Revealing a Tefach and Covering a Tefach

The Secret Kavanah of Brit Milah (Part 1)

We accept the mitzvah of brit milah without question. Even some of the outwardly less-observant members of our nation, for example, those who desecrate the kedushah of Shabbat without even the slightest pang of conscience, would never imagine not performing brit milah on behalf of their eight-day old son. And yet, even though the mitzvah of brit milah is firmly ingrained in the soul of our nation, how many of us, even those of us who appear to be among the outwardly more-observant members of our nation, have any real understanding about the intent of this mitzvah? What is its purpose and what does it mean to fulfill the mitzvah of brit milah throughout our lives?

Tzaddik Yesod Olam

Yosef ben Yaakov is known as ‘the Tzaddik’. Why is this? It is written in the Zohar ha-Kadosh (Parashat Mikeitz 194b): רִבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אָמַר עַד לָא אֵירַע לְיוֹסֵף הַהוּא עוֹבָדָא לָא אִקְרֵי צַדִּיק. כֵּיוָן דְּנָטַר הַהוּא בְּרִית קַיָּימָא אִקְרֵי צַדִּיק וְהַהוּא דַּרְגָּא דִּבְרִית קַדִּישָׁא אִתְעַטַּר בַּהֲדֵיהּ (R’ Shimon said, Before the incident [with Potiphar’s wife] happened to Yosef, he wasn’t called [by the epithet] ‘Tzaddik’. When he guarded the eternal covenant [i.e. the kedushah of his brit milah], he was called ‘Tzaddik’, and that level of the holy covenant decorated him). What does the Rashbi mean by saying that the level [that he had achieved regarding] the holy covenant ‘decorated’ him? It means that after Yosef passed the test by repeatedly refusing the advances of Potiphar’s wife, he became a fitting ‘chariot’ for the sefirah of yesod, the sixth sefirah in the partzuf known as Ze’ir Anpin (which is comprised of chesed, gevurah, tiferet, netzach, hod and yesod). In other words, not only would he be forever known as ‘the Tzaddik’, but he would also be forever associated with the sefirah of yesod. We see from this statement of the Rashbi that the essence of the light of yesod is revealed in one who is shomer brit to the utmost degree. We also understand this from Mishlei 10:25: כַּעֲבוֹר סוּפָה וְאֵין רָשָׁע וְצַדִּיק יְסוֹד עוֹלָם (When the storm passes, the rasha is gone, but the tzaddik is the yesod of the world).

In other words, the purpose of the mitzvah of brit milah is to facilitate one’s ability to become and remain shomer brit throughout one’s life, and that this shemirah is itself the fundamental meaning of the concept of holiness, i.e. kedushah, that protects the sanctity of the ‘holy’ people.

What is included in the mitzvah of being shomer brit? Most of us know that it includes not wasting seed, not touching one’s brit, and guarding one’s eyes from seeing any woman outside of the immediate family. We have written about these things before. In this article, we wish to broaden our understanding beyond these well-trodden paths and seek to gain an even deeper and broader perspective of the secret intention behind brit milah.

Six Tefachim of an Amah

In lashon kodesh, there is no proper name for the male organ; however, in Aramaic it is called amah. There are different sources for this, but see, for example, Shabbat 108b where R’ Mona taught יָד לָאַמָּה תִּיקָּצֵץ (the hand that touches one’s amah should be cut off).

Why would the male member be called an amah? An amah is a unit of length measuring six tefachim (see Eruvin 3b for a more comprehensive discussion of the length of the amah). In modern units, this is approximately half a meter! So why on earth would Chazal call the male member by the term amah? The answer is that we are dealing with a spiritual concept, not a physical one. The amah corresponds to Ze’ir Anpin (the ‘male’ aspect of G-d that we refer to when we use the title Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu) and the six tefachim corresponds to the six sefirot of Ze’ir Anpin. Therefore, just as an amah is composed of six tefachim, so too Ze’ir Anpin is composed of six sefirot. And the sefirah that directly corresponds to the male organ, i.e. the sefirah of yesod, is the sixth sefirah, and therefore, contains all of the light of the other five. When we speak of yesod, we must think of chesed, gevurah, tiferet, etc. since it comes to include all of them. The practical application of this fact is that when we learn to become shomer brit, we simultaneously learn how to exhibit the lights of chesed, gevurah, tiferet, etc. in our lives. This is the essence of being shomer brit and the reason why the male organ is called by the epithet amah.

