In order to understand the conceptual significance of circumcision, let us examine a famous midrash that we have already considered in the past:
The wicked Turnusrufus [once] asked Rabbi Akiva: "Whose deeds are more seemly – those of the Holy One, blessed be He, or those of man?" He said to him: "Those of man are more seemly." The wicked Turnusrufus said to him: "Surely the heavens and the earth – can you fashion something like them?" Rabbi Akiva said to him: "Don't answer me with something that is above people, over which they have no control, but rather with something that is found among men." He said to him: "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" He said to them: "I knew that eventually you would ask me this, and so I went first and said to you: The deeds of man are more seemly than those of the Holy One, blessed be He. Bring me sheaves and baked goods." He said to him: "These are the handiwork of the Holy One, blessed be He, and these are the handiwork of man. Are these not seemly?" (Midrash Tanhuma, ed. Buber, Tazri'a 7)
The provocative heathen claims that the natural world, the handiwork of God, is complete and perfect, and needs no alteration or improvement. With his sharp intuition, Turnusrufus understands the special meaning of circumcision in this context: circumcision symbolizes nature’s imperfection and the need to refine and improve it. In the ancient world, circumcision was indeed regarded as a mutilation of man, as an offense committed against his innate natural perfection. It was for this reason that circumcision so disgusted the champions of Hellenistic civilization. We also know that Chazal vigorously fought against the Hellenizers who would "stretch their foreskin" in order to disguise the fact that they had been circumcised. Modern scholars have also come to the conclusion that the mass conversion to Judaism during the first century before the Common Era came to end, because, among other reasons, the heathens recoiled from circumcision. As was stated above, Turnusrufus saw in circumcision an exemplification, as well as a symbol of his general complaint against Judaism: Why doesn't Judaism accept nature, the handiwork of God, as it is, but instead it ruins it?
How does Rabbi Akiva respond to Turnusrufus’s defiant argument? He answers without hesitation: Man's handiwork is more seemly! Just as a loaf of bread, the handiwork of man, is more becoming than the grain growing in the field, so too circumcised man is more becoming than one who is uncircumcised. God created nature with imperfections, and it falls upon man to improve and develop it. Why? The midrash provides us with an answer: "Why is [man] not born circumcised? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel the mitzvot only in order to refine them thereby" (ibid.). That is to say, God deliberately designed nature with imperfections, so that we should be able to perfect it.
We must emphasize: we are not required to fight against nature, but to improve it. The difference between the two is the difference between human sacrifice, despised by God and an abomination in His eyes, and circumcision. The removal of the foreskin emancipates man from his subjugation to the indifferent natural world around him; his body is no longer chained to the mold cast for him by nature. He gives up a small part of his body for the sake of God, thus refashioning his body and demonstrating that he is not subject to nature, but to his Creator. The difference between one who is circumcised and one who is not is found not in the foreskin that has been removed, but in the body that remains. Following circumcision, the body is no longer a mere lump of clay; it is now the body of a servant of God, which has been given a new form and is no longer bound by the form in which it came into the world.
In this sense, circumcision gives expression to a mighty spiritual message: nature is blemished and imperfect. We are not to accept the events and phenomena of the natural world that surrounds us on the outside, and certainly not the natural inclinations and desires that are found within us. We are not commanded to fight against nature – but we are to perfect it, not accepting it as we find it. Not everything that is natural is also good, and not everything that is good is also natural. Much of nature is chaff.
"I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; I saw your fathers as the first ripe fruit in the fig tree at her first season" (Hoshea 9:10)… Rabbi Yudin said: Just as a fig has no waste other than its stalk, remove it and the blemish is gone, so too the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Avraham: There is no waste in you other than your foreskin; remove it and the blemish is gone; "Walk before me, and be perfect" (Bereishit 17:1). (Bereishit Rabba 46, 1)
Circumcision as a Sacrifice
The conceptual significance that we have uncovered in circumcision led Chazal to relate to circumcision as a miniature sacrifice.
