Milah - The Greatest Mitzvah

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Lech Lecha we learn about the mitzvah of milah.

The Tur, in his introduction to hilchos milah quotes the Gemara in Nedarim 31b, that milah is considered the greatest mitzvah of all mitzvos. What is unique about this mitzvah, that it is titled the greatest mitzvah?

Some of the great powers of the Bris milah

Bris milah is one of the only mitzvos that failure to perform is punishable with kareis. Additionally, the Mishna (Nedarim 31b) tells us that the expression “bris” is used 13 times in reference to milah, and therefore 13 brisos (bonds with Hashem) are created by performing this great mitzvah.

Furthermore, the Tur points to the Mishna (Avos 3:15) that one who nullifies bris milah will not receive a portion in the next world. Conversely, he quotes the Gemara that Avraham Avinu guards over the entranceway to Gehinom and does not allow one who is circumcised to enter. Thus, without a bris no other accomplishments will be meaningful and with a bris one is saved from punishment in the next world.

Additionally, the Tur continues, the bris milah is not just an externality, as is talis and tefillin, which are worn on the body. The bris milah is a symbol embedded in our bodies, testifying to our unique and inbuilt status as the Chosen Nation. Thus, this mitzvah is indeed very powerful and a part and parcel of our very lifeline.

Milah – what it achieves

What is achieved through the mitzvah of milah? Does it just remove imperfection or does it actually infuse kedusha in a person and facilitate reaching greatness. This seems to be a subject of discussion in the Rishonim as to the extent of the mitzvah of milah.

The Mishna in Nedarim asserts that one who has no milah is disgraceful and only through milah can a person reach totality. This – says the Mishna – is clear in the pasuk in Parshas Lech Lichah, where Hashem told Avraham in regards to the mitzvah of milah: הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים, “Go before Me and you will be complete,” which shows us that only after the milah did he become “complete”. The Gemara (Nedarim 32a) elaborates on this point how Avraham Avinu, even after all his great devotion to performing mitzvos, still did not achieve his highest level of complete spirituality until after his circumcision.

Hence, we see that bris milah removes imperfection. The Rambam, in his classic Moreh Nevochim, as well as the Sefer Hachinuch, elaborates on this point, how a person is born incomplete and his purpose in this world is to complete himself. This is similar to a person’s physical dimension, where one works to accomplish and achieve greatness. The Moreh Nevuchim continues by saying that the milah weakens one’s draw to material and physical desires, thereby facilitating one’s achievement of tikun hamidos, reaching a level of having refined character traits.

These Rishonim seem to be of the opinion that the milah accomplishes removal of the spiritual blemishes.

However, other Rishonim elaborate on the greatness of this mitzvah and explain that there is much more to milah than just removal of spiritual imperfection. As mentioned earlier, the Tur delineates many great spiritual levels that can be reached through milah.

Additionally, the Beis Halevi quotes the sefer Akeida who maintains that the mitzvah of milah actually encompasses both dimensions: removal of spiritual imperfection, as well as infusing a person with kedusha. The Beis Halevi elaborates on this notion and suggests that both of these ideas are actually alluded to in the pasuk in Parshas Lech Lichah, where Hashem told Avraham: הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ, “Go before Me and you will be complete, and I will place a bond between us.” The milah was two-fold: it brought him to reach completion as well as bringing him close to Hashem.

The Beis Halevi proposes that these two facets of milah are accomplished by the two components of the mitzvah: milah and priah, which correspond to these two dimensions of milah, thereby putting every child on the road to reach completion, as well as infusing them with great powers of kedusha, bringing them close to Hashem.

The recordings of these shiurim on milah, as well as a compilation of shiurim given on milah, are available. For more information please contact Rabbi Nachum Scheiner @ 845 - 372 - 6618, or send an email to:

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By Rabbi Nachum Scheiner

Rabbi Nachum Scheiner of Bais Medrash Ohr Chaim has been raising the bar of Torah learning with great success throughout the Monsey community. Rabbi Scheiner heads the Kollel Boker, the Evening Kollel, the Sunday morning Halacha Chabura, Yeshivas Bein Hazmanim, Yarchei Kallahs on legal Holidays, and the Friday morning Shovavim Learning.