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Parshas Tazria (Hachodesh) 5771

Of Brissim and Blood Clotting

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, G-d commands the parents of a newborn baby boy to give him a bris milah (lit. “covenant of circumcision”, often just called a bris, or in plural slang, brissim), as it says: “On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised” (see Leviticus 12:3).

Even though the Jewish people had already been commanded to circumcise their male children since the days of our forefather Abraham, the commandment was repeated here to teach us two new laws – (1) that the bris may be performed only in the daytime, and (2) that the bris must be done on the eighth day, even if that day falls on Shabbos.

The Talmud in Niddah 31b asks: “And why did the Torah ordain circumcision on the eighth day? So that the guests [at the bris milah festive meal] should not enjoy themselves while the baby’s father and mother are sad [according to Biblical law, conjugal relations are not permitted after the birth of a male child until the eighth day].”

There is a fascinating Midrash (in Devarim Rabbah 6:1) which gives a different reason why the bris is delayed until the eighth day of the baby’s life: The Midrash states: “For G-d had compassion for the child and waited until he had strength”.

The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, in his commentary to this week’s Torah portion, explains that the ‘strength’ that the baby gets after eight days of life comes from his having experienced a Shabbos, which has the ability to stabilize and solidify all creations, just as it did on that very first Shabbos after the initial Six Days of Creation.

Others understand this Midrash in a more practical way. The baby is frail and tender in its first week of life, and G-d therefore waited until the eighth day for the baby to be physically strong enough to go through circumcision.

One would have thought that even after eight days, it’s not the smartest idea to perform even a minor surgical procedure on a newborn baby. The fact is, though, that circumcision has an extremely small complication rate.

As Rabbi Yonasan Goldberger points out in his book Sanctity and Science: Insights into the Practice of Milah and Metzitzah: “A study in the New England Journal of Medicine (1990) reported a complication rate of 0.19% when circumcision is performed by a physician. When performed by a mohel (a Jewish person expertly trained in the practice of ritual circumcision), the rate falls to 0.13% or about 1 in 1000. When a complication occurs, it is usually excessive bleeding, which is easily correctable. No other surgical procedure can boast such figures for complication-free operations!”

[As an aside, the aforementioned study reaffirms what Jews have known for centuries and millennia – that working with a Jewish mohel rather than a surgeon is a wise choice. The accumulated experience of hundreds of generations of Jewish mohels grants them a clear advantage when it comes to dealing with possible complications – not to mention the broad practical experience they have in performing quick and relatively painless brissim. In addition, there are some halachic questions regarding some of the clamps and other tools that surgeons and doctors often use.]

Rabbi Zamir Cohen, in his wonderful book The Coming Revolution: Science Discovers the Truths of the Bible, suggests another understanding of the statement made by the Midrash that the baby has ‘strength’ on the eighth day, in light of modern discoveries about blood clotting.

We now know that the two major clotting agents in the blood are Prothrombin and Vitamin K. Dr. Armand James Quick, former head of the Department of Biochemistry at Marquette University in Wisconsin and a specialist in blood research, noted that during the first few days after birth, the amount of blood clotting agents is so small that even a small cut could easily endanger the infant’s life. Amazingly, by the eighth day of life, the Prothrombin levels not only reach their norm, they actually surpass it, making it possible to perform circumcision without fear of excessive bleeding.

So we see how the Torah (can you say G-d?) instructed us to wait to circumcise our children until the eighth day – the exact day when the infant’s blood clotting is at its peak – a full 3200 years before science knew about blood-clotting. Who knew?

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