Whoever presents his son for circumcision is regarded as if he were a High Priest offering his meal-offering and libation on the altar. (Yalkut Shimoni, 81)
One who undergoes circumcision, giving his foreskin to God, is essentially offering God a sacrifice of sorts. This idea may be connected to one of the laws governing circumcision. A newborn child is circumcised when he is eight days old. Some have suggested that this parallels a similar law in the realm of sacrifices:
Rabbi Yitzchak said: The law governing man and the law governing an animal are the same. The law governing man – "And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (Vayikra 12:3), and the law governing an animal – "[Then it shall be seven days under its dam;] and from the eighth day and thenceforth it shall be accepted [for an offering made by fire to the Lord]" (Vayikra 22:27). (Vayikra Rabba 27, 10)
Rabbenu Bachya wrote in a similar vein:
Homiletically speaking, the mitzva of circumcision is like a sacrifice. Just as the blood of a sacrifice achieves atonement on the altar, so too the blood of circumcision achieves atonement. For this reason it is a mitzva on the eighth day, for a sacrifice is not fit until the eighth day, as it says: "And from the eighth day and thenceforth it shall be accepted." And just as it says about a sacrifice, "And they shall eat those things with which atonement was made" (Shemot 29:33), for the eating of a sacrifice is for atonement, so Israel celebrates a festive meal on the day of circumcision. It is even greater than a sacrifice, for a sacrifice involves a person's property and circumcision his body … Therefore it is regarded for him as a binding and a sacrifice, as if he had bound himself [as an offering]. As it says: "Those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice" (Tehilim 50:5). (Rabbenu Bachya, commentary to Bereishit 17:13)
Another law relating to circumcision may be connected to this idea of circumcision as a sacrifice:
Circumcision is only performed during the day, after sunrise, whether it takes place on the eighth day, the regular time, or subsequently, from the ninth day and further on, as it says: "On the eighth day" (Bereishit 17:12) – by day, and not at night. (Rambam, Hilkhot Mila 1:8)
It might be that the reason that circumcision may only be performed during the day is that circumcision is regarded as a sacrifice, and sacrifices may only be brought during the day:
All sacrifices may only be offered during the day, as the verse says: "On the day that He commanded the children of Israel to present their offerings" (Vayikra 7:38) – during the day, and not at night. (Rambam, Hilkhot Ma'ase ha-Korbanot 4:1)
Even Rambam's formulation of these two halakhot is very similar. Circumcision involves sacrifice, and so the laws by which it is governed parallel the laws applying to sacrifices. We have already noted that man is not asked to sacrifice his entire being, as in the case of human sacrifices, but only his foreskin. A sacrifice, nevertheless, it is.
Circumcision – National Covenant
Thus far we have related to circumcision as an act pertaining to the individual. As we all know, however, circumcision does not relate only to the isolated individual; it is the national covenant pertaining to the entire Jewish people. This element is already evident in the earliest command regarding circumcision:
And God said to Avraham, You shall keep my covenant, you, and your seed after you in their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your seed after you; every manchild among you shall be circumcised. And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a token of the covenant between Me and you. (Bereishit 17:9-11)
There are only two positive precepts whose violation is punishable by karet (excision): the paschal offering and circumcision. These two mitzvot give expression to the national covenant between God and the Jewish people. Therefore, anyone who shirks one of these obligations is liable to karet, one of whose consequences is being cut-off from the Jewish people: "That soul shall be cut off from his people" (regarding circumcision – Bereishit 17:14; regarding the paschal offering – Bamidbar 9:13). When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, they immediately observed the mitzvot of circumcision and the paschal offering, through which they entered into a covenant with God (Yehoshua, chap. 5). We also find a special connection between these two mitzvot, an uncircumcised person being specially forbidden to eat of the paschal offering: "No uncircumcised person shall eat of it" (Shemot 12:48).
The Act of Circumcision and the Result of Being Circumcised
Halakhically speaking, the mitzva of circumcision can be formulated in two different ways: the mitzva is either to perform the act of circumcision, or to reach the result of being circumcised. This question seems to be reflected in a Tannaitic dispute in Shabbat 135a. There the Gemara cites a dispute between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. Rabbi Shimon ben Eliezer explains that they disagree about a convert to Judaism who had been circumcised while he was still a gentile, whether or not blood must he drawn from him as a sign of the covenant. According to this understanding, the school of Shammai maintain that it is not enough that the convert is circumcised; an act of circumcision must be performed. Even if the convert had already been circumcised, blood must be drawn from him as a sign of the covenant in lieu of actual circumcision.
