Parashat Tazria begins with a discussion of the laws of impurity relevant to a woman after childbirth, and in this context it reiterates the command to circumcise a male infant on his eighth day (12:3). The mitzva of berit mila was, of course, already introduced much earlier in the Torah, when God conveyed to Avraham this command (Bereishit 17). This redundancy is, presumably, what led the Gemara (Shabbat 132a-b) to explain the verse here in Parashat Tazria as establishing the halakha requiring circumcision on an infant’s eighth day even if its falls on Shabbat. Despite the fact that the procedure of circumcision involves the infliction of a wound in the flesh, which would normally constitute an act of Shabbat desecration, the Torah permits – and in fact requires – performing a berit mila even when a child’s eighth day falls on Shabbat. The Torah reiterates the mitzva of berit mila for the purpose of introducing this counterintuitive provision, as one would have otherwise concluded that a child’s berit mila should be delayed if his eighth day falls on Shabbat, when such procedures are forbidden.
The Gemara’s discussion gives rise to the question of why this detail was not included in the original command of berit mila. Why didn’t God include this provision – requiring that a berit mila be performed even on Shabbat – in His initial instructions to Avraham about this mitzva?
This question is posed by Or Ha-chayim, who suggests a surprisingly simple answer. There was no need, he explains, for Avraham to be told that berit mila on the eighth day overrides the Shabbat prohibitions, because Avraham observed Shabbat voluntarily. Avraham lived, of course, well before the Torah was given and his descendants were commanded by God to obey its laws. Chazal indicate that Avraham observed the Torah’s laws even before it was given, but he clearly did so voluntarily, as he had not received any commands, the only exception being berit mila. Therefore, God had no need to specify that Avraham should perform berit mila even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat. It was self-evident that a strict command received by the Almighty overrides a voluntary religious measure that Avraham nobly chose to take upon himself. Only after the Torah was given, and Benei Yisrael were commanded to observe Shabbat, did it then become necessary for God to instruct that the Shabbat prohibitions are suspended for the sake of performing a berit mila on a child’s eighth day.
This discussion perhaps reminds us of the need for careful prioritization in religious life, to ensure that we first meet our basic responsibilities before taking on additional, voluntary measures. Just as it was obvious to Avraham that the command to perform berit mila overrides his voluntary Shabbat observance, similarly, we should never think to allow voluntary religious enhancements and stringencies to come at the expense of our elementary obligations. Only after we satisfactorily fulfill our basic requirements are we encouraged to reach higher and commit ourselves to a more rigorous standard of religious devotion.