In the year that King Uzziyahu died, Yeshayah experienced visions of Heaven. He wrote down a brief summary of what he saw and heard. Here is a snippet of that description (Yeshayah 6:2): שְׂרָפִים עֹמְדִים  מִמַּעַל לוֹ שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם שֵׁשׁ כְּנָפַיִם לְאֶחָד בִּשְׁתַּיִם  יְכַסֶּה פָנָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְכַסֶּה רַגְלָיו וּבִשְׁתַּיִם יְעוֹפֵף (Seraphim were standing over Him; each one had six ‘wings’, with two he covered his face, with two he covered his feet and with two he flew [when on an errand for Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu]). What does this have to do with our topic? Based on a passage from the Zohar (see Pinchas 236a), R’ Nachman teaches in Likutei Moharan 63 that these six ‘wings’ also correspond to the six sefirot. Therefore, these six ‘wings’ correspond to the six tefachim of the amah, which we have also seen correspond to brit milah. Therefore, the mitzvah of brit milah i.e. being shomer brit, includes three aspects (covering of the face, covering of the feet, and flying) that have to do with serving Hashem, for this is the meaning of the phrase that the ‘seraphim were standing over Him’, i.e. they were prepared and ready to serve Him. By understanding these three aspects, i.e. the three different functions of the ‘wings’, we will gain not only a deeper understanding of the mitzvah of brit milah, but more importantly, we will gain a more complete picture of what it means to be shomer brit. As we will see, the first of the three components has to do with one’s relationship with oneself, the second one with one’s relationship with others, and the third one with one’s relationship with Hashem.

The Gemara brings down an important teaching from Imma Shalom, the wife of R’ Eliezer ben Hurkanos, regarding the supreme level of modesty exhibited by her husband during marital relations. She states, in part, that he מְגַלֶּה טֶפַח וּמְכַסֶּה טֶפַח (reveals a tefach and covers a tefach). For those interested in learning the halachic ramifications of his behavior, we refer you to the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 240:8 where you can study the practical applications of this in detail. Here, we want to focus on Likutei Moharan 63 and the three aspects of being shomer brit that we have enumerated above. What’s the connection? Specifically, for each of the three aspects which each encompass two tefachim, we now learn that there is a different function for each of the two tefachim. With one tefach there is an aspect of revealing and with the other tefach there is an aspect of covering.

Two Wings that Cover the Face

What’s the connection between tefach and face? R’ Nachman states כִּי פָּנִים הוּא בְּחִינוֹת וְטָפַח לוֹ עַל פָּנָיו (The ‘face’ corresponds to ‘and it hit [tafach] him on his face’). What is R’ Nachman talking about? He is referencing a statement in the Gemara (Baba Kamma 32b): תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן הַנִּכְנָס לַחֲנוּתוֹ שֶׁל נַגָּר שֶׁלֹּא בִּרְשׁוּת וְנִתְּזָה בְּקַעַת וְטָפְחָה עַל פָּנָיו וָמֵת פָּטוּר וְאִם נִכְנַס בִּרְשׁוּת חַיָּיב (The Sages taught: someone who entered a carpenter’s shop without permission, and a chip of wood flew off and hit [tafechah] him on his face and he died, [the carpenter] is exempt, but if he entered with his permission, he is liable). The specific halachic details of this statement are not our focus. Our point, as brought out in L.M. 63, is that the word translated ‘hit’ is tafechah, essentially the same word as tefach. In other words, ‘face’ is connected to tefach, which connects the image of a seraph covering his face with two wings with two tefachim of the amah.

