Why did Abraham Wait?

Abraham, the first Jew, lived before the Torah was given. Yet, our Sages reveal, he anticipated and observed all the Torah commandments. The question is asked why did Abraham wait until he was 99 years old to fulfill the mitzvah of circumcision? The commandment of circumcision is fundamental.  Why did he wait until he was commanded by G‑d at the age of 99??

Many answers have been given to this question. The following is a partial list:


Fulfilling a Command Superior to a Voluntary Action

First, Mizrachi answers us by referring to the Talmudic statement that one who is commanded to do a Mitzvah is superior to one who does a Mitzvah voluntarily, one for which he was not commanded.

Hence, if Abraham had circumcised himself before G‑d commanded him to do so, he would have missed out on the enhanced level of observance that he acquired after he had been commanded by G‑d. One can obviously only perform circumcision once.


Abraham Began Observing After his Circumcision

Second, Meharsha answers the question by qualifying the statement of our Sages that Abraham observed al the commandments. In truth, the Meharsha writes, he only did that after he was circumcised and assumed the status of a Jew.



Third, Panim Yafos answers that Abraham was expressly prohibited from circumcision until such time as he was commanded. G‑d had proscribed inflicting injury on Noach and his descendants. That prohibition could therefore not have been waived until G‑d Himself gave Abraham a dispensation and commanded him to perform the Mitzvah of circumcision.

Only a Jew Could Circumcise

Fourth, Terumas Hakri answers the question with the premise that only a Jew may perform a circumcision. A non-Jew who performs it on a Jew will not satisfy the obligation of circumcision. Hence, Abraham, who did not acquire the status of a Jew until he was commanded by G‑d to do the circumcision, could not legally perform the ritual. Once he was commanded by G‑d to circumcise himself he was accorded the status of a Jew and was fit to perform the Mitzvah.

Fifth, a variation of the preceding answer is that Abraham could not circumcise himself, since he was not Jewish until after the circumcision. Therefore G‑d had to perform the circumcision with Him as the verse states: “And He performed the Bris with him.” Abraham had to wait until such time as G‑d would participate in the Mitzvah.


No Obstructive Foreskin

Sixth, the Rebbe (Likkutei Sichos vol. 16 p. 215) explains that for a person to perform the mitzvah of circumcision, the one being circumcised must have a foreskin.  The intact foreskin represents an obstructive force to the sanctity of a Jew. Until the command came from G‑d to circumcise there was no legal or spiritual concept of a “foreskin.” Only after Abraham was commanded to perform this Mitzvah did the foreskin assume the negative legal status that warrants its excision.

It Takes Two to Covenant

Seventh, Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (known as the Griz) answers the question by stating that circumcision is not just a Mitzvah like any other mitzvah; it represents a covenant (Bris) between G‑d and the Jewish people. One cannot make a covenant without both sides being present and agreeing to it.


Two Levels of Circumcision

Eighth, the Alter Rebbe (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi) in his work Torah Or provides the spiritual reason for Abraham’s delay in performing the Mitzvah, based on the premise that there are actually two dimensions of circumcision. Abraham sought to reach the second level. Inasmuch as he was not ready for that level he had to wait until he was commanded.


The idea of the first spiritual level of circumcision is rooted in the verse “You shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” The second, more sublime level is expressed in the verse “G‑d, your G‑d, will circumcise your heart.”

The difference between these two levels is that the former represents our striving to elevate ourselves. To achieve this goal we must circumcise our heart, which refers to the service of Teshuvah (repentance, or return), through the fulfillment of Torah and its commandments. This, in turn, will lead to the future redemption, as our Sages declared, “If the Jewish people turn [to G‑d] in repentance they will be redeemed.”

The second and higher level of circumcision will be manifested in the future Messianic Age. This model of circumcision involves the descent of G‑dliness from above to below, as indicated in the verse: “And G‑d will circumcise your heart.”

The first spiritual level of circumcision, which is, as stated, an “initiative from below,” i.e., a striving of man from below upward, is followed by the second, more sublime level of circumcision, an “initiative from above,” when G‑d will circumcise our hearts.


Abraham wanted the Higher Level

Based on this premise, we can answer our original question of why Abraham did not fulfill the commandment of circumcision until expressly commanded to do so by G‑d, although he fulfilled the entire Torah before it was given at Sinai:

Abraham desired to reach the higher level of circumcision, the level connected with the revelation of G‑d from above to below. Therefore, he fulfilled the Torah commandments that were on a lower level than circumcision.  Through those efforts he merited that higher level of circumcision.

We can now also understand why the Torah uses the passive voice when it states, “Abraham was circumcised,” instead of the more active form, “Abraham circumcised himself.” By contrast, in the case of Yishmael and the slaves, the active voice is used. Why the difference?

The Alter Rebbe answers, Abraham’s family and slaves were only able to achieve the lower level of circumcision; the level that can be achieved by our human and limited actions in circumcising the foreskin of our hearts. However, concerning Abraham, the passive is used because there the higher level, the aspect beyond our conventional powers - the level of “G‑d will circumcise your heart” - was revealed.


The Selfsame Day

Therefore, the Torah declares “In that selfsame day” Abraham was circumcised.”

What is the import of the word “selfsame?”

The Alter Rebbe explains that the Hebrew word for selfsame, etzem, also means “essence.” The verse can now be translated as: “in the essence of that day Abraham was circumcised.” The word “day” is a reference to the Era of the Redemption, about which it is stated “the day which is all long and all good.” The “essence of the day” refers to the essence of the great revelation that will take place then. Therefore, when “the essence of the day” was revealed to Abraham, he was circumcised. Abraham was given a foretaste of this great revelation of the future and was therefore ready to undergo circumcision.