Bnei Ketura and the Jews

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jared Anstandig.

The ritual of brit milah, circumcision, represents something more significant than a mere ethnic marker of the Jewish people. It serves as a sign of the relationship that our people possess with God. It finds its biblical roots in the end of Parashat Lech Lecha, when God commands Avraham and his offspring to be circumcised.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin 59a-b wonders about the extent of this sign and marker. We know that the son Avraham had through Sarah (Yitzchak) required brit milah. Does the requirement to circumcise extend to the rest of Avraham’s offspring?

“מילה מעיקרא לאברהם הוא דקא מזהר ליה רחמנא “ואתה את בריתי תשמר אתה וזרעך אחריך לדרתם

,אתה וזרעך – אין, איניש אחרינא – לא

.אלא מעתה בני ישמעאל לחייבו

.(כי “ביצחק יקרא לך זרע” (כא:יב

.בני עשו לחייבו

.ביצחק, ולא כל יצחק

מתקיף לה רב אושעיא: אלא מעתה בני קטורה לא לחייבו? האמר רבי יוסי בר אבין ואיתימא רבי יוסי בר חנינא: “ואת בריתי הפר” (יז:יד) – לרבות בני קטורה

Initially, God warned only Avraham about circumcision, as it says, “And as for you, My covenant you shall keep, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.”

“You and your offspring” are obligated. Others are not.

If so, then the sons of Yishmael should be obligated!

They are not obligated, because the pasuk states, “For in Isaac the offspring will be called yours.”

If so, then the sons of Esav should be obligated!

They are not, because the pasuk says “In Isaac” which implies not all of Isaac’s children.

Rav Oshiya challenged: If so, then the sons of Ketura should not be obligated! Yet Rabbi Yosi bar Avin, and some say Rabbi Yosi bar Chanina, said that when the pssuk states, “And they broke my covenant,” that includes Bnei Ketura, the sons of Ketura.

The Gemara moves through the children of Avraham, delineating who is included in the mitzva of brit milah. The Gemara acknowledges that the children of Yishmael and Esav don’t make the cut. By contrast, the sons of Ketura, Avraham’s final wife (Breishit 25:1), are included in the obligation.

Rashi on this Gemara defines the referent of Bnei Ketura as the six sons born from the union of Avraham and Ketura found in Breishit 25:2 – Zimran, Yokshan, Medan, Midyan, Yishbak, and Shuach. According to Rashi, their circumcision does not necessarily reflect their inclusion in God’s covenant with Avraham. Rather, this could be the application of Avraham’s requirement to circumcise all the male members of his household (see Breishit 17:9).

Rambam’s approach in Hilchot Melachim 10:7-8, however, views this Gemara with more far-reaching implications. According to Rambam, when the Gemara includes Bnei Ketura in the obligation, it means all of her male offspring, including their descendants.

This Rambam leads us to wonder about the meaning of brit milah. Why should Bnei Ketura bear a sign of the covenant between God and our people, one of which they are not members? At first glance this is hardly significant to Judaism today. Yet, as we look at the ramifications of Rambam’s ruling, we see relevance.

On the level of halacha, what would be required of the circumcised Ben Ketura who comes to convert to Judaism? Would we require him to undergo another brit milah (actualized through the ritual procedure of drawing blood, hatafat dam brit)? Does his original circumcision reflect inclusion in our relationship with God on some level, exempting him from any additional actions? Or does his circumcision have no bearing on the Jewish covenant, necessitating a full conversion?

On a theological level, does this Rambam indicate that brit milah means something more than a sign of God’s covenant with the Avot, since Bnei Ketura are obligated too? What impact do Bnei Ketura have on our relationship with God?

One cannot include Bnei Ketura in our covenant extending through Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Nonetheless, they appear to play a role in our covenant, and investigating their relationship with God sheds light on ours.

Jared Anstandig (SBM ’11) is from West Bloomfield, MI, and is currently in his third year of RIETS.


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