As we mentioned above, the tzaddik who is the yesod of the world exemplifies brit kodesh perfectly. One aspect of this has to do with the two tefachim that cover the face, one that actually covers and one that reveals. What does this mean? It means that there are two aspects to one’s relationship with oneself that are critical to develop if one is to gain total control over his yesod. And these two aspects of ‘face’ that a tzaddik must master have to do with an aspect of ‘anger’ and an aspect of ‘favor’ (L.M. 63): כִּי פָּנִים לְשׁוֹן כַּעַס כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: “פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ” וְגַם פָּנִים לְשׁוֹן רָצוֹן וְהַשְׁגָּחַת הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ כְּמוֹ שֶׁכָּתוּב: יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ (‘Face’ connotes anger, as it is written [Shemot 33:14]: ‘My face will pass from you’. But ‘face’ also connotes favor and the Providence of Hashem, may He be blessed, as it is written [Bamidbar 6:26]: ‘May Hashem shine His face upon you’). Let’s unpack this statement a little bit.

After the sin of the golden calf, Hashem was ‘angry’ with His people. This means that He withdrew His ‘face’ of favor and grace, and showed them His ‘face’ of anger instead. Moshe Rabbeinu stood in the breach and interceded for the people. The Gemara teaches (Berachot 7a): וְאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי יוֹסֵי: מִנַּיִן שֶׁאֵין מְרַצִּין לוֹ לְאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת כַּעְסוֹ, דִּכְתִיב: ״פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ״. אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמֹשֶׁה: הַמְתֵּן לִי עַד שֶׁיַּעַבְרוּ פָּנִים שֶׁל זַעַם וְאָנִיחַ לְךָ (R’ Yochanan said in the name of R’ Yosi, From where do we learn that one must not try to appease someone when he is angry? For it is written [Shemot 33:14]: ‘My face will go and I will give you rest.’ Ha-Kadosh baruch Hu, said to Moshe, ‘Wait for Me until My face of wrath passes, and then I will give you rest.’). So we see from this that one aspect of ‘face’ connotes anger. But ‘face’ can also signify favor as we saw from the words of Birkat Kohanim also quoted above (Bamidbar 6:26).

Now we have the necessary pieces in place in order to explain how the tzaddik (and by extension, anyone who desires to fulfill the mitzvah of brit milah to the utmost) ‘reveals a tefach and covers a tefach‘ when it comes to his relationship to himself.

Sometimes Hashem is ‘angry’ at His people, and to satisfy the ‘Attribute of Justice’, i.e. middat ha-din, He must show His people the face of anger. However, Hashem is not angry with the tzaddik, for he is someone who is the perfection of beauty, who guards his brit kodesh faithfully; therefore, the tzaddik voluntarily offers to exchange, so to speak, the bounty and Providence that by right should flow to him with the din that by right should flow to his people. He does this by accepting upon himself suffering and disgrace. This is why the aspect of ‘face’ relates to one’s relationship with oneself. Its all about one’s humility and lowliness, the willingness to be moser nefesh, to lay down one’s life and the comforts of one’s life for the benefit of others. The tzaddik voluntarily receives the ‘face’ of anger, which is the aspect of ‘covering a tefach‘, i.e. he covers the ‘face’ of bounty and blessing by accepting suffering which he doesn’t rightly deserve. And since his rightly-deserved flow of abundance and bounty from Hashem has to go somewhere, so to speak, instead of it being received by the tzaddik, it gets dispersed to others. The nation as a whole receives the ‘face’ of favor as a result of the tzaddik’s actions, which are the aspect of ‘revealing a tefach.’ So, simultaneously, there is a revealing of a tefach and a covering of a tefach.

