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18.01.2017 11:36    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  shemot  

“G d forbid Moses should have been lax about circumcision”

In Exodus 4:24-26 we read:  “At the inn on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him.  So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, ‘You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!’  And when He let him alone, she added, ‘A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.’”

From the plain sense of the text, and according to the consensus among biblical exegetes,[1] Moses should have been punished for being negligent about the commandment of circumcision.  Nevertheless, Rabbi Yose (ben Halafta) rushed to Moses’ defense, vehemently denying this straightforward point of consensus:  “G‑d forbid that Moses should have been negligent about circumcision.”  What lies behind his protest and how can it be explained?  Let us examine his remarks in context, as they appear in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 31b-32a (and parallel texts):

[Mishnah]… [1] Rabbi Ishmael said:  Great is [the precept] of circumcision since thirteen covenants were made thereon [brit (= covenant) appears thirteen times in the passage on Abraham’s circumcision, Gen. 17:1-22).  [2] Rabbi Yose said:  Circumcision is a great precept, for it overrides [the severity of] the Sabbath.  [3] Rabbi Joshua b. Karha said:  Great is [the precept of] circumcision, for [neglecting] which Moses did not have [his punishment] suspended even for a single hour (but was to be punished forthwith).  [4]  Rabbi Nehemiah said:  Great is [the precept of] circumcision since it supersedes leprosy (which generally it is forbidden to cut out).  [5]  Rabbi said:  Great is circumcision, for [notwithstanding] all the precepts which Abraham fulfilled, he was not designated perfect until he circumcised himself, as it is written, “Walk in My ways and be perfect.”  [6]  Another interpretation:  Great is circumcision, since but for that, the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have created the universe, as it is written, “Thus said the Lord:  If not for My covenant, I would not have made day and night, set the laws of heaven and earth” (Jer. 33:25).

Several of the opinions expressed in the Mishnah are reiterated in the baraithas on it (which we have skipped), and a further opinion is added:  “Great is circumcision, for it counterbalances all the [other] precepts of the Torah.”  Now we shall focus on the surprising innovative view of the tanna, Rabbi Yose, which takes issue with the opinion of Rabbi Joshua b. Karha:

[Gemara]:  It was taught:  Rabbi Joshua b. Karha said:  Great is circumcision, for all the meritorious deeds performed by Moses our Teacher did not stand him instead when he displayed apathy towards circumcision, as it is written, “the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him.”  Rabbi [Yose][2] said:  G‑d forbid that Moses should have been negligent [Jerusalem Talmud:  lax concerning] about circumcision, but he reasoned thus:  ‘If I circumcise [my son] and straightway go forth [on my mission to Pharaoh], I will endanger his life, as it is written, “On the third day, when they were in pain” (Gen. 34:25).  If I circumcise him, and tarry three days—but the Holy One, blessed be He, has commanded:  Go, return to Egypt.’  Why then was Moses punished?  Because he busied himself first with the inn, as it is written, “At the inn on the way.”  Rabbi Simeon b. Gamaliel said:  Satan did not seek to slay Moses but the child…Rabbi Judah b. Bizna lectured:  When Moses was lax in the performance of circumcision…It was taught… [7] Another version:  Great is circumcision, for it counterbalances all the [other] precepts of the Torah, as it is written, “For in accordance with these commandments” (Ex. 34:27).

Seven tannaim, including Rabbi Yose himself (no. 2), proclaimed the virtues of circumcision:  Great is circumcision.  Presumably Rabbi Yose, like the rest of the Sages, was aware of the plain sense of the text,[3] but he refused to accept that there was any laxness on Moses’ part in performing the commandment.  He was so thorough in his presentation of Moses’ halakhic justifications that he had to ascribe the threat to Moses’ life to a different transgression (“because he busied himself first with the inn”),[4] even though this does not follow from the plain sense of the text.  Indeed, even the amora Rabbi Judah bar Bizna (Zebida/Zevina?)[5] held a view contrary to that of Rabbi Yose:  “When Moses was lax…” (Before no. 7).

What caused Rabbi Yose to deny so emphatically any laxness on the part of Moses?  Ostensibly it suffices to suggest that he was appalled by the possibility, absurd in his eyes, that our Teacher Moses, the greatest of the prophets, should have been lax in performing such an important commandment.[6] Perhaps his outcry is part of the apologetics so common in homilies of the Sages,[7] which tended to laud the patriarchs, correcting any negative impressions one might have of their comportment.  Indeed, there is no reason to rule out these two possibilities, and we find the like even in this week’s reading (and in Rashi).[8]

However, we cannot settle for these explanations.  Firstly, is it reasonable to think it purely coincidental that from the era of the “pairs” until the end of the tannaitic period (a span of some 350 years), no one proclaimed “Great is circumcision,” except, of all things, in the time of Rabbi Akiva and his disciples, as follows:  his colleague, Rabbi Ishmael (no. 1), Akiva’s disciples:  Rabbi Yose himelf (no. 2), and Rabbi Nehemiah (no . 4), and their contemporaries:  Rabbi Joshua ben Karha (3), and Rabbi Simeon ben Gamalaiel, who participated in the discussion (before no. 7)?  And once the idea gained currency, it was further embellished by the next generation—Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and others (5, 6, 7).  Secondly, is it coincidental that in the entire extensive body of Talmudic literature, in which remarks of Rabbi Yose are cited, there is no quote using the expression “G‑d forbid” (in the sense of “it is unspeakable”), other than the one here?  In no other discussion did Rabbi Yose use such language, so this calls for explanation.

Rabbi Yose was one of five outstanding disciples of Rabbi Akiva, the spiritual leader of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, who were ordained during the revolt by Rabbi Judah ben Baba (Sanhedrin 14a and parallel texts).  We would like to suggest that Rabbi Yose’s homily, like many homilies of the Sages,[9] should be understood in the context of the most salient historical event of his times—the Hadrianic decrees[10] and the Bar Kokhba rebellion, which are described by Rabbi Nathan, a contemporary of Rabbi Yose.  Both were witness to the rebellion and its dire consequences:[11]

Rabbi Nathan says:  “Of those who love Me and keep My commandments”—this refers to those who dwell in the land of Israel and risk their lives for the sake of the commandments.  “Why are you being led out to be decapitated?”  “Because I circumcised my son to be an Israelite.”  “Why are you being led out to be burned?”  “Because I read the Torah.”  “Why are you being led out to be crucified?”  “Because I ate the unleavened bread.”  “Why are you getting a hundred lashes?”  “Because I performed the ceremony of the lulav.”[12]

Another tanna in the generation after Rabbi Yose formed a clear opinion on the basis of the consequences he witnessed around him:  “It is taught:  Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said:  Every precept for which Israel submitted to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g., idolatry and circumcision, is still held firmly in their minds” (Shabbat 130a).

In light of all this, it seems that the proclamations, “Great is circumcision,” stated time and again by the Sages who experienced the rebellion, were most relevant to current events and came primarily as a response to the decree forbidding circumcision and as part of the measures to persuade the Jewish community to go against the edict and sanctify the name of G‑d.  If this is correct, then Rabbi Yose’s exceptional outcry—“G‑d forbid that Moses was negligent”—should be seen as a reaction to the fear lest Moses’ “laxness” provide a negative example to the common people.  In terror of the wicked regime, they might be tempted to comply with the decree, even arguing in their own defense from minor to major: “If our teacher Moses was lax about this commandment, all the more so how should we—who are far from his level of greatness and righteousness and, what is more, have our lives at risk—be expected to observe the precept with even greater devotion than he?”

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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