T.B. Sanhedrin 59b raises the question of who exactly is commanded in milah, circumcision. On the surface, the answer would seem to be pretty straightforward; Bereishit 17:9, in the original command of circumcision to Avraham Avinu, states that this is a covenant to be observed by our forefather and his zerah, progeny, unto the generations. As such, it would seem that any descendent of Avraham would be commanded in circumcision. The gemara goes on to explain, however, that this is not the case. Through deductions from verses, it is presented that the Bnei Yishmael, the offspring of Yishmael, and the Bnei Esav, the descendents of Esav, are excluded from this designation of zerah Avraham and, thus, are not commanded in milah. The indication from these proofs would seem to be that only the Bnei Yaakov, the children of Yaakov, have this designation and command. The gemara, though, raises a problem: what about the Bnei Ketura, the children of Avraham from his last wife,1 Ketura? The gemara brings another deduction to extend the obligation of milah to the Bnei Ketura. There is a disagreement, though, as to the meaning of the term Bnei Ketura in this context. Rashi, d.h. Bnei Ketura states that the gemara is only asking about the actual six sons that Avraham had with Ketura – given our analysis of the variant verses to exclude the non-Jewish descendents of Avraham from this command, are we to say that Avraham Avinu was not even obligated to circumcise them? The conclusion is Avraham was still so commanded regarding his actual children and they were circumcised. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 10:8, however, disagrees with this understanding of the text. He maintains that the gemara is speaking in the present and questioning whether the progeny of Avraham through Ketura are also exempt from the commanded, concluding that they are not. As such, he includes in his Code that the Bnei Ketura are also obligated in milah.
In viewing the text, one can see reasons for both approaches. As the discussion in the gemara is regarding the progeny of Yishmael and Esav, it would seem to follow the natural flow of the discussion to define the gemara as thus continuing with a question regarding the descendents of Ketura. The difficulty is that, while the gemara presents a technical reason for inclusion, this idea would still seem to contradict the basic meaning of Bereishit 21:12, that the designation of zerah Avraham would only apply to descendents through Yitzchak.2 This, of course, is not a fatal flaw to this approach3 and, as such, it would seem that Rambam thus still concluded that the gemara was continuing to discuss the present. Rashi, however, must have felt otherwise. While textually, there is reason to understand this gemara as discussing the descendents of Ketura, conceptually, this approach would seem to be most difficult. There would seem to be no conceptual reason for the Bnei Ketura to be included in this designation and command. A question regarding the actual sons of Avraham, though, would be understandable. The issue in that case would not be if there is an obligation on the children of Avraham to circumcise their sons but rather whether Avraham himself was commanded to circumcise his new sons.4
There is, of course, still reason to attempt to understand the conceptual perspective of Rambam. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 10:7 actually presents his conceptual reason for why only the children of Yitzchak through Yaakov are the only ones that are to be referred to as zerah Avraham. He writes that they are the only ones who can be designated as zerah Avraham “who strengthen the faith and follow the straight path” and, as such, they are the only ones who are obligated in milah. It is in the very next halacha that he states, however, that the Bnei Ketura, “who are the zaro of Avraham which came after Yishmael and Yitzchak are obligated in milah.” How do these two statements connect? If the conceptual reason for why the descendents of Yitzchak through Yaakov, to the exclusion of those through Esav and the offspring of Yishmael, are commanded is because they are the ones committed to Avraham’s teachings, why should the Bnei Ketura be included? And if we are to take the inclusion of the Bnei Ketura in the command as a given since it is derived from a verse, how could Rambam present the conceptual reason for the designation of zerah Avraham that he did?
The hint may lie in the description of Bnei Ketura as the zerah of Avraham that came after Yishmael and Yitzchak. In a certain way, this may be a reference to the very fact that Avraham really had, what we may term, as two families. Yitzchak and Yishmael originally occupied the same household until Avraham sent Hagar and her son away. Effectively, though, they were part of a contemporaneous family unit5 of Avraham, Sarah, Hagar, Yitzchak and Yishmael. Avraham’s family with Ketura was, effectively, a completely different family unit. Yitzchak was married to Rivka and forming his own family unit. Yishmael was away in a different land with his own family unit. What about this, though, would lead Rambam to conclude that the conceptual reason for the exclusion of the progeny of Yishmael, and that also of Esav, from the designation of zerah Avraham did not apply to the Bnei Ketura?
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, Emet L’Yaakov, Bereishit 25:1 queries, according to the view that Ketura was really Hagar,6 how Avraham could have taken her back given that Sarah ordered him to send her away? Since God told Avraham to listen to this directive of Sarah, would Hagar not be prohibited to him? He answers that since Yitzchak was now married and Avraham had already transferred his ba’alot, his position and property, to Yitzchak, the original problem that led to the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael was no longer existent. The fight between Yitzchak and Yishmael was in regard to whom would occupy Avraham’s place after his passing. This was now clearly established and so Hagar/Ketura could return. Her new children thus would also enter into this reality of subservience to Yitzchak.7 There would never be a fight8 between Yitzchak and the Bnei Ketura regarding who would follow in the position of Avraham. This could also be true in the spiritual realm, leading to the ability for the Bnei Ketura to still be called zerah Avraham.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 As Bereishit 25:1 uses the term wife, we will also, at this time use this term to define their relationship.
2 The gemara, of course, has already explained why the Bnei Esav are still excluded.
3 It is often the case that the analysis of a verse by Chazal, the Sages, would seem to contradict what would seem to be a simple reading of a verse.
4 In regard to the actual Torah mitzvah of circumcision, there is actually some discussion whether there is an obligation on the father, per se, to circumcise his son or whether the father’s obligation is actually to assist his son with the son’s direct obligation to be properly circumcised. It may be perceived, through my proposing a command on Avraham that I am voicing an opinion on this issue. This is not the case. In any event, the exact nature of the command to Avraham does not necessarily impact on our understanding of the Sinai command.
5 As our understanding of a family unit is in the context of a monogamous marriage, it may seem strange to refer to this grouping as a family unit. The term, though, does still seem applicable to the polygamous household and, as such, family unit.
6 See Rashi, Bereishit 25:1.
7 In further support, see Divrei Hayamim I 1:32.
8 As there also was between Yaakov and Esav regarding who would inherit Yitzchak’s position.
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