May 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Dear Rabbi Lawrence,

When my sister’s son was born, it was on Shabbat. She lives on the Upper West Side in a small apartment and we were dreading having to find hotel rooms for the whole family for Shabbat to be there for the bris (we live in Englewood). But then we found out that the bris would actually be on Sunday because she had a C-section. Can you explain why that is a factor?

Kindly,
Josh W.


Dear Josh,

Thank you for your question! Before I answer it, another question must be posed: “Why are we allowed to do a bris on Shabbos at all?!” In fact, it is not at all intuitive that a bris milah would be allowed on Shabbos. On the contrary! Circumcision is a melacha, a prohibited labor. So why are we allowed to perform a bris, if doing a regular circumcision would not be allowed on Shabbos?

Similar to pikuach nefesh, the biblical mandate to save a life, bris milah seems to supersede certain Shabbos prohibitions. While life-saving intervention may seem quite intuitive as something that overrides Shabbos, perhaps pushing off Shabbos to perform a surgery may not. Of course, it is not just a surgery; it is a mitzvah that specifies a time frame for which it should be performed. As a result, the rabbis seek various justifications for its allowance.

Some justifications, like one found in Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael, assert that bris milah is inseparable from its relationship to Shabbos. It interprets the pesukim of “veshamru,” which describe Shabbos as being “an everlasting covenant (bris) for the generations”: Since Shabbos represents a bris or covenant, “that which marks the covenant,” circumcision, is allowed on Shabbos.

Others, like Rabbi Yochanan, don’t assert any biblical connection between Shabbos and bris. Rather, the permission to perform a bris is simply because the Torah mandates that it happen on “the eighth day”; consequently, this eighth-day rule extends to Shabbos.

While there is disagreement as to the reason for the allowance, all agree that not only is it allowed, it is required. At the same time, since one needs to do melacha to perform a bris, there are limitations on the allowance of a Shabbos bris.

One such limitation is based on the circumstance of birth; the Gemara in Shabbos 134b-135a states that only in the context of births that result in ritual impurity (i.e., a vaginal birth) can one perform a Shabbos bris. The Shulchan Aruch 266:10 codifies this to include any birth that is considered to be yotzei dofen, out of the ordinary, which would include a C-section. Some might point to this limitation as reflecting an underlying lack of certainty whether Shabbos was really the baby’s proper time to come into the world barring human intervention; therefore if it wasn’t part of God’s initial plan, then God’s permission to perform bris milah on Shabbos would not apply.

However you choose to relate to this limitation theologically, it seems to have saved you and your family the undue expense of Upper West Side hotel accommodations—and maybe that too was part of God’s plan!

Wishing you a good Shabbos!

Warmly,
Rabbi Lawrence


Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence is a doubly certified, highly rated mohel serving the NY, NJ and CT region and beyond. If you or someone you know is expecting or want to learn more about his practice, visit www.FamilyMohel.com. He can also be reached at [email protected] or at (212) 518-7334. Questions for the column can be submitted to [email protected].

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