Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Commandments as Refinement
Dr. Yair Barkai
Parashat Tazria begins with the commandment of circumcision: “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3). The Torah does not give the reason for this commandment. Ostensibly, it stems from what was said to our patriarch, Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14):
G-d further said to Abraham, “As for you, you and your offspring to come throughout the ages shall keep My covenant. Such shall be the covenant between Me and you and your offspring to follow which you shall keep: every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days. As for the homeborn slave and the one bought from an outsider who is not of your offspring, they must be circumcised, homeborn, and purchased alike. Thus shall My covenant be marked in your flesh as an everlasting pact. And if any male who is uncircumcised fails to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his kin; he has broken My covenant.
However, Maimonides wrote in his commentary on the Mishnah, Tractate Hullin 7.6:
We do not perform circumcision because our patriarch Abraham circumcised himself and the members of his household, rather because the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded us through Moses that we be circumcised, just as Abraham our patriarch was circumcised.
According to Maimonides’ interpretation, the source for the commandment of circumcision is the command given in this week’s reading, not what is written in Genesis; we are circumcised just as Abraham was circumcised, not because he was circumcised.
However, the author of Sefer ha-Hinukh believes the source of the commandment is indeed in Genesis, except that the “commandment was duplicated” and written again in Leviticus. The reasons for the commandment, according to him, are as follows:
The Lord, blessed be He, wished that the people whom He had chosen to be called by His name have a fixed sign on their bodies, setting them apart from the other peoples by the form of their bodies, just as they are set apart by the form of their souls... and the difference was set in the reproductive organ since it is the cause of the existence of the species, aside from perfecting the form of the body... And the chosen people – the Lord, blessed be He, wished to perfect their attributes and desired that the act of perfecting be done by human beings. Therefore humans were not created perfect from birth, to hint to them that just as the perfection of the form of their bodies is dependent on them, so too the perfection of their souls is in their hands, in making their actions proper. 
Aside from explaining the reason the sign of the covenant is placed where it is, the author of Sefer ha-Hinukh notes two primary reasons for the commandment: one, to set us apart from other peoples in our bodies, not only in our souls; the other, to hint to us that we must take action to perfect our souls just as we take action to perfect our bodies.
The second reason in Sefer ha-Hinukh is based on the well-known story in Midrash Tanhuma on this week’s reading (par. 5): 
Once upon a time the wicked Tinneius Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose deeds are finer? Those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of human beings?” He answered him, “Those of human beings are finer.” Tinneius Rufus said to him, “Consider the heavens and the earth – can humans make the likes of them?” Rabbi Akiva said to him, “Do not give me things that are above human beings, that people have no control of; rather, give me examples of things that are in human hands.” He said to him, “Why do you circumcise yourselves?” He responded, “I knew you would ask me about this, therefore I began by saying that the deeds of human beings are finer than those of the Holy One, blessed be He.” Rabbi Akiva, bringing him some stalks of wheat and some cakes, said to him, “These were made by the Lord, and these were made by human beings. Are not these finer than the stalks of wheat?” Tinneius Rufus answered him, “If He desires circumcision, why does the newborn not emerge circumcised from his mother’s womb?” Akiva answered him, “And why is he born with an umbilical cord connecting him to his mother’s womb, and his mother cuts it? As for your saying, why does he not emerge circumcised – that is because the Holy One, blessed be He, gave the commandments to Israel for no other reason than to refine [or purify] them, hence David said (Ps. 18:31): ‘The word of the Lord is pure.’”
In this legend about circumcision, Rabbi Akiva gives two explanations for the commandment:
1) To give human beings credit for completing the work of the Creator, for “the commandment is named after none other than the one who puts on the final touch.” 
2) The reason for circumcision is included in the context of the general purpose of the commandments, which we given in order to “refine human beings”; by performing the commandments, people refine and purify their souls, becoming holy: as we say in our benedictions, “who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us.”
The Sages offered several hypotheses explaining the reason for the commandments, and most of the great Jewish thinkers followed in their lead. 
