Brit Mila: Why the Eighth Day
Tazria discusses one of the most well-known and observed Mitzvot; that of brit mila (circumcision).(1) It stresses that the mila must take place on the eight day, and the Talmud learns out that even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat one must perform the mila even though it involves one of the Melachot (creative activities) that are usually prohibited on Shabbat.(2) What is the significance of having the brit on the eight day in particular?(3)
In order to answer this question it is instructive to analyze the significance of certain numbers in Jewish thought.(4) The world was created in six days, and on the seventh day, God 'rested', thereby creating the concept of Shabbat, the day that we refrain from physical creation and focus on more spiritual pursuits. Accordingly, the number 'six' symbolizes the physical world, whereas seven represents the infusion of spirituality into the physical world. On Shabbat we strive to elevate physicality through using the physical world leshem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven). Thus, there is an emphasis on eating good food, and dressing nicely, but not for selfish reasons, rather to use the physical world as a tool for connecting to God. The number, 'eight' symbolizes spirituality that is beyond this world, going beyond the laws of nature. Removing part of our body represents elevating ourselves beyond our natural physical drives. Some commentaries write that one of the reasons for brit mila is that it weakens man's natural physical lusts (see Moreh Nevuchim, Rabbeinu Bachaye). In this vein, brit mila represents a Jew's disassociating himself from the regular laws of olam hazeh (this world), and clinging to a completely different level of existence.(5)
The idea that brit mila represents transcending olam hazeh is seen in the Torah's account of God's command to Abraham with regard to this Mitzva. God tells Abraham, "walk before me and be complete." (6) Rashi explains that God was instructing Abraham to perform brit mila and thereby attain completion. Immediately after this, God tells Abraham that He is changing his name, which up till that point, was Abram, to Abraham. God was taking Abraham to a whole new level of existence, and bringing him out of the limits of mazal(7) which had thus far prevented him from having children. It seems clear from the verses that this promise and the promise of an eternal brit between God and Avraham's descendants were dependent upon Avraham making his own covenant with God, that of brit mila. Thus, we see that brit mila is intrinsically connected to the fact that the Jewish people live on a whole different plane of existence.
Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler applies this explanation of the difference between '7' and '8' to clarify a difficult Midrash. The Midrash tells us: "Shabbat and mila argue with each other. Shabbat says, 'I am greater than you' and mila says, 'I am greater than you'... from the fact that mila overrides Shabbat,(8) we know that mila is greater than Shabbat." (9) Rav Dessler explains that there are two ways in which a person can go about his avodat HaShem. One is to be involved in the physical world and elevating it for the sake of Heaven. There are numerous Mitzvot that fit this category, for example, giving charity is a way of using one's money to connect to God, and as we mentioned above, Shabbat is the primary example of elevating physicality. The second way of growing in spirituality is by removing oneself from physicality, and thereby separating from his natural desires. Mila represents this form of serving God.
Rav Dessler points out that there is a great danger in the first type of spirituality where one tries to elevate physicality in that a person can easily fall into the trap of thinking he is elevating the physical world, however, in truth, he is really being pulled after his physical desires and the yetser hara is tricking him into thinking that he is doing it with pure motives. The second form of spirituality of removing oneself from the physical world does not pose this threat because one avoids the risks of being trapped. Rav Dessler writes further, that the only way that a person can be sure that he can use the physical world in the correct way is by also somewhat removing himself from it for a time.(10)
With this understanding, Rav Dessler explains the meaning of the Yalkut. Shabbat represents the form of service of God where one uses the physical world for spiritual purposes, whereas mila represents serving God by weakening one's attachment to the physical world. Mila 'overrides' Shabbat in that it avoids the risks of being trapped by the yetser hara into becoming overly attached to the physical world whilst performing seemingly spiritual activities.
We have seen that brit mila represents separation from the physical world as a way of becoming closer to God, and how this form of avodat Hashem is essential to one's spiritual growth. In this vein, my Rebbe, Rav Yitzchak Berkovits shlita points out that despite the stress on being involved with the physical world for spiritual reasons, the main way of achieving greatness is through involvement in purely spiritual endeavors such as prayer and learning Torah.
1. Vayikra, 12:3.
2. Shabbos, 132.
3. See Otsar HaBris, Chelek 1, p.380-381, by Rav Yosef Weisberg zt"l, for various reasons why bris mila takes place on the eighth day.
4. The Maharal and Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt"l, teach us that various numbers have great significance in Yiddishkeit. Much of the content in this essay is based on Rav Dessler's elaboration on the Maharal's writing in this inyan (See Michtav M'Eliyahu, Chelek 1, p.226-7. Chelek 1, p.99, p.115, Chelek 4.)
5. See Michtav M'Eliyahu, ibid, for discussion of a number of chagim that are connected to the number, 'eight', in including Shemini Atseres, which takes place on the eighth from the start of Sukkos, Chanukah, which lasts 8 days, and Matan Torah, which took place on the 50th day after Yetsias Mitzrayim (50 is one beyond 49, which is a multiple of 7). Also, see my piece on Lech Lecha, "A New Level of Existence".
6. Lech Lecha, 17:2.
7. Mazal refers to certain predestined factors that will effect a person's life in various ways. It does not however effect his level of righteousness - that is completely in the hands of the person himself.
8. In that we perform mila on Shabbos even though it involves prohibited melacha.
9. Yalkut, Yeremyahu, Ch.33, Simun 325, quoted in Michtav M'Eliyahu, Chelek 1, p.226-7.
10. See my essay on Parshas Nasso, where the issue of being overly attached to gashmius is discussed at length.