In the final section of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, God issues to Avraham the command of berit mila, instructing him and his descendants to remove “besar orlatekhem” (17:11), which is commonly translated as, “the flesh of your foreskin.”
Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha’kabbala, discusses this phrase and the precise meaning of the words “besar” and “orla,” offering two possible readings. First, he suggests that the word “basar” (“flesh”) is used here as a euphemistic reference to the male reproductive organ, citing as a proof-text the phrase “zav mi-besaro” used in Sefer Vayikra (15:2) to refer to discharge from the male organ. The word “orla” means “covering,” as in the term “orlat levavkhem” (Devarim 10:15), which metaphorically describes the “covering” over our hearts which we need to eliminate. According to this approach, Rav Mecklenberg writes, the phrase should actually be written as “orlat besarkhem” – the skin covering the male organ – but the Torah reversed the two words as a kind of poetic license. (Rav Mecklenberg notes other examples of instances where the Torah reverses the sequence of words in a two-word phrase.)
Alternatively, Rav Mecklenberg writes, the word “basar” can be understood to mean “skin.” Although this word generally refers to flesh, Rav Mecklenberg suggests that since human beings are not skinned after death as slaughtered animals are, and the skin is thus never removed from the flesh, the word for “flesh” can be used in reference to “skin,” as well. According to this approach, he writes, the term “besar orlatekhem” should be read as “besarkhem he-arel” – “your unremoved skin,” referring to a piece of skin that ought to be removed but is still on the flesh.
Rav Mecklenberg then creatively proposes that these different readings of “besar orlatekhem” underlie the debate in Masekhet Yevamot (71b) as to the source of the obligation of peri’a – removing the thin layer of skin underneath the foreskin. While it is clear that peri’a is strictly required as part of the obligation of berit mila, the Amora’im debate the question of whether this requirement was included in the command of berit mila given to Avraham, or was issued later to Avraham’s descendants. This question, Rav Mecklenberg suggests, might hinge on the precise meaning of God’s command to Avraham to remove “besar orlatekhem.” According to the second approach noted above, the skin is referred to with the word “basar,” which literally means “flesh.” If so, then it stands to reason that the command given to Avraham includes the removal of even the thin layer of skin underneath the foreskin, which is firmly attached to the flesh. According to this reading, it might be suggested that the Torah specifically chose to refer to the skin with the term “basar” to indicate that one must remove even this layer, which appears as part of the flesh. According to the first approach, however, Avraham was commanded only to remove the “orla” – the covering of the male organ, which does not necessarily include the thin layer that lies underneath the foreskin. Therefore, the two views cited by the Gemara could perhaps depend on how one interprets the phrase “besar orlatekhem.”