This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every male throughout your generations. . . . and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant.

(Genesis 17:10–3)


Sages tell us that Abraham and other patriarchs knew the Torah prophetically before it was given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai some 364 years after the Akeida took place.[1] Moreover, sages tell us that Abraham “observed” all of the Torah commandments. However, Abraham’s observance of the Torah commandments was very different from ours. We perform most of the Torah precepts with physical objects, whereas Abraham, as well as Isaac and Jacob, performed these commandments on a spiritual level by meditating on their inner meaning.

G‑d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself at the age of 99. If Abraham “kept” all of the Torah commandments, why did he wait until G‑d told him to do it? Why did he not circumcise himself earlier? According to the teachings of the Chasidic philosophy of Chabad, the commandment of circumcision is the sign of the covenant, and a covenant requires two parties. Had Abraham circumcised himself sua sponte (on his own initiative), this would be a one-sided covenant—which is not a covenant at all. He needed G‑d to command him to do so, to make it a bilateral covenant. Moreover, had Abraham circumcised himself based on his own limited understanding, which is limited, the covenant would have been limited as well. In contrast, a covenant initiated by the Eternal G‑d is eternal and unbreakable.

However, if Abraham followed all other commandments not literally (not physically), but rather in the mode of contemplation, might he not also have observed the commandment of circumcision as he meditated on the inner meaning of circumcision as the circumcision of the heart, that is, removing spiritual insensitivity and coarseness from the heart) rather than as the physical act of circumcision?

The overarching reason for not performing commandments physically was that, at that point in history, the performance of a Torah commandment would not change the nature of any physical object with which it was performed. Heaven and earth—the spiritual and the physical—existed on two parallel levels that did not intersect.

The Torah opens in Genesis 1:1 with the creation of heaven and earth:

In the beginning G‑d created the heaven and the earth.

As we discussed earlier, some classical biblical commentators interpret this verse as the creation of the spiritual (the heavens) and the physical (the earth). The two were separate and distinct. G‑d decreed that spiritual and physical ought not to mix. They can touch (such as when the soul enters the body), but one cannot affect the other. The spiritual remains spiritual, and the physical remains physical. This idea is expressed explicitly by King David:

The heavens are the heavens of the Eternal; but the earth hath He given to the children of men. (Psalms 115:16)

At that point, humankind was not given the ability to bring heaven down to earth, that is, to infuse holiness into mundane or to uplift earthly matters toward heaven, that is, to rectify coarse physical matter to make it holy.[2] The realms of the spiritual and the physical existed in parallel, but without affecting each other.

One can think of the physical and the spiritual (that is, the nonphysical) as two parallel universes.

As we discussed in more detail in the earlier post, “Abraham Meets Abraham From a Parallel Universe,” one of the main differences between the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the parallel-universes interpretation is this: the many-worlds interpretation does not allow any exchange of information between different branches of the universe, whereas the parallel-universes interpretation allows for the occasional interference of two parallel universes, such as the interference that occurs during a double-slit experiment.

Therefore, we could say that, before Abraham’s circumcision, the world was in the state of many-worlds, whereby the two main branches of the universe, the physical and the spiritual, never mixed. After Abraham’s circumcision, the world transitioned into the state analogous to parallel universes where physical and spiritual can interfere with each other. This will be seen more vividly later, in the story of the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai, where the Torah speaks of G‑d descending to the mountain and Moses ascending to the summit of the mountain that is seen as an allegory of the spiritual and the physical meeting together. The act of circumcision, a mitzvah (“Divine commandment”) performed on a physical body, transforming and sanctifying that body, was the first intersection of the spiritual and the physical—the first interference of these parallel universes. In fact, the word mitzvah itself means a “connection”—a connection between the Divine and the mundane.

The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai would usher a new era empowering humankind to rectify the coarse physical nature of this world by sanctifying it through the mitzvot (“Torah commandments”). Abraham was the first human to taste the future when he circumcised himself after having been commanded by G‑d to do so. This was the first time when a spiritual act—the act of carrying out G‑d’s will—changed the nature of the physical matter upon which it was performed. In this case, the act of circumcision sanctified Abraham’s body to become the Chariot of G‑d. From the point of view of quantum mechanics, this was the first instance of interference between the spiritual and the physical universes, which heretofore existed parallel to each other with no interaction between them.



[1] The Akeida took place in AM 2084 (anno mundi—from Creation, or 1677 BCE); the Torah was given in AM 2448 (1313 BCE), 364 years later. However, opinions differ about the date of the Akeida.

[2] Ordinary unrectified matter is a barrier to the Divine light, whereas sanctified matter becomes a conduit for it. By way of illustration, a rough diamond does not sparkle. It needs to be “rectified,” that is, freed of all imperfections and inclusions, and polished to conduct light and to sparkle. Similarly, matter needs to be rectified, purified, and polished by preparing it for and dedicating it to the Divine purpose to make it a conduit of the Divine light.