Rabbi Mirvis' Archive

In today’s Sidra we read how Hashem appeared to Abraham after his Brit. To this day we recall “the covenant of Abraham our father” at a Brit ceremony. The mohel, in his blessing, says “…al hamilah” (upon the performance of circumcision), while the father says “…lehachniso bivrito shel Avraham Avinu” (to bring the baby into the covenant of our father Abraham).

Now, for blessings over mitzvot we either say al (upon) e.g. al netilat yadayim,   al biur chametz,  al mikra megilla, or we say le (to do) e.g. leishev basukkah, la‘asok bedivrei Torah. Why is there this difference and why, at a Brit, does the mohel recite his blessing with al, while the father recites his with le?

This very question was asked in a tragic setting. In 1941, the Jews of Kovno were herded to the 9th Fort, where they were to be brutally killed. A man approached a Rabbi and asked this moving sha’ala: “Just before I am killed, what beracha should I recite: …lekadesh et Hashem (to sanctify Hashem) or .. .al kiddush Hashem (upon the sanctification of Hashem)?”

The Rabbi replied, “We recite le for precepts that others can do on our behalf (e.g. shofar, Shabbat candles, affixing a mezuzah), while we say al for precepts we must perform for ourselves (e.g. washing hands, counting the Omer, eating matzah). When dying in sanctification of Hashem’s name, no one can do it for you. Therefore, you must recite ‘al kiddush Hashem.’ ”

This discussion reveals the remarkable depth of faith of both the questioner and the Rabbi, who carved out for themselves an elevated majestic destiny in the midst of their unbearable fate.

Yet, the Rabbi’s answer does not fit for all cases. Others explain that we recite al for precepts which are completed immediately (e.g. eating matzah and maror, washing hands, counting the Omer), while we say le when we commence a process (e.g. studying Torah, dwelling in a sukkah, lighting the Chanukah candles, which must burn for at least half an hour).

This answer sheds light on our practice at a Brit and the depth of its symbolism. The mohel says al because his task will be completed immediately. The parents, however, are only starting a process whereby they will raise their child to be a good Jew. Therefore, the father says le. Indeed, guiding and influencing our children are lifelong parental tasks!