Why Do Jews Circumcise Their Sons?

In a brilliant article, Elon Gilad examines the Biblical texts and suggests a very convincing narrative to the significance of Human Genital Mutilation (HGM), male circumcision, to Judaism. Reaching the conclusion that this blood rite was in existence way before Judaism … Do Jews “prune” the penis in the hope of greater fertility – as one prunes the vine for more grapes?

“In First Temple times, almost all the region’s peoples (not just Jews) were circumcised, which indicates that the roots of the practice lie deep in prehistory…
… The commandment to circumcise babies on the eighth day follows a verse (Leviticus 12) that says that a woman who gives birth to a male child is ritualistically unclean for a week (or two weeks if she has a daughter). By touching his mother, the newborn would incur the uncleanness too; thus only on the eighth day would the newborn be ritualistically clean, and able to undergo the sacrament.
However, during the First Temple era, circumcision may have been conducted not on babies but at puberty, possibly upon marriage. This theory is based on two legs.
One is that contemporary primitive societies that circumcise usually do it as a rite of passage at puberty (as some Arab communities do to this day). Also, First Temple texts don’t mention circumcision of infants, though that is a “sin” of omission.
The second is linguistic theory regarding the meaning of the Semitic root H-T-N.
Returning to the baffling biblical verse where Zipporah conducts a circumcision, upon completing the act, she twice asserts that someone is a hatan, meaning “bridegroom”, of blood – but what exactly might a bloody bridegroom be? Some scholars hypothesize that in ancient Hebrew, hatan didn’t only mean “bridegroom” but “man undergoing circumcision.”
This double meaning of “someone undergoing circumcision” and “bridegroom” may seem bizarre. But in Arabic, the same root H-T-N carries both the meaning of circumcision and marriage. Zipporah’s statement may attest that ancient Hebrew also used this same root to mean circumcision and marriage. If so, H-T-N had this double meaning before Arabic split off from the rest of the West Semitic languages to which Hebrew belongs.
There is physical support for this thesis: the peoples who spoke West Semitic languages roughly correspond to the ancient peoples who practiced circumcision. Speakers of the East Semitic languages did not practice circumcision, and they don’t use this root neither for marriage nor for circumcision. This tidy separation implies that circumcision arose after the West and East Semitic people split, but before the West Semitic peoples split again into the different language communities, including the speakers of Arabic and Hebrew.
The way West Semites used H-T-N may hint at how the root took on the meaning of both “wedding” and “circumcision”. West Semitic languages don’t use this root for just any marriage related words. Words of the root H-T-N appear in words for “bridegroom” but not bride, for “father of the bride” but not for “father of the bridegroom.” Why would this be?
Perhaps, at some ancient time, before Arabic and Hebrew diverged, weddings were events at which the father of the bride circumcised the bridegroom.
A study published in 2009 applying Bayesian regression models (used by geneticists to determine biological family trees) to determine the family tree of Semitic languages concluded that West and East Semitic languages split in about 3750 BCE, so circumcision probably came about after that date.

The same study also concluded that Arabic split from the rest of the other West Semitic languages at around 2450 BCE, so circumcision probably came about before that. Otherwise it is difficult to explain how Arabic and the rest of the West Semitic languages share the root H-T-N in relation to marriage.
According to the same research, these West Semitic people from whom proto-Arabic speakers splintered probably lived in modern-day Syria.
So: circumcision probably came about sometime between 3750 BCE to 2450 BCE in the area that is today Syria.
Since the first archaeological evidence of circumcision is a tomb drawing from ancient Egypt dating to the 24th century BCE, it could have been introduced to the Egyptians by Semitic tribes as they expanded southward.


So it seems that Jews circumcise their sons because their ancient Semitic forebears did, but why did they start circumcising in the first place? These ancient Semitic people didn’t write, so we can’t know what they were thinking, but we can speculate.
Since circumcision was carried out on the sexual organ, and probably at puberty, we can assume they thought it would improve fecundity.
Indeed, fertility is exactly what is promised Abraham by God in return for circumcision.
But where would these ancient Semitic people get the idea that cutting their foreskin off would improve fertility?
The answer may be from their farming habits. Archaeological evidence shows that the farming of grapevines and olive trees was spreading through the region during this period. These plants require regular pruning to increase yields. Maybe some ancient Semitic sage came up with the idea that if pruning vines increases yields, why not prune penises too?
In fact, there is evidence in the Bible that the ancient Hebrews tied circumcision to pruning “And when ye shall come into the land, and shall have planted all manner of trees for food, then ye shall count the fruit thereof as uncircumcised [literally: ye shall foreskin their foreskins]: three years shall it be as uncircumcised [literally: foreskins] unto you: it shall not be eaten of” (Leviticus 19:23).
If this is all true, Jews circumcise their sons because an ancient tribe converted an agricultural innovation into a questionable method to increase male fertility, and later a small group of their descendants bestowed this practice with a national meaning, which endures to this day.”

Click for full article, Haaretz, 2016 : Why Do Jews Circumcise Their Sons?


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