Shiur #05: The Proper Time for a Brit Mila (1) Zerizin Makdimin Le-mitzvot and Delaying a Brit Mila She-lo Bi-zmanah

  • Rav David Brofsky
In loving memory of Rabbi Dr. Barrett (Chaim Dov) Broyde zt”l
הוֹלֵךְ תָּמִים וּפֹעֵל צֶדֶק וְדֹבֵר אֱמֶת בִּלְבָבוֹ
Steven Weiner & Lisa Wise
The Torah explicitly relates to the time during which one must circumcise a newborn male.
On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (Vayikra 12:3).
The next few shiurim will discuss the ramifications of this verse. The Talmud (Shabbat 132a) teaches that the brit mila must be performed on the eighth day, during the daytime, even on Shabbat. This week, we will discuss the proper time for a brit mila on the eighth day.
Determining the Proper Day of the brit mila
It is important to first determine which day is the eighth day upon which the brit mila is to be performed.
The infant is circumcised on the eighth day from the birth. These days are not twenty-four hour units (me-et le-et); rather, brit mila is to take place upon the eighth calendar day (see, for example, Radbaz 4:282). Therefore, even if the child is brought to a different time zone, the child is circumcised on the eighth calendric day at his destination.
What is considered to be the “birth” regarding the eight-day count? The Talmud (Nida 42b) teaches that the child is considered to have been born after his head emerges from the birth canal. It is therefore important for the parents to note the exact time at which the head emerges, in order to determine the proper day upon which to hold the brit mila.
The Mishna (Shabbat 137a) teaches that if the child is born during bein ha-shemashot, i.e., the time between sunset and when three medium stars appear (tzeit ha-kokhavim), the brit mila must be performed assuming that the baby was born at night, which is considered the next calendar day in Halakha. As the identity of bein ha-shemashot is considered to be in doubt, i.e., whether it is part of the day before or the day after, the circumcision can only be held after it is certain that at least seven days have passed. As the Poskim differ regarding the time of tzeit ha-kokhavim, a local halakhic authority should be consulted in case of doubt.
The Proper Time for a brit mila
The Mishna (Megilla 20a; see Shulchan Arukh YD 262:1) relates to the earliest time at which one may perform the brit mila.
One may not read the Megilla, nor perform a circumcision… until the sun has risen. And with regard to all these [activities that are supposed to be performed during the day], if one did them after daybreak [i.e., after the appearance of the first light of the sun, even before sunrise], they are valid.
The brit mila should preferably be performed after sunrise, known as hanetz ha-chama, but if it was performed earlier, after dawn, known as alot ha-shachar, the brit mila is valid.
The Talmud (Pesachim 4a; see also Yoma 25b) teaches that although the mitzva may be fulfilled throughout the entire day, it should be performed as early as possible.
And it was taught: The entire day is suitable for performance of the mitzva of circumcision; however, the diligent are early in the performance of mitzvot [and circumcise in the morning]. As it is stated [with regard to the Binding of Yitzchak]: “And Avraham arose early in the morning” (Bereishit 22:3).
The verse indicates that Avraham arose early in his eagerness to perform God’s commandment. This principle is known as zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot.
The commentaries discuss whether zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot reflects an ethic of mitzva performance or imposes an actual, formal obligation. On the one hand, R. Yosef Engel (1859-1920), in his Gilyonei Ha-Shas (Pesachim 4a), cites the Me’iri (Yoma 28b), who writes that zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot teaches that “one should not appear to be hesitant due to his compassion for the child.” He adds that this is not a binding obligation, but rather, it teaches us to “grasp onto the ways of our forefathers.”
On the other hand, some authorities (Radakh 2:5; Shevut Ya’akov 2:30; Turei Even, Rosh Hashana 4b; Sedei Chemed, Asifat Dinim Ma’arekhet Yom Ha-kippurim 1:14) assume there is a formal obligation to perform mitzvot with alacrity.
Due to this principle, a number of Acharonim warn that one should ensure that the brit mila is performed as early as possible in the morning. For example, the Shevut Ya’akov (1:30, see Pitchei Teshuva 2) criticizes chazanim who unnecessarily lengthen the Shabbat and Yom Tov prayers when a brit mila is scheduled after the prayers.
May One Delay a brit mila in Order that More People Can Attend?
The Acharonim discuss an extremely fundamental, and at times, practical question: when zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot clashes with another extra-halakhic principle, which principle take precedence?
