Nedarim, Chapter Three, Mishnah Eleven

 

Introduction

This long mishnah actually contains several mishnayoth.  The first part begins with a definition of the terms “Children of Noah” and “Children of Abraham”.  The second part deals with vows not to benefit from Israelites and the third part deals with vows not to benefit from the uncircumcised or the circumcised.  The mishnah ends with an ode to the importance of circumcision in Judaism.   

 

Mishnah Eleven

1)                     [If one says,] “Konam that I do not benefit from the Children of Noah,” he may benefit from Israelites, and he is forbidden to benefit from the nations of the world.

a)                                           [If one says, “Konam] that I do not benefit from the seed of Abraham,” he is forbidden [to benefit] from Israelites, but permitted [to benefit] from the nations of the world.

2)                     [If one says, “Konam] that I do not benefit from Israelites”, he may buy things from them for more [than their worth] and sell them for less.  

a)                                           [If he says, “Konam] if Israelites benefit from me, he must buy from them for less and sell for more [than their worth], if they will listen to him.  

b)                                          [If he says, “Konam] that I do not benefit from them, nor they from me”, he may benefit only from non-Jews. 

3)                     [If one says,] “Konam that I do not benefit from the uncircumcised”, he may benefit from uncircumcised Israelites but not from circumcised heathens”;

a)                                           [If one says, “Konam] that I do not benefit from the circumcised,” he is forbidden to benefit from uncircumcised Israelites but not from circumcised non-Jews, because “uncircumcised” is a term applicable only to non-Jews, as it says, “For all the nations are uncircumcised and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart” (Jeremiah 9:25).

b)                                          And it says, “And this uncircumcised Philistine shall be [as one of them]” (I Samuel 17:6).

c)                                           And it says, “Lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult” (II Samuel 1:20). 

i)                                                        Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah says: The foreskin is loathsome, since it is a term of disgrace for the wicked, as it says, “For all the nations are uncircumcised”.

ii)                                                       Rabbi Ishmael says:  Great is circumcision, since thirteen covenants were made upon it. 

iii)                                                      Rabbi Yose says: Great is circumcision, for it overrides the Sabbath.  

iv)                                                      Rabbi Joshua ben Karha says: Great is circumcision for Moses’s punishment for neglecting it was not suspended even for one hour.

v)                                                       Rabbi Nehemiah says:  Great is circumcision, since it overrides the laws of leprosy.  

vi)                                                      Rabbi says:  Great is circumcision, for despite all of the commandments which Abraham fulfilled he was not designated complete until he circumcised himself, as it says, “Walk before me, and be complete” (Genesis 17:1).  

vii)                                                     Another explanation: “Great is circumcision, for were it not for it, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, would not have created the world, as it says, “Were it not for my covenant by day and night, I would not have appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth” (Jeremiah 33:35).

 

Explanation

Section one:  Technically speaking, all of humanity are the descendents of Noah, for only his family survived the flood.  However, the term “Children of Noah” refers to non-Jews (Noahides, as in the “Noahide commandments”) and not to Jews. 

Similarly, the “Seed of Abraham” could refer to Ishmaelites, Edomites (descendents of Esau).  However, it is taken as referring to Jews and not non-Jews.  We should note that descent, both physical and spiritual from Abraham was a “hot” issue in Mishnaic times, and we often find it being debated in early Christian texts.  In Christian texts we find Christian leaders telling Jews that although they are physical (carnal) descendents of Abraham, they are not his only spiritual descendents.  In our mishnah we sees rabbis claiming that only Jews are Abraham’s descendents; non-Jews, although some of them may trace their roots to Abraham, are not actually his descendents.  This polemic, which we may hear here between Jews and Christians, will sharpen at the end of this mishnah, which discusses the hottest topic between Jews and early Christians—the importance of circumcision.

Section two:  With regard to vows not to benefit from or give benefit to Israelites, the mishnah interprets these vows minimally.  One who says that he will not benefit from Israelites is still allowed to buy from them, provided he pay more than the fair price, and sell to them, provided he buy at a higher price.  Because he loses out, he is not considered as benefiting from them.  One who says that he will not give benefit to Israelites, is still permitted to buy, but only at a price lower than the going rate, and sell, but only at a price higher than the going rate.  Of course, in the latter case it will be more difficult to get someone to agree to do so with him.  The only one who is totally prohibited from buying from or selling to Israelites is one who vows not to benefit from or give benefit to them.  This person could only conduct business with non-Jews.

Section three:  The term “circumcised” refers to Jews, even to those Jews who are not circumcised, for either legitimate or illegitimate reasons.  The term “uncircumcised” refers to non-Jews, even to those non-Jews who did circumcise (it is known that some non-Jews did practice circumcision, for instance Arabs and Egyptians).  As a prooftext Jeremiah 9:25 is brought.  According to this verse non-Jews are uncircumcised, no matter whom they are.  Israelites, however, are circumcised in their foreskins, even if they are not always circumcised in their hearts.  We should again note that there may exist a polemic in this mishnah with early Christianity.  In Acts 7:51, Stephen says “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart”. In Romans 2:29, Paul says, “Rather, a real person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.”  We can clearly see the distinction between the Jews and the Christians (who, of course, claimed at the time to be the true Jews).  The Jews admit, based on Jeremiah, that they are not necessarily “uncircumcised of the heart”.  A Jew still must strive to be better and to obey God’s commands.  However, the validity of real circumcision (of the foreskin) is not lessened
at all.  Indeed, as a sign of God’s covenant, it is the primary commandment.  It was certainly, the greatest distinguishing sign between Jew and non-Jew, both in the ancient world and to this day. 

Section four:  The mishnah now brings seven statements that emphasize the importance of circumcision.

1.  The first of these statements connects to the verse used above from Jeremiah.  This is the bridge to the rest of the mishnah.

2.                  In Genesis 17, the word “berith”, covenant, as in “berith milah”, the “covenant of circumcision”, is stated thirteen times.

3.                  Circumcision may be performed on the Sabbath, even though it involves the cutting of the flesh which is otherwise prohibited on the Sabbath.

4.                  In Exodus 4:24, on his way back to Egypt, despite Moses’s great merits, and despite the fact that God had just instructed him to lead the people out of Egypt, God almost kills him for not having circumcised his son. 

5.                  Normally, one may not cut off a spot of leprosy (see Deuteronomy 24:8).  However, if the spot of leprosy appears on the foreskin, it may be cut off.

6.                  Only after circumcision is Abraham called “complete”. 

7.                  This verse mentions a covenant kept day and night.  The midrash states that this must refer to circumcision, which exists on a person’s body both day and night.  Indeed, were it not for this important commandment, God would not have created the world.

There is little doubt in my mind that this long mishnah is aimed either at early Christians who denied the importance of physical circumcision, or at Hellenizing Jews, who refused to circumcise themselves, or “uncircumcised” themselves.  Romans often forbade circumcision, and these statements, which may be slightly exaggerated, are meant to encourage Jews to maintain this commandment, one which would not have been easy, for both physical and social reasons, in the ancient world. 

 

 

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