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Shabbat Parashat Tazria| 5764
The Naming of a Free SlaveHarav Yosef Carmel
In the beginning of our parasha, the Torah repeats the commandment of brit milah (Vayikra 12:2-3). The importance of the mitzva of milah finds expression within halacha but also within Jewish society, historically.
The gemara (Shabbat 132a) learns that the milah must be done on the eighth day even if it falls on Shabbat, one of only a handful of situations where one can push aside the laws of Shabbat. Milah is one of only two mitzvot, where failure to perform the mitzva is punishable by karet. From a historical perspective, milah has been strictly followed by the Jewish people throughout the generations. This is in line with Chazal’s prediction: “All the mitzvot that Yisrael gave up their lives to uphold during the times of royal decrees, like idol worship and milah, are still firmly upheld by them.”
But what makes milah so significant? Some say that milah symbolizes the idea of Jewish life based on sanctity and purity, explaining the part of the body that it is intended to improve. The Tur (Yoreh Deah 160) explains how it is unique among the otot (signs) that the Torah provides us. “It is unlike tefillin and tzitzit, which are not set in our flesh, and when we remove them, the sign departs. In contrast, milah is a sealed sign in our flesh. It testifies about us that Hashem chose us from all the nations, that we are His nation and flock, and that in all generations we are obligated to serve Him and tell of His glory.”
What is not clear from the reasons is the age-old custom to name the baby specifically at the brit. Let us suggest the following explanation. In past times when, unfortunately, slavery was still practiced, a slave would be branded on his body so that even if he escaped, all would know he was a slave. The Torah, which forbade acts of cruelty, including to slaves, totally forbade making any signs that affected the body. In fact, one must send free a slave if he mutilated one of 24 limbs of the body.
When a Jewish boy is born, we proclaim that he was born free, as there is no free man like one who accepts the obligation of Torah and mitzvot and is a servant of Hashem. The brit milah is our sign of being a servant of Hashem and not to other slaves (in other words, men) or to our desires. A slave does not need a name, as a number can suffice, because he is but an item on his owner’s inventory. Therefore, during the ceremony of initiation as a “slave” in a manner that actually sets him free, we give a name showing that another free man has joined his comrades who left the “house of bondage in Egypt.”
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