Urbach  emphasizes two reasons, found in the writings of the Sages:
The two explanations of the reason for the commandments, that of reward and that of refining human beings, are found in two interpretations of the concept of hukkim – laws [as opposed to rules and instructions]. Rabbi Levi said, citing Rabbi Hama b. R. Haninah: hukkim (laws) – because they are enacted against [also, as a play on words: hakukim – engraved in] our evil inclination... Rabbi Abba b. Elyashiv said: hukkim – for they bring human beings life in the hereafter [Leviticus Rabbah, 35.5-6, pp. 822-823]. The first remark says that the commandments fortify people in their struggle against evil inclinations, “in order to refine [or purify] human beings through them,” while the second remark emphasizes the aspect of reward.
The commandments serve to strengthen human beings so that they can withstand trials, and if they do so, then performing the commandments also adds a measure of holiness to people.
To the above, Urbach also adds the explanation of the reward that a person will receive for performing the commandments.  The notion common to all the sources we have cited is the Sages’ famous declaration, “The commandments were given for no other purpose than to refine human beings through them,” which apparently comes from Genesis Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck edition, ch. 44):
Sometime later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, etc.: “the way of G-d is perfect; the word of the Lord is pure; He is a shield to all who seek refuge in Him” (Ps. 18:31). If His ways are perfect, then he, all the more so. Rav said: the commandments were given for no other purpose than to refine human beings through them; for what does the Holy One, blessed be He, care whether a person slaughters an animal at the throat or at the back of the neck? Thus we see that the commandments were given none other than to refine human beings through them.
The perfection of the believer can be discerned in the fact that even those commandments whose reason is not clear to him he performs with the same faithful devotion as he accords the commandments which are understood,  because he operates under the basic assumption that the source of both types of commandments is one and the same: the Lord, blessed be He, and the commandments exist all the same, whether or not we understand the reasons for them.
Perhaps the commandment of circumcision is juxtaposed in this week’s reading to the commandment regarding impurity of a woman at childbirth, after the birth of a male, in order to teach us that just as there is no intellectual reason for the laws of ritual purity and impurity, so too with the commandment of circumcision. Nevertheless, as we study Scripture we are not exempt from the obligation to search for reasons, just as the Sages did not view themselves as exempt from looking for reasons. However, the point of departure, and sometimes also the conclusion, will always be: “the commandments were given for no other purpose than to refine mankind.”
 Sefer ha-Hinukh, Parashat Lekh-Lekha.
 A parallel legend can be found in Genesis Rabbah, ch. 11. There the argument is between Rabbi Hoshayah and a gentile philosopher. Also see the notes of B. Z. Bacher, Aggadot ha-Tannaim ve-ha-Amoraim, Vol. 1, part 2, pp. 44-45, on the variant texts and their significance.
 Tanhuma, Ekev 6. A similar reason can be found in Genesis Rabbah (Theodor-Albeck ed.), ch. 46: “He said, if [the Lord] likes circumcision, why was it not commanded of Adam? The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Abraham: So be it for you, that you and I are in the world; if you do not accept to circumcise yourself, so be it for My world, and so be it for the foreskin, and so be it, woefully, for circumcision.”
 Several books have been written summarizing the main ideas on this subject, of which we mention three: Isaac Heineman, Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot, Jerusalem 1942; E. E. Urbach, Hazal: Emunot ve-De’ot, Jerusalem 1969, ch. 13, pp. 279-347, especially the section on reasons for the commandments, pp. 321-347; Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Sihot al Pirkei Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot mi-Tokh Moreh Nevukhim la-Rambam, Jerusalem 2003.
 Yeshayahu Leibowitz, ibid., pp. 321-322.
 Notwithstanding the well-known controversy in the wake of Rabbi Jacob’s remark in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 39b: “There is no reward for good deeds in this world.”
 Or, as defined by Rabbi Sa’adiah Gaon in Emunot ve-De’ot: commandments of simple obedience [mitzvot shim’iyot], and commandments that are understood by our intellect [mitzvot sikhliyot].