Two Wings that Cover the Feet

This is the aspect of brit milah that has to do with one’s relationship with others. How do we know? What’s the connection between tefach and feet? On the same page in the Gemara where we saw the connection between tefach and face, we see a connection between tefach and the foot. We won’t get into the contextual details of this reference here, for those who are interested can look it up on their own (Baba Kamma 32b): טְפַח לֵיהּ רָבָא בְּסַנְדָּלֵיהּ (Rava hit [tefach] him [Rav Shimi] with [or ‘on’] his sandal). Whatever Rava actually did to Rav Shimi, whether he hit him with his sandal, or whether he hit Rav Shimi’s sandal with his hand, is not our point (for Rashi states both possibilities). Our point is that the word translated ‘hit’ is tefach, which is essentially the same as tefach, one-sixth of an amah. In other words, foot connected to tefach which connects the image of a seraph covering his feet with two wings with two tefachim of the amah.

Describing the tzaddik, it is stated in L.M. 63: כִּי לִפְעָמִים הוּא אֵצֶל הָעוֹלָם בְּחִינַת מְגַלֶּה שֶׁמְּגַלֶּה וּמְקָרֵב עַצְמוֹ אֲלֵיהֶם וְלִפְעָמִים הוּא בְּחִינַת מְכַסֶּה שֶׁנִּתְכַּסֶּה וְנִתְעַלֵּם מֵהֶם, שֶׁמִּתְרַחֵק מֵהֶם מְאֹד. וְלֹא דַּי שֶׁמִּתְרַחֵק מֵהֶם וּמִתְרוֹמֵם מֵהֶם וְאֵינָם יְכוֹלִים לְהִתְקָרֵב אֵלָיו אֶלָּא שֶׁנּוֹפְלִים עָלָיו קֻשְׁיוֹת וּתְמִיהוֹת עַד שֶׁנִּתְעַקֵּם וְנִתְבַּלְבֵּל מֹחָם מֵחֲמַת שֶׁנִּתְרַחֵק מֵהֶם מְאֹד וְקָשֶׁה עָלָיו קֻשְׁיוֹת וּפְלִיאוֹת וְזֶה בְּחִינַת מְכַסֶּה טֶפַח (Sometimes he relates to the world through the aspect of ‘revealing’, that he reveals himself and draws close to them, and sometimes he [relates to the world through] the aspect of ‘covering’, that he covers and hides himself from them and distances himself from them a great deal. And [sometimes] it may not be sufficient to distance himself from them and be aloof from them, not being able to bring them close to him, but rather he becomes the object of questions and perplexities so much so that others get all twisted up and confused in their minds because he distances himself from them greatly, and they question and wonder about him. And this [last aspect of ‘covering’] is the aspect of ‘covering a tefach‘).

We also see the connection between feet and one’s relationship with others in how Moshe Rabbeinu described the Egyptians to Pharaoh (Shemot 11:8): כׇל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר־בְּרַגְלֶיךָ (all the people who are at your feet). Rashi explains the meaning of these words as הַהוֹלְכִים אַחַר עֲצָתְךָ וְהִלּוּכְךָ (those who follow your counsel [advice] and ways). In other words, when the tzaddik reveals a tefach, he draws people toward his counsel. When he covers a tefach, he not only makes it difficult for people to follow his counsel, he makes it difficult for people to know his counsel!

So we see that there are two tefachim that cover the feet, i.e. there is a ‘revealing a tefach and covering a tefach’, which correspond to the two aspects of one’s interaction with others. There are times when one must reveal oneself, thus allowing oneself to get close to others (and they to him), and there are times when one must hide oneself, thus making it very difficult for others to draw near. Not only that, but there are times when one must hide oneself to such an extent that it causes troubling questions to fall upon others. This is not a simple matter. Not only must a tzaddik be able to control himself to achieve these two apparently opposites goals, he must also know when to reveal himself and when to cover himself. And perhaps more importantly, he must have the wherewithal, the strength of character, to be able to stand strong in the face of the questions and confusion that will be directed toward him by others from time to time.

Thus far, based on the astonishing insights of R’ Nachman from Breslov in Likutei Moharan 63, we have explained the meaning of four of the six tefachim of the amah of the brit kodesh and the secret intention of the mitzvah of brit milah. In next week’s issue, we hope to elucidate the meaning of the final two tefachim of this amah, the two wings by means of which one flies.

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