Genesis 21:4 (JPS) And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him.

Starting with Abraham, the Israelite men were circumcised and a boy at the eighth day after birth. It was commanded again in the desert through Moses.

Leviticus 12:3 (JPS) And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.

But the children born in the desert were not circumcised.

Joshua 5:5 (JPS) For all the people that came out were circumcised; but all the people that were born in the wilderness by the way as they came forth out of Egypt, had not been circumcised.

How is this possible? Did they disobey G-d and not circumcised their children in the desert?

  • I was suggested from C.SE to ask here.
    – Mawia
    Mar 21, 2013 at 4:36
  • 7
    Hi Mawia! You are always welcome to ask here. Just be aware answers here will rely on Jewish tradition when responding. (I don't know if that differs from Christian interpretation of this issue, but just FYI.)
    – Double AA
    Mar 21, 2013 at 4:41
  • I think the answer lies within verse 7: "And He raised up their children in their stead; them did Joshua circumcise; for they were uncircumcised, because they had not been circumcised by the way." These were the children of the men of war that came forth out of Egypt only, because their parents didn't hearkened not unto the voice of HaShem (see verse 6). Now see Bamidbar 14:31 and on.. HaShem explains what will happen to their children..
    – Levi
    Feb 2, 2018 at 15:42
  • The desert is clean.
    – Turk Hill
    Jun 16, 2020 at 15:23

6 Answers 6


According to Talmud (Yevamot 71–72) the reason circumcision was not practiced in the desert is:

  1. Because of the hardships of the way - a 40 year journey is no joke. Since is would have been dangerous for someone right after circumcision to get on the road, and they had no choice but to be on the road, they waited until the trek was over.
  2. Because there was no "northern wind" upon them. The northern wind is considered a cure and it would be dangerous to circumcise without this wind to cure them.

That said, another interesting source exists (פסיקתא דרב כהנא. I didn't have a chance to actually see it, but I've seen a few references to it). According to this source there was circumcision in the desert. The reference from Joshua is understood as using circumcision as an idiom to achieving a new, higher, level, usually spiritual. In Deuteronomy 10:16 an expression of "circumcising the heart" appears, being the basis of this explanation.

  • But the children born in the desert should have been circumcised on the eighth day. An eight days old boy need not walk on the road.
    – Mawia
    Mar 21, 2013 at 9:41
  • That's why there are two reasons.
    – sam
    Mar 21, 2013 at 13:26
  • 2
    During travel, the babies could be bumped and jostled. Additionally, there was a risk that a recuperating baby's need for extra care could be neglected in the haste of preparations for immediate travel; it was not so much that the people were continuously traveling, but rather they were liable to have to resume their travels by G-d's command at a moment's notice. | Additionally, Rashi writes that the people of Levi continued to circumcise their sons in the desert despite the risk (Rashi on D'varim 33:9).
    – Fred
    Mar 21, 2013 at 15:23
  • 3
    You forget how dangerous this was back in the days before antibiotics. Infection was common, and deadly. It's one thing to recuperate in a house with plenty of fresh water and ability to clean the wound, and another to try to do that while journeying.
    – Ariel
    Mar 21, 2013 at 22:17

An explanation I heard is that the 40 years in the desert was a utopian bubble, an unrealistic situation. The guaranteed manna, the constant supply of water, the protection of the cloud of glory, the absence of the need to work and a plethora of other miracles.
It explains why the 10 Spies desired to remain in the desert and not enter into the Land of Israel. (However, this expedition was only supposed to be an educational tool not the end goal.)
A Brit (Covenant) is when two parties join together and both promise to contribute. During these forty years G-d was the only one providing. The Jews were not required to do their part. This explains why the covenant of Brit Mila was not appropriate in the desert where only G-d was contributing. Only upon entering Israel, when the nation of Israel had to once again do their part, was it fitting for the Brit Mila ritual to be resumed.

  • 1
    Really nice try. I liked your direction. The problem is that the "The Jews were not required to do their part" part is totally wrong - they kept all the commandment (unless commanded differently), how could it be otherwise? What kind of Mitzvah is it - חפצא or גברא? Is the commandment to be circumcised or to perform the act of circ.? If you say an action - they performed many many action, like sacrifices, if you say to be circ' how could they not to keep Pesach and be like gentiles - that would throw them out of the clouds.
    – Al Berko
    Jan 31, 2018 at 19:54
  • I took your answer a bit further to develop that idea.
    – Al Berko
    Jan 31, 2018 at 19:55

Although not stated in scripture, is it possible that G-D commanded Moses not to circumcise the second generation until they had completed the 40 year trial in the desert because the first generation had broken covenant?

This occurrence happened just after Joshua had the people swear loyalty to G-d and Joshua's leadership. They then "consecrated themselves" and crossed over the Jordan, placing the 12 stones in Gilgal according to the command of G-d.

Perhaps now G-d deemed it time to renew His covenant with His people through the ritual circumcision.