The Yerushalmi, as opposed to the Babylonian Talmud, implies that also in the case of an infant born without a foreskin, the obligation to draw blood of circumcision stems not from a concern that there may in fact be a "hidden foreskin," but from a need to perform an act of circumcision:
Rav said: "He shall surely be circumcised" (Bereishit 17:13) – from here we learn that blood must be drawn from an infant born without a foreskin. (Yerushalmi, Shabbat 19:2)
This is also implied by Rambam who links the law applying to an infant born without a foreskin to the law applying to a convert who had already been circumcised while still a gentile:
A convert must, before he can enter the congregation of Israel, be circumcised. If, while still a gentile, he had already been circumcised, a drop of blood must be drawn from him on the day he converts, as a sign of the covenant. Similarly, if an infant is born without a foreskin, a drop of blood must be drawn from him when he is eight days old. (Rambam, Hilkhot Mila 1:7)
The implication is that according to Rambam, the fact that a person is circumcised does not suffice; he must undergo an act of circumcision. As was stated above, Rambam's formulation implies that the obligation to draw blood from an infant born without a foreskin does not stem from a concern that the infant may nevertheless have a hidden foreskin; rather, it constitutes a fundamental law. This also follows from another law first proposed by Rambam:
An uncircumcised priest is forbidden to eat teruma by Torah law … If he was born without a foreskin, he may eat teruma. (Rambam, Hilkhot Terumot 7:10-11).
If one who was born without a foreskin is of suspect status, that is, if we are concerned that he may have a hidden foreskin, surely he should be forbidden to eat teruma. It is clear, therefore, from Rambam that if a person is born without a foreskin, we are not concerned that he may have a hidden foreskin, but blood must still be drawn from him as a sign of the covenant. Rambam's ruling implies that one who is born without a foreskin has an intermediate status. He enjoys the personal status of one who is circumcised, but he lacks an act of circumcision. This suggests that circumcision is comprised of two aspects: the act of circumcision and also the result of circumcision, namely, the status of a circumcised person. It is not clear from what Rambam says here whether the mitzva of circumcision includes an obligation to achieve the result of being circumcised, but it clear that Halakha considers the result of circumcision in various contexts. Regarding the allowance to eat teruma, for example, the critical factor is the priest's personal status as a circumcised or uncircumcised person.
There is another passage in Rambam, from which it is clearly evident that part of the mitzva of circumcision involves attaining the status of a circumcised person:
The foreskin is regarded as an abomination, for which the gentiles are contemned, as the verse states: "For all the nations are uncircumcised" (Yirmiya 9:25). Great is circumcision, for the Patriarch Avraham was not called perfect until he had circumcised himself, as the verse states: "Walk before me, and be perfect. And I will make my covenant between Me and you" (Bereishit 17:1-2). Whoever neglects the covenant of the Patriarch Avraham and retains the foreskin or tries to disguise his circumcision, even if he has acquired Torah and practices good deeds, will have no part in the world-to-come. (Rambam, Hilkhot Mila, 3:8).
Rambam rules that one who tries to conceal the mark of his circumcision, like the Hellenizers in the days of the Hasmoneans, is regarded for this purpose as one who had never been circumcised. Such a person certainly performed the act of circumcision, but he then nullified the results of the circumcision. The fact that he has no part in the world-to-come indicates that his status as an uncircumcised person is not a side issue regarding teruma, but rather part of the basic objective of circumcision.
There is a certain halakhic authority who emphasized this aspect of circumcision, the need to reach the status of being circumcised:
As for circumcision, it would appear that a father is not required to circumcise his son with his own hands, but rather to see to it that he will be circumcised. This is similar to all the obligations mentioned there [=a father's obligations regarding his son; Kiddushin 29a] – to teach him Torah, to teach him a vocation, to teach him to swim; can he not hire a teacher for his son for Torah and all those other things? … Regarding all those things, the essence of the mitzva is not the act, but that the circumcision be sealed in his flesh … For if not so, King David, of blessed memory, who was distressed when he entered the bathhouse, and saw himself naked without a mitzva, remembered his circumcision; if the mitzva of circumcision consists of nothing but the act, why did David rejoice over it more than over his head, his arm, or the rest of his body, with which he fulfilled the mitzvot of tefilin, tzitzit and others? Rather, circumcision is a mitzva at all times … A father is certainly not obligated to circumcise his son with his own hands, but only to see to it that his son will be circumcised. (Responsa Maharach Or Zaru'a, no. 11)
Maharach Or Zaru'a emphasizes the second aspect of the mitzva of circumcision – the quality of being circumcised. It is certainly possible to understand that there are two layers in the mitzva of circumcision, and that the father's obligation focuses on the result, and not on the act.
