Perhaps the most universally accepted commandment in the Jewish community is the mitzva of brit milah – circumcision. Our Gemara brings a number of explanations of this phenomenon, quoting Sages that suggest that brit milah is equated with all of the other mitzvot (based on Shemot 34:27) or that the world exists only because of the merit of this covenant (based on Yirmiyahu 33:25).
Two other Sages that comment on the uniqueness of the mitzva of milah are:
- Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who points to the biblical Abraham who followed all of the commandments of God, yet is called tamim – pure or perfect – only after his circumcision (see Bereshit 17:1), and
- Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha who points to the strange malon story (see Shemot 4:24-26) where it appears that for all of his merits, Moshe is to be killed because he was lax in fulfilling the commandment of milah on his own son.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi disagrees with the approach put forward by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha, arguing that it impossible to suggest that Moshe would have avoided performing this mitzva. He suggests that Moshe deserved punishment mipnei she-nitasek ba-malon tehilah – because he first took care of the lodging arrangements. This explanation also appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi which says that he was punished because he did not immediately tend to the milah and concerned himself with the physical concerns of his hotel arrangements.
Some of the commentaries point out that this approach apparently does not accept the story that is related in a number of midrashim, which tell of a promise made by Moshe to his father-in-law, Yitro, the High Priest of Midian, agreeing that his first-born would not receive a brit, because were that the case then Moshe should have been punished for his willingness to accept an agreement that rejects milah entirely, and not for the relatively small matter of postponing it while traveling.