May a woman be a mohelet?
Although women are not circumcised, they are members of the covenant that the Jewish people, have with God:
“You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God.. all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the stranger that is in your camp… that you enter into covenant with the Lord your God…” (Deut. 29:10-12).
Men, women, children; Jews by birth and Jews by choice, are all part of the brit. In other words, we must distinguish between the brit and the milah. Women do not have a milah; they are most definitely part of the brit.
May then a woman perform the milah? A woman, in fact, acted as a mohelet at a critical juncture in the story of the exodus. In what is one of the more mysterious episodes in the Torah, Tzipporah seizes a flint and cuts off her son’s foreskin, averting the danger threatening his life. It would seem from this that a woman may serve as a mohelet. However, the gemara suggests that the verse could be read (with a bit of stretch) to mean that Tzipporah began the process but Moshe came and completed the circumcision (Avodah Zarah 27a). This reading allows the gemara to argue that a woman’s capacity to do milah is a matter of debate between the Amoraim.
What is the reason to invalidate a woman as a mohelet? Interestingly, the basis for arguing that a woman may not serve as a mohelet is not because she herself is not circumcised. For the gemara, circumcision is such a central marker of Jewish identity, that all Jews are considered circumcised. So why is a woman ineligible to perform milah? The view in the gemara that declares women ineligible for this mitzvah is rooted in her own exemption from the mitzvah; since she is not obligated to circumcise her son, she may not perform the mitzvah act of circumcision. This is a halakhic principle that applies to a small number of mitzvot, that someone who is not obligated in a mitzvah may be ineligible for creating the mitzvah object or performing the mitzvah act (see Menahot 42a, SA OH 14:1).
Thus far, we have identified a number of distinct dimensions of circumcision. It is: (a) a sign on men’s bodies of a covenant which includes men and women; (b) an identity marker, conceptually for all Jews and bodily for men; and (c) a mitzvah.
These three dimensions reflect three of the four places where circumcision is mentioned in the Torah. God gives Avraham the commandment of circumcision, opening with the words:
“And now, you shall keep my covenant, brit” (Gen. 17:9).
Here circumcision is a sign of the covenant; only here do the words brit and milah appear together.
The second occurrence is when the brothers of Dina tell Shehem that they cannot give their sister in marriage to
“a man who has a foreskin, for it is a shame to us” (Gen. 34:14).
Here circumcision acts as an identity marker; its absence marks Shehem’s people as “other” and prevents them from becoming “one people.” This is the reason that circumcision for males is an essential part of the conversion process, of identifying as a member of the Jewish people.
The third time circumcision is mentioned in the Torah is in the purity laws related to childbirth where the Torah states succinctly:
“And on the eighth day you shall circumcise the flesh of his foreskin” (Lev. 12:3).
This is the mitzvah of circumcision, plain and simple.
But what about our story with Tzipporah? Where does that fit in? This story introduces a new dimension that appears nowhere else: the role of blood. Tzipporah mentions blood two times, directly connecting blood to circumcision (“a bridegroom of blood, of circumcision”, Ex. 4:25).
While the blood of circumcision takes on great significance later on in Jewish history, it is important to note that it is never mentioned as a necessary part of the milah ceremony in the Talmud. The only place that where blood is mentioned are the cases of: (a) a boy born without a foreskin who might require hatafat dam brit, releasing the blood of the covenant due to concerns that there is a “buried foreskin” and (b) a circumcised man who is converting; the act of releasing blood serves as the ritual needed for conversion (Shabbat 134a). When a brit milah is done to an uncircumcised boy, there is no indication that the extracting of blood has halakhic or religious significance.
Later on, the blood of circumcision took on both halakhic weight and religious meaning. From a halakhic point of view, many poskim believe that circumcision without extracting blood, dam brit, is invalid. It is for this reason that certain clamps may not be used: they cut off the blood flow to the foreskin so that no blood emerges from the cut. This is also why metzizah bi’peh is important to many Haredim. Though the Talmud depicts it solely as a health measure, it takes on significance as a milah blood-ritual.
The blood of circumcision may also stand in for the act of circumcision when the latter is not possible. For example, if a circumcision was performed before the eighth day or by someone who is ineligible to serve as a mohel, some poskim rule that a hatafat dam brit may serve as a substitute for the mitzvah of milah.
The religious significance of the blood of circumcision is not hard to locate. Tzipporah circumcises her son and saves him from the Divine force that threatened his life. On the night of the Exodus, blood again saves people from death. The blood of the Pesah sacrifice – a sacrifice linked to circumcision (“no uncircumcised man can eat from it”) – was placed on the doorposts and lintel and protected those in the house from the Divine forces that had been unleashed. The blood of circumcision, like the blood of a sacrifice, has the power to protect and save. This theme is evoked at the milah ceremony when we recite the verse,
“And I said to you, in your blood, live; in your blood, live.” (Ezek. 16:6).
So what does all this mean for women? First, the focus on blood allows us to consider the possibility of dam brit for women. R. Yosef Bekhor Shor (France, 12th century) writes:
“the blood of menstruation (dam niddah) that women observe… this is for them covenantal blood (dam brit)” (commentary to Gen. 17:11).
Menstruation is the central signifier of a woman’s fertility. Menstrual blood, like circumcision blood, is fundamental to the force of life. The observance of the laws of niddah is then an ongoing, embodied sign of the covenant.
What about women as mohalot? The general consensus is that a woman is eligible to serve in this capacity, however, she should only do so if there is no qualified man available (SA YD 264:1). Though a woman is eligible, there remains a preference for a man. The reason is never fully articulated, but we can surmise that it goes back to the circumcision of the flesh. Halakhah rules that women may do the act of circumcision because it is “as if they circumcised.” And yet, women are not actually circumcised. In the end, while this difference remains, and it is expressed in the hierarchy of who eligibility to serve as a mohel/et, the central aspects of brit, identity, and covenental blood central to Tzipporah’s act are shared by all, men and women alike.