Conceptually speaking, the twofold need for a circumcisional act and for circumcisional results is connected to the twofold rationale for circumcision, as was described above. Circumcision is personally significant as a sacrifice to God, this meaning focusing on the act of circumcision. Circumcision, however, is also significant as a sign of the covenant between God and the Jewish people, this meaning focusing on the result of circumcision, the fact that a person is circumcised. The initial cut may perhaps represent the act of circumcision, whereas the goal of peri'a (uncovering the corona) is to bring about the result of the person being circumcised. According to what we have said, we understand why Chazal have stated:
Peri'a was not given to our Patriarch Avraham, as the verse says: "At the time, the Lord said to Yehoshua, Make flint knives, [and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time]" (Yehoshua 5:2). (Yebamot 71b)
Only then, in the days of Yehoshua, with the entry into the Promised Land, was the national covenant with the Jewish people completed, a covenant which finds expression in the fact that the people are circumcised.
Circumcision – In Man's Sexual Organ
Circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin from man's sexual organ. According to the Sages spanning the generations, this is no mere coincidence, but a message for all times. Rambam saw in this point the primary focus of circumcision:
Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible … The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent desire and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. (More Nevuchim III, 49)
It is possible to develop Rambam's direction of thought, without reaching his conclusion that circumcision weakens the sexual organ. As is well known, there is no medical basis for Rambam's assertion: circumcision does not harm man's member in any way. On the contrary, removing the foreskin is beneficial in that it reduces the likelihood of infection. It may still be argued, however, that there is special significance to the fact that circumcision is performed on man's sexual organ: We already explained earlier that one of the central messages of circumcision is man's capacity to perfect nature by sacrificing a part of himself to God. This sacrifice relates, among other things, to sexual desire, which man is asked to conquer by Divine demand. Circumcision serves as a constant reminder of this obligation.
Earlier, we mentioned Rambam's rationale for the mitzva of circumcision. Rambam brings an additional reason – circumcision serves as a bodily sign common to all members of the nation. In his Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Rambam counts the mitzva of circumcision (positive precept 215) among the mitzvot relating to sexual intercourse – procreation, marriage, rejoicing with one's wife during the first year of marriage, levirate marriage, and chalitza. This fits in with what he writes in his More Nevuchim that circumcision is connected to the control of one sexual desire. In his Mishne Torah, however, Rambam brings the mitzva of circumcision in the book of Adoration, alongside keri'at shema, tefilin, blessings, and the like. In his introduction to Mishne Torah, Rambam explains why he included circumcision in the book of Adoration:
Included in this group is circumcision, because this is a sign in our flesh, serving as a constant reminder, even when there are no tefilin, tzitzit, or the like. (Rambam's [third] introduction to his Mishne Torah)
Here Rambam emphasizes the sign of circumcision, and not the sanctification of sexual intercourse. Circumcision involves not only sacrifice and the control of one's natural inclinations, but also a constant reminder of the covenant we made with God by way of that sacrifice. Rambam in his introduction to Mishne Torah emphasizes the sign of circumcision on the personal level. As we have explained, however, circumcision serves not only as a personal sign, but also as a national sign of the Jewish people as a whole. Seforno connects this point to the question why circumcision is performed on man's sexual organ:
Since this covenant is performed on the organ that brings about the eternity of the species, it points to the eternity of the covenant; and since it is performed on the reproductive organ, its sign indicates the continuity of the covenant to the sons. (Seforno, Bereishit 17:13)
We have explained earlier how the fact that circumcision is performed on man's sexual organ fits in with the rationale for circumcision on the individual level. Seforno explains that even in relation to the rationale for circumcision on the national level, there is special significance to the fact that circumcision is performed on that organ.
 It should be mentioned that when we dealt with the twofold nature of the mitzva of Torah study – engaging in Torah study and knowing Torah – we pointed out that the father's obligation to his son is that he should know Torah, and not that he should engage in Torah study. The father's obligation relates to the result of the mitzva, rather than to the act of the mitzva.
(Translated by Rav David Strauss)