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03.04.2019 20:13    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parasha  vaykra  tazria  

A Poem for Circumcision

“Who did sanctify Isaac the well-beloved from birth, setting Your statute in his flesh, and sealing his offspring with the sign of the holy covenant.”  This formulation in the circumcision benediction draws a connection between the commandment of circumcision given our forefather Abraham, which was one of the ten trials to which he was put (Avot 5.3; also cf. Rashi, loc. cit.), and the duty to observe this practice throughout the generations, as stated in a rather off-hand manner in this week’s reading:  “On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (Lev. 12:3).

Many rules of halakhah are derived from this verse, in addition to what follows from the description of the commandment in Genesis.  The command given Abraham, “And throughout the generations, every male among you shall be circumcised at the age of eight days” (Gen. 17:12), receives the force of a commandment given at Mount Sinai from this week’s reading.  Also, the statement to Abraham, “That shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gen. 17:11), becomes associated with another statement regarding the Sabbath, “it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel” (Ex. 31:17), and comes back to the verse in this week’s reading in regard to two principles:  circumcision takes precedence over the Sabbath (Shabbat 132b and elsewhere), and the newborn must have lived through one Sabbath prior to being circumcised (ZoharVa-Yikra 44a; also see Leviticus Rabbah 27.10).

The commandment of circumcision has been cherished by Jews throughout the ages, and liturgical poets of all times have sung its praises, describing the magnitude of the commandment that marks Jews among the nations, and blessing the circumcised child with good health and long life, that by the Lord’s grace he see Redemption in his lifetime, just as he is blessed by Elijah, angel of the Covenant and carrier of the tidings of Redemption, being present at the circumcision ceremony (Yalkut ShimoniLekh Lekha 71).

Of the many liturgical poems written for circumcision, we present one by Rabbi Musa Bujnah of Tripoli (16th century, d. 1680).  This piyyut is recited in North African Jewish communities, primarily Tunisia and Libya, and brings a light, playful note to the circumcision ceremony, alongside concern for the newborn and his health.

I shall compose and sing in this assembly[1] E’erokh zemer tokh mak’helot

Of the bridegroom of blood by circumcision.[2] `Al hatan damim la-mulot.


May the circumcised wallowing[3] in blood                                  Nimol mitboses be-damim

See offspring and have long life.[4] Yir’eh zer`a, ya’arikh yamim

May his blood be pleasing to You,[5] Rock of Ages,                    Tirtze damo, Tzur Olamim,

As the blood of sacrifice, the blood of burnt offerings.[6] Ke-dam zevah u-khe-dam olot.


O G-d, have mercy and pity compassionate                    Yah, hon ve-hamol be-rov hemlah

On the son to be circumcised.                                                        `Al ben yikanes la-milah

May he[7] be blessed with witnessing the day of Redemption, Yizkeh lahazot yom ge’ulah

The day of salvation, day of light and rejoicing.[8] Yom yesh`a, yom or ve-gilot.


Mohel,[9] gently approach the lad,[10] Mohel, le’at na la-na`ar,

Attend how you hold the blade,                                             U-re’eh eikh tahazik ba-ta`ar

To cut off the foreskin with no sorrow,                                       Likhrot orlav bi-vli tza`ar,

And cast it on the Hill of Foreskins![11] U-zrok el giv`at ha-`aralot!


Guard of the loyal,[12] safeguard him,                                         Shomer emunim, shomrehu

Renew him in these years,[13] U-ve-kerev shanim hayyeihu,

Let him live to a ripe old age,[14] Orekh yamim hasbi`eihu

For Your sake,[15] Worker of Awesome Wonders.[16] Le-mankha, nora `alilot.


Heed[17] the song of the indigent and answer,                             Hakshev rinat dal na`aneh

And by the life of this circumcised son                                   U-ve-hayyei nimol zeh tikneh

Give life to your people,[18] and swiftly rebuild your Sanctuary, `Amkha, u-dvirkha hish tivneh

And remember love as a bride![19] U-zekhor ahavat kelulot!


Give Your people strength, Rock and Refuge,                         Hazek `amakh, tzur mivtahi

And gather to Zion the dispersed,                                                U-le-Zion kabetz niddahi,

Hear my cry and find pleasing my words                                  Kabbel shav`I u-re-tzeh sihi

As of the son of Yishai in a Song of Ascent![20] Ke-ven Yishai be-Shir Ma`a lot!