The Poskim discuss a clash between zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot and hiddur mitzva (see Sefer Chassidim 878). For example, should one recite Kiddush Levana as soon as the new moon is large enough; or should one wait until Motza’ei Shabbat, when one is wearing nicer clothing (Terumat Ha-deshen 35; Gra, Ma’aseh Rav 129)? Additionally, should one take a completely kosher but aesthetically underwhelming set of arba’at ha-minim early in the morning on Sukkot, or wait until a more mehudar set is available later in the day (Shevut Ya’akov 1:35)? In these cases, we might analyze the weight and nature of each principle, and how significant, for each mitzva, is the performance of the mitzva with hiddur.
Similarly, they discuss a clash between zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot and tadir ve-eino tadir, the principle which states that the performance of a more regularly fulfilled mitzva precedes the performance of another, less frequent mitzva (see Magen Avraham 25:2), as well as a conflict between the principle of mitzva bo yoter mi-bishlucho (it is preferable to fulfill a mitzva oneself, and not through an agent) and zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot (see Peri Megadim, Eshel Avraham OC 625).
Regarding the mitzva of brit mila, the Acharonim discuss a very common question: May one schedule a brit mila in the afternoon in order that more people may attend? While zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot may dictate that the brit mila should be held as early as possible, another principle, known as “Be-rov am hadrat melekh,” “With multitudes of people is the King's glory” (Mishlei 14:28), which teaches that mitzvot should preferably be performed in the presence of a larger crowd, might lead one to hold the ceremony later in the day, when more people can attend.
Let us consider the principle of be-rov am hadrat melekh, which appears in three contexts, each presenting a different meaning and application.
One passage (Pesachim 64b) relates that the priests would pass the blood of the korban pesach from hand to hand to the Altar in order to fulfill “be-rov am hadrat melekh.” In this context, the Gemara teaches that one should involve numerous people in the performance of a mitzva (Rashi s.v. Be-rov). (This appears to contradict the principle of “Ha-matchil ba-mitzva omerim lo gemor,” “We tell whoever starts to perform a mitzva to complete it as well,” OC 585:4.) A similar idea emerges from other passages, such as Torat Kohanim (Dibura Di-ndava 9), which attributes the practice of including many kohanim in the ceremony of offering a korban mincha to this principle (see also Menachot 62a regarding the korban shelamim). The Chayei Adam (68) writes that any mitzva which one can perform in a group (chabura) should be performed in a group, and not individually, due to this principle.
Next, Yoma 70a describes how in the Beit Ha-mikdash on Yom Kippur, people would watch the Kohen Gadol read certain Torah portions in order to fulfill be-rov am hadrat melekh. Similarly, the Mishna (Bikkurim 3:2-4) describes how the bikkurim were brought to the center of the cities, and then to Jerusalem. The Rambam (Hilkhot Bikkurim 4:16), describing this ceremony, writes: “All of [the inhabitants of] the towns in a region gather in the central town of the region, so that they will not ascend to Jerusalem as individuals, for the verse teaches: ‘With multitudes of people is the King's glory.’” These passages imply that certain mitzvot should be performed publicly, as they sanctify God’s name.
Finally, another passage (Berakhot 53a) cites Beit Hillel, who rule that when making Havdala in front of many people, one person should recite the blessing over the fire, in order to fulfill be-rov am hadrat melekh. In this case, the principle of be-rov am teaches that one person should publicly fulfill the mitzva for many, as “With multitudes of people is the King's glory.” This principle emerges from another passage (Rosh Hashana 32b) which suggest that the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana during the Mussaf prayer, which is attended by more people, due to this principle. According to these sources, it is preferable to fulfill other people’s obligation publicly, due to the principle of be-rov am hadrat melekh.
Regarding brit mila, we might first ask if the principle of be-rov am hadrat melekh even applies to brit mila. As we saw above, be-rov am hadrat melekh applies when the tzibbur participates in the mitzva, or when the mitzva is performed for the tzibbur. Seemingly, we would not say, for example, that wearing tzitzit or donning tefillin in public is a fulfillment of be-rov am hadrat melekh.
However, the Shulchan Arukh (YD 265:6) cites R. Tzemach Gaon, who writes that if possible, the brit mila ceremony should be performed in the presence of ten. Similarly, Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (19) teaches:
"Upon a ten-stringed instrument and upon the psaltery" (Tehillim 92:4) — all testimonies reliable to Israel are (celebrated) with ten (males), just as the harp upon which David played had ten strings.
  • The testimony for the dead is through ten (males).
  • The testimony for the (public) benediction of (God's) Name is through ten (males).