  • 2
    This answer would be greatly enhanced if it would quote a reliable source. Aug 19, 2015 at 15:35
  • 1
    Sorry, Danny. Don't have a Talmudic source. But I usually am a bit skeptical of "naturalistic" answers for Bible mysteries. Saying that G-d permitted them to go uncircumcised because it would be dangerous for them seems to limit Him a bit. After all, He provided them with Manna until they cried out for meat and then He provided them quail. They drank from a rock and G-d furnished them clothing and shoes. Surely He could have kept them from infection. I like your other source's spiritual answer based on Deut 10:16 but in Joshua 5:7 we're told there was no circumcision in the desert. Aug 19, 2015 at 18:01
  • So using scripture as my guide, I look at Genesis 17:14 (sort of in reverse). G-d "cut them off" from His covenant due to their disobedience and only reinstated them at Gilgal when he "rolled back their reproach". Aug 19, 2015 at 18:08

I propose a different explanation: The covenant of circumcision was originally a covenant between G-d and Abraham, whereby G-d promised to make Abraham: 1) "extremely fruitful" and 2) to give his children "the land where you are residing" (i.e, the Promised Land) (Gen 17:6-14). G-d also told Abraham that this covenant would be a permanent one between G-d and Abraham's progeny for the generations; As for Abraham's part, he was to circumcise every male in his household (Gen 6:12-13).

BUT in the wilderness, we see that, because of the people's lack of faith in G-d (Gen 14:11), they were not allowed to cross into the Promised Land (Number 14:23), and, I would argue, thereby nullified (at least temporarily) the Abrahamic covenant and with it the obligation circumcision (why require them to circumcise themselves if they were unwilling to receive its benefit?). Since the children of Israel were unable to go into the Promised Land, G-d did not impose circumcision upon them as circumcision alone was a sign of obedience and contrition - which the Children of Israel were definitely not displaying when they "despised" G-d (Number 14:23). It was only after the next generation rose up and trusted in him enough to be obedient and cross the Jordan into the land of promise (and giants), would G-d be able to fulfill his promises to Abraham of fruitfulness and place. Thus only then would the covenant be re-ratified, and only then would the requirement of circumcision be required.

This is just as an aside, but one might be able to argue that, given G-d's telling Moses that he would destroy these people and make from Moses a new nation many times (Exodus 31:10, Numbers 14:12, Numbers 16:21; Deuteronomy 9:14), perhaps G-d did not require circumcision because he just wasn't sure whether they were going to make it out of the wilderness alive, thereby nullifying his promise to Abraham of fruitfulness, and once again negating the need for circumcision.


Let me propose a different explanation. I don't understand the Gemorah's Tirutzim, as the virtue of the Milah is so important, that it's inconceivable how could they stay in the clouds.

First, the idea of the Milah should be understood - why cut the Ohrleh (ערלה)? According to some sources (mostly Kabbalic), it accumulates all of the person's "filth" (זוהמה) during the 7 days since birth and must be cut (and handled properly) to avoid that filth to spread back to the whole body.

As many pointed out, the generation of the desert were totally different from our perception of humans (as the Gemorah concludes, they were as angels, relatively to us). They were totally secluded, eating the food of angels and drinking the water of the well. Hence, they had no "filth" to soil their bodies.

So, technically, they didn't need the circumcision, as long as they didn't have "the real food". Once that stopped at the end of the 40 years, they got "contaminated" and needed the circumcision.

  • 1
    Thank you, my bad, I will correct my answer. BTW how do you translate Tirutz? And what do you think of the big idea?
    – Al Berko
    Feb 1, 2018 at 17:44
  • Answers or excuses. The big idea is interesting, but would fly in the face of the actual mitzvah to perform milah on the eigth day. Perhaps provide a source with a link or a quote, which would likely make downvoters reevaluate. Feb 1, 2018 at 17:51
  • I explained the point of the 8th day also. It's like the argument on the Brocho on Man, if it's no "food" - there' no ניצוצות to work out and therefore no Brocho. Same here, if there's no זהמה - no need for Milah.
    – Al Berko
    Feb 1, 2018 at 18:33

Devarim 30:6 And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, [so that you may] love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.

Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness and he was circumcised after. May be our eternal uncreated father did not want those uncircumcised of heart to circumcise. May be the commands are for the circumcised of heart. In the exile we could not do what we wanted but when we confessed our sins and the sins of our fathers and returned we were able to keep the commands like in Nehemiah and Ezra

  • This verse is not typically understood to have anything to do with actual circumcision. See all the different commentaries there - it refers to the Teshuvah process. Can you please provide sources for your assertions in this post?
    – DonielF
    May 13, 2018 at 0:48
  • This does not answer the question and I do not understand what you are saying. May 13, 2018 at 2:24
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    – mbloch
    May 13, 2018 at 2:24
  • Genesis 15:6 "And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness". (he=Abraham) Later Abraham was circumcised -- Genesis 17:26 "In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son." Genesis 17:11 11 And ye shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of a covenant betwixt Me and you. Circimcision of the foreskin is a TOKEN of the covenant Deuteronomy 10:16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked. or as I quoted 30:6 And the Lord, your God, will circumcise your heart....
    – Doug
    May 14, 2018 at 18:46

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