in the booklet, "Higeina Minit mi-Behina Mada'it" ("Sexual Hygiene from a Scientific Point of View"), published by the National Institute for Family Purity in Israel. There he notes that during menstruation the issue of blood lasts five days, and during the next seven days the mucous membrane of the uterus that disintegrated is restored. These two stages of five days followed by another seven exactly correspond to the laws on menstrual uncleanness.

[5] Cf. also Dr. Ayala Abrahamov, "Ba'ayot krisha ve-dimum ba-yilod", Assia 3, p. 384. This medical reason is also discussed on the Internet site,, in the article by Gerald N. Weiss, "A Perspective on Controversies over Neonatal Circumcision." There he writes: "The operation was to be performed on the seventh neonatal day. This predated the discovery of the blood-clotting mechanisms in infancy. We know now that the clotting factors become functional by the seventh neonatal day in the healthy infant."