Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Moshe's decision to delay his son's milah - pikuach nefesh for a ben noach

The gemara (Nedarim 31) writes that when G-d told Moshe to return to Egypt, Moshe was caught in a quandary.  On the one hand, his son had just been born and needed a bris milah.  He could not do the milah and immediately leave, as that would endanger the child’s life.  He could not delay, because Hashem had commanded him to go to Mitzrayim.  So he left and put off the milah.  That is not why Moshe was punished – he was punished because when he came to an inn, he took care of the check-in and unpacking first before the milah.

The Mizrachi on Parshas Shemos asks: why was the danger to Moshe’s son’s life an excuse not to do milah?  We learn from the pasuk of “V’chai bahem” that, with the exception of three cardinal sins, no mitzvah or aveira is more important than human life, but if not for that pasuk, everything would be “yeihareg v’al ya’avor.”  If so, for a ben noach who does not have the pasuk of “V’chai bahem,” there is nothing, not even human life, that should supersede a mitzvah!

The Parashas Derachim addresses himself to this issue, but I want to share with you an insight of R’ Shlomo Wahrman in his She’eris Yosef (vol 5 - link).  The Rambam writes in Hil Milah:

  קטן שנמצא בשמיני שלו ירוק ביותר--אין מולין אותו, עד שייפול בו דם ויחזרו מראיו כמראה הקטנים הבריאים. וכן אם היה אדום ביותר כמי שצבעו--אין מולין אותו, עד שייבלע בו דמו ויחזרו מראיו כשאר הקטנים: מפני שזה חולי הוא. וצריך להיזהר בדברים אלו הרבה, ואין מולין אלא ולד שאין בו שם חולי: שסכנת נפשות דוחה את הכול, ואפשר למול לאחר זמן; ואי אפשר להחזיר נפש אחת מישראל, לעולם

The Rambam offers a sevara to explain why we postpone milah when there is a danger – the Rambam writes that it is always possible to do milah at a later point, but it is impossible to return a lost life.  We see from the Rambam held that in addition to the din in kol haTorah of pikuach nefesh that we learn from "V'chai bahem," there is a separate din of pikuach nefesh with respect to milah that is learned from sevara. 

Rav Wahrman suggested the Rambam introduced this second source for pikuach nefesh based on R’ Chaim Brisker’s (in Hil Milah) chiddush that there are two dinim in the chiyuv of milah: 1) the chiyuv given to Avraham Avinu that applied to his descendents; 2) the chiyuv milah given at mattan Torah.  When the gemara (Shabbos 136) says “nitna Torah v’nischadsha halacha” with respect to milah it means that there are new chiyuvim that exist post-mattan Torah *on top of* and in addition to the already existing chiyuv given to Avraham Avinu.

The pasuk of “V’chaim bahem” only helps for the post-mattan Torah chiyuv of milah.  For the pre-mattan Torah chiyuv given to Avraham Avinu, we need some other source to justify pushing off the milah, so the Rambam used a sevara.

What’s the makor for the Rambam?  The gemara in Nedraim that we started with that tells us that Moshe (who at that time was a ben Noach like everyone else) pushed off the milah of his son because of pikuach nefesh.

I have two comments related more to the chiddush of R’ Chaim than to R’ Wahrman’s application.  1) The Rambam (Hil Aveil 1:1) uses these same words of “nitna Torah v’nischadsha halacha,” which the gemara applies to milah, to explain why we cannot learn hil aveilus from Yosef’s mourning for Ya’akov.  As we once discussed, R’ Soloveitchik learned that the Rambam there is not using the Yerushalmi’s sevara of “ain l’meidim m’kodem matan Torah.”  My hunch is that RYBS had his grandfather’s chiddush in hil milah in the back of his mind, as R’ Chaim also learns that “nitnah Torah…” does not negate what happened pre-mattan Torah as a source (like the Yerushalmi), but rather simply means another layer was added on top of the existing practice.  2) R’ Wahrman asks how R’ Chaim’s chiddush that the chiyuv of milah that was given to Avraham fits with the Rambam in Peirush haMishnayos in Chulin that spells out that the mitzvos we keep are those given at Sinai, not what the Avos were told to do.  We kicked this idea around before (link, link), so I won’t rehash – I just wanted to point out that he raises the issue.


  1. If the sevara of the Rambam is indeed referring to the pre-matan Torah mitzvah, then we have to be mechalek between bnai Noach, and Jewish Bnai Noach. For example, Bnei Yishmoel and Bnei Keturah.

    And forgive me for criticizing you, but in your paraphrase of the Rambam you introduced the same distortion that I saw in Sinai Hospital in Baltimore. In large metal letters in the reception area was declared that "Whoever saves a single life is as if he saved the entire world." In their case, I think the distortion was deliberate.

    1. (from Chaim) Why are you making such a chiluk?
      Got your point on the Rambam paraphrase, but it took me a minute.

  2. That point is the chiluk. The Rambam uses the sevara based on נפש אחת מישראל when he could have left out the last word. If it is indeed applying to pre-matan Torah, then a) there was a category even then of ישראל [which is hinted at in the Rambam's description of how the mitzvot trickled in until matan torah]; and b) the sevara only applied to them. Which, for the Rambam, is surprising.

    1. Sorry, I'm not convinced. The Rambam is writing about putting off milah on day 8 -- that only applies to us, so he says Yisrael. If the makor for this din of dechiya is sevara, why would it only apply to a the category (that only exists here?) of Jewish ben-noach (which sounds like an oxymoron, but that's beside the point).

    2. I don't believe that the Rambam uses the word Yisroel just because he happens to be talking about yom hashemini. This would have been a opportunity to teach a broader halacha, leave out a word, and not diminish the point at all. Thus I am forced to conclude that a mitzva takes precedence over the life of a ben noach ben noach.

      Does a bn ben noach have a heter even today of pikuach nefesh being doche zayin mitzvot?

    3. The Parashas Derachim and others raise that question. Some hold that there is no chiyuv on a b"n to be moseir nefesh, but the counter-argument is that at least for mai chazis, since it is a sevara, sevara applies equally to a b"n. I am using the same logic here -- the Rambam is saying a sevara, and sevara applies to b"n. You are assuming 1) there are two categories of ben noach; 2) things learned m'sevara do not apply to the category of non-Jewish b"n. Seems like a lot to be mechadeish based on a diyuk of a single extra word in the Rambam with no other mekoros?