Man’s Purpose

Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by a student

39 Torah laws including carrying are forbidden on Sabbath. However, when the eighth day after birth coincides with Sabbath, circumcision must be performed. Cutting the flesh and carrying, which is normally prohibited, is permitted if one forgot the special knife which is used. Rashi states (Talmud Sabbath 130a) that according to Rabbi Eliezer, one may carry the knife openly, “to make known that due to his love for the mitzvah of circumcision, he profanes Sabbath” by carrying.

Rabbi Chait said there’s a problem: there is no profanation of Sabbath, for the Talmud teaches (Sanhedrin 59b), “On the eighth day circumcise the flesh of his foreskin (Lev. 12:3).” Sanhedrin teaches the derivation from this verse is that even if the eighth day is the Sabbath, God has commanded we forgo Sabbath prohibition in order to circumcise the newborn on the eighth day. Thus, Torah has already taught that there is no “profanation” of Sabbath when it comes to circumcision. Rabbi Chait’s powerful question is how Rashi could say, due to his love for this commands he “profanes” Sabbath. There is no profanation!

Rabbi Chait offered a marvelous insight. He said that the profanation referred to here is not the typical “halachik” (lawful) profaning of Sabbath. For as he said, there is no halachik profanation, as Torah commands us in circumcision on the eighth day. Profanation here refers to a novel concept in an area other than halacha. There is also “philosophical” profanation…


Sabbath is “profane” when compared to circumcision; a matter far more weighty than Sabbath. What does this mean? It means that although the system of Sabbath and Torah is of primary importance, if a person does not perfect himself — displaying real value of a Torah idea through action — those systems cannot compensate. Without perfection, embodied by circumcision — the act of restricting one’s instinctual drives — man can study Torah and observe Sabbath, but he has not become perfect. Regarding circumcision, God said to Abraham, “…walk before Me and be perfect (Gen. 17:1).” One can praise the act of charity, but if he never donates, he in fact does not “value” the institution of charity. “Actions speak louder than words.” So, one can keep Sabbath and study Torah, but he must embody in action all he learns. Otherwise, his studies are theoretical; he lacks any real value of God’s laws. He is not perfect.

This explains why Sabbath prohibitions are suspended when circumcision coincides. Maimonides teaches[1] that circumcision reduces sexual gratification for both genders. God commands man to rise above his instinctual drives and master them, so as to engage his energies in the higher sphere of the intellect and the pursuit of greater knowledge of God. But man cannot disengage from his lusts if they are too strong. Therefore this command helps us on the path God declares is our purpose in having been created: the life of pondering nature and Torah, and unraveling ever-increasing knowledge and brilliance.

Human perfection is so primary, God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision with 13 treaties, while Torah was given with just 3 treaties. Our very point. Furthermore, 99% of Genesis focusses not on Torah laws, but on the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, for they arrived at human perfection. This concept is echoed as follows. All mitzvos have a blessing prior to perfomance; including circumcision. But circumcision has an additional blessing, “…to enter him into the covenant of Abraham our father.”  If I recall properly, Rabbi Chait stated many years back that there is a fine lesson with this additional blessing. Although Torah was given 400 years after Abraham, and it is not Abraham’s lifestyle, but this post-Abrahamic Torah system that guides us, nonetheless we retain the pre-Torah covenant of Abraham’s circumcision. The reason this one element of the pre-Torah era is retained, is because it embodies the perfection of man. Before Torah existed, Abraham demonstrated the natural perfection man can attain on his own. The intellect is an amazing tool, and Abraham embodied the pinnacle of human perfection. Retaining Abraham’s perfection in our blessings underscores human perfection at it’s finest. Rashi on Genesis 24:42 says, “Rabbi Acha said, ‘More pleasant is the speech of the servants of the Patriarchs before God, than the Torah (commands) of their children’…”  This is precisely our point.

Finally, it is interesting to note that God did not command Abraham in Sabbath, but He did command him in circumcision. 

[1] Guide for the Perplexed, book III chap. xlix