Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Parshat Tazria-Metzora

The Brit and the Seven-Day Week

In the beginning of the first of this week's two parshiyot, the Torah says: "If a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be unclean for seven days… and on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised" (VaYikra 12:2-3).

Essentially all Jewish boys need to be circumcised when they are eight days old.

This is not the first time the Torah has commanded us about circumcision. God already told Avraham: "At the age of eight days, every male shall be circumcised to you throughout your generations" (Bereshit 17:12), i.e. that all his future male descendants needed to be circumcised when they became eight days old.

We can ask why the Torah repeats the commandment here, especially when the pesukim in Bereshit are the primary source.

The simplest answer is that the Torah's concern in Sefer VaYikra is to teach us about purity and impurity. Therefore, its focus here is to explain the woman's status after childbirth, with the law of circumcision merely mentioned as a byproduct of the birth.

However, we can add a halachik dimension that gives us a fascinating insight into the life of our Patriarchs and their knowledge of the seven day week.

When Sefer VaYikra repeated that the son must be circumcised on the eighth day, the Torah is stressing that even if the eighth day falls on Shabbat, a day when it should be forbidden, the child must be still be circumcised.

This law obviously, could not have been taught to Avraham. Why not? Because Avraham had no idea what the Shabbat was. It would have been a meaningless commandment to him.

The first time that Israel is commanded to keep Shabbat is in Shemot, shortly after the Exodus. There God tells them that the manna would fall for six days, but never on the seventh. The fact some Israelites nonetheless went to gather manna on the seventh day, shows that up until then, they were ignorant of the seventh day being special. (See Shemot Chapter 16).

Joshua Berman, in his book "Created Equal" goes even further and says that Avraham and his contemporary world did not even know a seven-day week and that the Torah's institution of the seven-day week and Shabbat after the Exodus, was revolutionary!!

The seven-day week is a concept that is almost universally accepted today, however, it is not based on astrology or astronomy. The ancient world was able to calculate the months and the years, whether they used a solar or lunar calendar, but the weeks are not part of either cycle. The seven-day week is an artificial concept.

Indeed the ancient Egyptians had a ten-day week. They divided the months into three weeks of ten days each, and at the end of the year they had a five day holiday, before beginning the new year.

Soon after the French Revolution, the French also adopted a ten day week. The workers therefore, had a day of rest once every ten days. This calendar survived for 12 years, before they reverted to the seven-day week. Soviet Russia also adopted a series of new calendars from 1931. First they tried a five-day week and then a six-day week. Their aim was to create a more productive work force, however, they returned to the seven day week in 1941.

Other cultures also had different types of weeks and it was as late as Christian Rome that the seven day week became a universal phenomenon.

It should be noted that in both the French and Soviet examples, they continued with the Gregorian calendar, as the days of the week are not linked to the calendar.

The earliest historical record that we have of the seven-day week is that of the Jewish people in the Babylonian captivity (around 586 BCE). Therefore, it seems that the Torah introduced the concept of the seven-day week. Before the Torah was given, no such concept had existed before and so, Avraham, the forefather of the Jewish people who obviously never had the Torah, did not have it, and so, did not have the Shabbat.

Therefore, even though God had already commanded Avraham to teach his descendants about circumcision, once those descendants, the Jewish people, were introduced to Shabbat, they needed to be taught that circumcision overrides the Shabbat. That command exists in this week's parsha.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Tazria, entitled: "Tzara'a – a Physical or Spiritual disease" appears at

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Metzora, entitled: " The Four Lepers" appears at Another

Sedra Short on Parshat Tazria, entitled: "Seven Followed by Eight" appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Tazria, entitled: "The Sin-Offering of the Mother" appears at

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