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Parshat Lech Lecha – The mother and father’s role in Brit Mila

Cheshvan 5783 | October 2022

Parshat Lecha Lecha presents us with Brit Mila (the Covenant of Circumcision) for the first time. Avraham is commanded to circumcise himself and the males of his household, and to circumcise all future male progeny 8 days after birth. Avraham fulfills the first part of the command in this parsha and the second part in the following parsha (Bereishit 21:4): “Avraham circumcised Yitzchak, his son, at 8 days old as God commanded him.”

A beraita in Kiddushin (29a) defines Brit Mila as one of the father’s obligations to his son (mitzvot ha-av al ha-ben). The mishna states that the father’s obligations to his son are just that, a father’s obligations and not the mother’s. The gemara learns the source of the obligation from the verse “as He commanded him” – him and not her. She is exempt. So it seems that Brit Mila is “a guy thing”. 

The sages use the fact that it is men who are circumcised as a proof that it is performed on the male reproductive organ. The commandment for circumcision was given to Avraham when God told him of Yitzchak’s upcoming birth; Sarah was informed of the birth separately. According to halakha if the father does not circumcise his son the responsibility passes to the community (the courts of beit din according to Chazal), and then to the child himself when he reaches majority. It seems as if the mother does not have any part to play.

Yet there is also a Torah story where the mother is clearly responsible for her son’s circumcision – the story of Moshe and Tzipora’s son’s circumcision. The story is cryptic (Shemot 4:24-26):

“On the way, at an encampment, (an angel of) the Lord met him and sought to kill him. Tzipora took a flint and cut the foreskin of her son, and touched it to his legs and said, ‘you are a bridegroom of blood for me.’ And he withdrew from him, then she said, “A bridegroom of blood for the circumcised.”

In the story it is unclear who the angel is trying to kill and which child is circumcised, but it seems that the angel wanted to kill Moshe or his son, and the intended victim is saved when Tzipora circumcises her son. From here it seems that the mother has a responsibility and role to play in her son’s circumcision. 

Tzipora’s story is mentioned in a different gemara (Avoda Zara 27a), which also asks whether a woman is authorized to perform a Brit Mila. The gemara brings a dispute as to the reason a Brit Mila performed by a non-Jew isn’t valid – is it because the non-Jew is uncircumcised or because he is not part of the Covenant of Circumcision? The gemara states that these different explanations also have bearing on whether a woman is authorized to perform a Brit Mila. Intuitively we might think that if the issue was being a part of the covenant a woman would be authorized to perform a Brit Mila, and if a Brit Mila could only be performed by a person who is circumcised then she would not be sanctioned to do so.

Surprisingly, the gemara determines the opposite is true – a woman is considered to be physically circumcised, but she is not part of the covenant of Brit Mila. If we adopt the explanation that only a physically circumcised person may perform a Brit Mila then perhaps a woman may perform a valid Brit Mila, as Tzipora did for her son. But if a Brit Mila may only be performed by a person who is part of the Covenant of Circumcision, then a Brit Mila performed by a woman is not valid; the story of Tzipora would have to be explained in another manner – that she arranged for the circumcision which was performed by Moshe or someone else – but she did not perform the circumcision herself.

Perhaps we can better understand a woman’s role in Brit Mila by examining the father’s role. Among the Rishonim there seem to be two approaches. According to one approach the commandment of Brit Mila is first and foremost one that is incumbent on the father. The father is obligated to circumcise his son and introduce him into the Covenant of Circumcision with God. Eventually every Jewish man must ensure that he himself is circumcised, but the focus of Brit Mila is the father and the action he performs, not the child. One possible explanation is that the Covenant of Mila is primarily forged between man and God when a father circumcises his son and adds another link in the chain of generations.

Another possible explanation is that the son is the focal point. To be included in the People of Israel a man must be circumcised; if he is not he is “cut off” (from the root k.r.t.). If the focus is on the son then the father only “assists” his son in achieving the desired physical state of being circumcised (and if the father can’t do so then the responsibility falls to the community). Nevertheless, the Torah commanded Mila in such a way that the previous generation facilitates the male child’s entry into the People of Israel, so that the young boy’s connection to God and his People is not merely personal, but intergenerational.

On the basis of this dispute we can better understand the mother’s role. On the one hand, if Brit Mila is focused on the son and the result – so a certain physical condition is necessary to be considered part of the People of Israel – then a woman (whose physical body is considered circumcised) can enable others, chiefly her son, to reach this state. 

Within the bounds of parental obligation, it was traditionally the father who was better able to facilitate the Brit (since he held the pursestrings); but if he does not then the mother is also responsible. Rashi on Yevamot 71b alludes to this. The gemara describes a case where the son could not be circumcised because his father and mother were in prison. Rashi deduces from the mention of the mother that if the father doesn’t circumcise his son, the mother is responsible to do so. Other Rishonim dispute this reading.

On the other hand, if Brit Mila is an act that forges an ongoing covenant that is incumbent on the father to fulfill (through his son), then this commandment is specifically for the father (or other Israelite men, but not the mother), beginning with Avraham our Forefather.

The halakhic bottom line is that an Israelite woman may perform a kosher Brit Mila, but, preferably, it should be performed by an Israelite man. When a man performs the Brit Mila (the father, or a proxy of the father or the courts) then both ends are achieved – the child is circumcised and the covenant of Brit Mila is passed from one generation to another.

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.