Jewish Thought

What is the purpose of the foreskin (orlah)?



I know beyond all shadow of a doubt that G-d did not create anything in vain (that is, everything has a purpose, it seems to me that such a statement exists in the Talmud). So why did G-d create man with a foreskin which has to be removed 8 days after birth? Does the foreskin have a purpose at all for the fetus? Is it intended to distinguish humans from other animals (for only man has it)? Does the Gemara have an explanation for it?


Circumcision is one of the Torah’s secrets.

The following explanations comes from the Ohr Hachaim in the Book of Leviticus:

The verse can be explained according to the words in Tanchuma Tazria 5: The evil Turnusrufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose deeds are better — those of G-d or those of humans?” Rabbi Akiva brought him wheat stalks and buns and said to him “G-d made these and man made these [and which is better?].” He told Rabbi Akiva “The buns are better than the stalks.” Turnusrufus then asked him, “If He wants circumcision, why didn’t He make the fetus come out of his mother's womb circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva told him, “G-d gave the commandments to Israel to refine them, as it is written (Psalm 18:31) ‘The saying of G-d refines.’ etc.”

Rabbi Akiva’s reply concerning  the stalks and buns was insufficient, because man improves on G-d’s deeds when it brings him some benefit, but circumcision is not a human need, it is G-d’s Will, and it was given to man to see if he would make G-d’s Will his own. This is why Rabbi Akiva replied that the reason G-d gave the commandment was to refine Israel.

This answer is intellectually obscure and incomprehensible. Turnusrufus could not comprehend divine knowledge through his own intelligence, so he accepted the simple meaning of Rabbi Akiva’s words. But because we are the sons of the living G-d, we have to plumb to the depth of the matter.

Our Creator established the natural world so that a procreator gives birth to progeny like him. They will be similar even in the small details like the image of the child’s face. So how does it happen that a circumcised man procreates a child that has a foreskin? We see that Moses peace be upon him was born circumcised, but his son was born with a foreskin, as its says (Exodus 4:25) “And Zipporah took a flint stone and cut off the foreskin of her son.”

Know that the foreskin is a symbol of evil. The whole body is nothing but a sheath for the soul, and the sheath shows what is inside it. By removing the foreskin, this shows that one has cast off the evil which the foreskin symbolizes.

It is well known that Adam was created perfectly, without any aspect of evil and therefore had no foreskin. After the sin, he gained a foreskin (Sanhedrin 38b), and the woman also suffered the impurity of her monthly cycle (Eruvin 100b).

Adam’s sin had negative ramifications throughout the world. Fruits grew with many peels and coverings, and man could only enjoy wheat after he had carried out 10 actions which are enumerated in the Chapter Klal Gadol (page 73)  until the final act of baking, which correspond to the ten curses which the ground had been cursed with, as the holy Zohar (3:243) relates.

This will only be rectified when G-d removes the spirit of impurity from the earth, as it is written (Zechariah 13:2) “and the spirit of contamination I will remove from the earth.” At that time, the earth will produce buns (Shabbos 30b), since that there will be no need to carry out the ten actions to produce bread because the earth will sprout buns and bread without preparation. Rabbi Akiva was hinting to this when he showed Turnusrufus the sheaves and the bun (Tanchuma ibid.). Because evil still clung to the soul of the first man and his impurity filled the earth, his children weren’t born circumcised even though he was.

Turnusrufus’s second question was that if G-d wants circumcision, why doesn’t He create babies born circumcised? This question shows that he lacked knowledge of spirituality. He thought that the purpose of the act of circumcision was the change that takes place on the body, not the impact that takes place inside spiritually.

Or perhaps he assumed that what exists in the body affects the mind, so he thought if G-d would remove the blemishes and flaws, then the soul would be purified together with the flesh. To this, Rabbi Akiva gave a general answer that the main goal is not to refine the body, but to refine the soul.