  • The testimony of the covenant of circumcision is through ten (males).
  • The testimony for chalitza is through ten (males), as it is said, "And he took ten men of the elders of the city" (Rut 4:2).
These sources imply that the principle of be-rov am hadrat melekh may apply to the mitzva of brit mila, although this is far from certain.
The Poskim discuss whether one may delay the brit mila until later in the day in order that more people may attend.
R. Chaim Chizkiyahu Medini (1834–1904), in his Sedei Chemed (7:3), discusses this question. He notes that the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 32b) implies that fundamentally, zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot take precedence over be-rov am hadrat melekh. Therefore, in light of this passage, he criticizes those who push off the brit mila until the afternoon in order that more people may participate. The Chayei Adam (68:6) also rules that the principle of zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot takes precedence over be-rov am hadrat melekh, and therefore rules that it is preferable to pray Arvit immediately after the stars come out, even if one can pray in a larger minyan later. The Arukh Ha-shulchan (YD 262:8) concurs and severely criticizes the practice of pushing off the brit mila until all of the invited guests can participate.
However, some Acharonim defend the practice of delaying the brit mila until later in the day. For example, R. Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer YD 2:18) cites R. Shlomo Ha-Kohen of Vilna, in his Mekor Chaim (3), who suggests that zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot and be-rov am hadrat melekh are of equal halakhic weight, and therefore one may delay a brit mila until the afternoon, when more people can attend. Some cite the Bei’ur Halakha (426:2, s.v. Ela) who writes that although one may say Kiddush Levana alone, without a minyan, one should preferably wait until Motza’ei Shabbat, in order to say the blessing with a minyan, fulfilling be-rov am hadrat melekh. Interestingly, R. Ovadya Yosef (YD 2:18) disagrees and rules, in accordance with the view of the Maharsham, that it is preferable to say Kiddush Levana alone, and not to wait until Motza’ei Shabbat.
In addition to the clash between zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot and be-rov am hadrat melekh, there may be other considerations, unique to brit mila. On the one hand, the Rambam (Hilkhot Mila 1:8) writes that “it is a mitzva to [perform the circumcision] early, in the beginning of the day, since ‘the diligent are early in the performance of mitzvot.’” Elsewhere (Hilkhot Ma’aseh Ha-korbanot 4:6), regarding other mitzvot, he merely writes that “the diligent are early in the performance of mitzvot,” without describing this behavior as a mitzva. The Rambam may be implying that while zerizin makdimin le-mitzvot usually teaches an ethic of mitzva performance, there may be a special mitzva to perform the brit mila as early as possible.
On the other hand, the Sefer Sha’arei Mila (Seder Ha-Brit 54) writes that brit mila is meant to be performed joyously (be-simcha). The Gemara (Shabbat 130a) teaches: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says, Every mitzva that the Jews initially accepted upon themselves with joy, such as circumcision, as it is written: ‘I rejoice at Your word as one who finds great spoil’ (Tehillim 119:162), they still perform it with joy.” Therefore, it may be permitted to delay the brit mila until later the day if the circumcision will be performed “with joy.”
Interestingly, in a biography of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Ve-aleihu Lo Yibol (Jerusalem: 1999, pg. 114), R. Nachum Stefansky relates that once R. Auerbach was asked whether a brit mila may be delayed out of concern for other family members. He answered, “Behave like a person” (Titnaheg ke-ven adam), meaning that the person may take the participation of his relatives into account. Similarly, R. Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot YD 4:226) writes that one should not cause others to miss the brit mila in order for it to be performed early.
There were some pious individuals who insisted that the brit mila be performed immediately after the earliest possible Shacharit service, Vatikin. In fact, The Chashukei Chemed (Shabbat 137b) relates that R. Zerach Braverman, one of the “neki’ei ha-da’at bi-Yerushalayim,” “the most virtuous of Jerusalem,” asked the Maharil Diskin to be the sandak at his son’s brit mila after Vatikin. After the Vatikin prayers, when R. Braverman saw that the Maharil Diskin was still praying, he decided not to wait, in order not to delay the brit mila, and to act as the sandak himself.
However, the custom is not in accordance with this stringency; rather the brit mila is held during the morning hours (see Chazon Ish cited by Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot, YD 4:226; R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, cited here; Yabia Omer, ibid.). Of course, in practice, the time of the brit mila is most often determined by the availability of the mohel, and the ceremony is therefore often held in the afternoon.
In the next shiur, we will continue our study of the proper time for a brit mila, and we will discuss the status of a brit mila performed at night or before the eighth day.