This poem, inspired by the joy of the event, for “joy means circumcision” (Megillah 16b), and intended for the circumcision ceremony, describes the newborn as he is about to be brought into the covenant of our patriarch Abraham and blesses him with health and longevity, wishing him the good fortune to grow up and experience the coming of the Redeemer in his lifetime.  The poet stands before the mohel, gives him support and encouragement in his task and calls on him to perform the commandment faithfully and skillfully.

Some words of concern are said for the well-being of the child, but with a humorous touch, saying the foreskin should be thrown onto the “Hill of Foreskins.”  Having mentioned the pain and potential danger to the newborn, the poet immediately turns to address the Holy One, blessed be He, entreating him to safeguard and heal the child, granting him life; then the poet again wishes him long years, to witness the Redemption of Israel in his days.  The poem ends with a plea for Redemption and a reference to the Song of Ascent, concluding on a note of the joy of Redemption and the pilgrimage festivals, and thus tying the end of the poem with its beginning, “I shall compose and sing in this assembly,” alluding to the verse in Psalms (68:27):  “In assemblies bless G‑d, the Lord, O you who are from the fountain of Israel.”  This psalm describes Redemption, on which Rashi comments (loc. cit.), “Even the embryos in their mothers’ womb uttered a song” (citing Sotah 30b).

The song of embryos and babes at the splitting of the Red Sea comes as an echo answering the song of those assembled at the brit.  Furthermore, the poet reminds us that the Israelites were delivered from Egypt by virtue of the blood of the Passover sacrifice and of the circumcision, by using the words, “wallowing in blood,” which allude to the verse, “I said to you:  ‘Live in spite of your blood’” (Ezek. 16:6), and especially to its interpretation:  “I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood’—this refers to the blood of the Passover sacrifice.   I said to you: ‘Live in spite of your blood’—this refers to the blood of circumcision.”  In this manner the poet associates the commandment of circumcision practiced in his day with the Redemption from Egypt and with Redemption still to come.

Because the liturgical poet, Rabbi Musa Bujnah, is little known to the general readership yet a very important figure in the history of the spiritual world of the Jews of Tripoli, we shall take the opportunity to expand slightly upon his works.  The dozens of poems written by Rabbi Musa Bujnah shed new light on the spiritual life of the Jews of Tripoli in the 17th century, a subject that has been rather obscure.  He was essentially the only liturgical poet of such great stature among Tripolitan Jewry.  According to a tradition received by Rabbi Abraham Kalfon,[21] chronicler of Libyan Jewry, Rabbi Musa was blind and was sent by his father to study Torah in Egypt.

A large fraction of his poems are intended liturgically, to be incorporated in the prayers.  They focus on the prayer Nishmat, a prayer into which several liturgical poems were incorporated in a number of North African Jewish communities.[22] A similar practice is reflected by collections of early Tripolitan liturgical poems.  However, it should be noted that the Jews of Libya did not follow the practice of incorporating liturgical poems prior to the Nishmat prayer, in the prayer itself, or after it.

Aside from poems for the prayer service, Rabbi Musa wrote poems for circumcision ceremonies and weddings, as well as many poems in praise of the Lord and about Exile and Redemption, with no connection to a specific prayer.  Of especial note are the poems he wrote in praise of the Torah and Torah study.  His great admiration of Torah study and Talmudic scholars reflects an atmosphere of scholarship and love of Torah.  Of exceptional beauty are his allegorical poems about love of Torah that make metaphorical use of elements from secular poetry.

The poetry of Spain, with which Rabbi Musa was well versed, had a noticeable impact on his work and contributed to the quality of his poems.  He, too, excelled in complex and amazing poetic forms:  lengthy rhymed verse, consisting of long lines divided into hemistichs or short lines with tight rhymes that form a rich sound.  His poetry excels in subordinating syntax to content while making use of syntactic inversions (changing the order of words in the sentence) or terse expressions that require the reader to pay close attention to the given phrase.

Rabbi Musa’s poetry was well-received by his community in Tripoli, as well as by the Jews of Tunis, and comprises a central part of the important anthology of poems, Shirei Zimra (Leghorn 1872), which includes a selection of the liturgical poems recited in Tunis.  A scholarly annotated edition of his poems, with an extensive introduction to his poetry and the poetry of his times, was published in 1989.[23]

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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