What is the actual physical difference if a man is circumcised or not? And if the problem is spiritual, then why doesn’t G-d remove the abhorrent element which the foreskin is a symbol of? Rabbi Akiva replied that all the commandments that G-d gave Israel are for the purpose of refining and cleaning the dregs which Adam’s sin caused:

All negative commandments remove the soul’s ills, and all positive commandments enlighten the mind. When Adam sinned, the light in his soul was dimmed. By keeping negative commandments, the contamination is removed from the soul, but the light is still missing. By doing positive commandments, the light shines again, as it says (Proverbs 6:23) “A commandment is a candle.” G-d will not just give it to him, since man caused the evil. He did the sin and he will have to bear the consequences of his contaminated soul. Since all souls were dependent on Adam (Tanhuma Tisa 12), they all acquired his sin, and they will have to rectify this sickness. How can anyone say "Remove the soiled clothes that I put on myself”? See what I explained in Parshat Bereshit (4:7) on the verse “and if you will not improve”, etc:

If G-d would remove the loathsomeness that man caused to himself in his stupidity, then there would be no reward and no punishment. However, since the foreskin in the flesh was the outgrowth of the original sin that infected the soul, G-d commanded every Jew to cut away from their bodies the symbol of evil and thereby their soul would be cleansed and purified of that evil.

And since the women’s sin was greater than the man’s, the man’s impurity completely leaves him after circumcision, while the woman’s impurity remained and returns to defile her every month.

Perhaps the reason that G-d commanded to do circumcision on the eighth day, and not before and not another, is because G-d is judging his mother who on the day that her flow stopped has to count seven clean days. When he left his mother's womb he became impure just like one who opened a tomb. Circumcision is also the revelation of the blessed G-d’s Name in a man, as I hinted in the Torah section of Vayera: G-d commanded him to wait until seven clean days passed, and then on the eighth day, he could circumcise, etc:

“He shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin” — this can be explained by what we wrote earlier, that the foreskin is like a shell. This hints to the three things one must do to fulfill the commandment of circumcision, which are milah (cutting), priyah (tearing), and metzitza (sucking). Milah refers to making the incision in the foreskin which is indicated by the word yamol (“he shall cut”). Priyah is rending the thin membrane into two which doesn’t require cutting, and this is hinted to in the verse when it says bosor (“flesh”). It implies that one should treat it like meat which lacks sensation, for the skin of the priyah does not stretch back and cover the tip. Metzitza is sucking the contaminated blood of both the foreskin and the membrane. G-d commanded that the blood be sucked from both of them since they together are considered the foreskin, and this is hinted at it in the word orloto.

The holy Zohar states (Vol. I page 8 of the omissions) that there are 4 intervening shells surrounding the sacred, hinted at in the phrase “nut garden” (Song of Songs 6:11). You will find that a nut has 4 hulls, the first is the bitter shell which dries off and falls, the second is the hard shell, the third is the separator that divides the nut into separate parts, and the fourth covers the nut and is eaten with it. The shell doesn’t become repulsive until it is removed from the nut. When the commandment of circumcision is performed, it separates from a man three kinds of shells, the milah which is like the external shell of a nut, priyah, which is like the hard shell that can be broken, and metzitza which separated between the sections of the food. We still have the aspect that is hinted at in the shell which covers the nut.

Our sages say (Zohar Vol. 1 78b) that a person until he has completed thirteen years, is like a tree in its years of orlah. G-d has restricted trees to three years of orlah status, but a man is a tree of the field until he completes his thirteenth year, and on the fourteenth, all his “fruit” will be holy.

The Book of Tikkunim (Tikkun 24) explains that there are three levels of circumcision: the highest of all is the circumcision of the children of the righteous, which is the revelation of the divine in their flesh. The second is circumcision of average people, which is like offering a sacrifice to G-d. The third is the circumcision of wicked people who are hated by G-d, which is like feeding a snake the food it eats which tastes like dirt.

All three are hinted to in the words yamol bosor orloto, “he shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin.” The yud of yamol hints to the circumcision of the righteous who sanctify G-d’s Name, which begins with a yud, in the world. The circumcision of average people is hinted to in the word bosor, flesh, which hints to the flesh of sacrifices brought before G-d. And the circumcision of the wicked is hinted to in the word orloto, because the foreskin gives the evil inclination a place to reside in a child.

G-d commanded that everyone perform circumcision, whether they are the children of the righteous, average people, or the wicked. Whoever has his foreskin removed from himself, has weakened the power of the shell in himself.

If he will be deserving, he will intensify the power of his good deeds and increase the good side and cancel part of the power of evil. Our sages say about this (Horayot 13) Better a Torah scholar who is a bastard than a High Priest who is an ignoramus.”