Some time in the early 1900s, R. Aharon Shmuel Lichtig of Krakow posed a halachic inquiry to the Galician Torah scholar, Rabbi Meir Arik (1855-1925).
A man in his 30s wished to convert to Judaism, and the question arose if it would be permitted for him to receive a bris milah (circumcision) while under local anesthetic.
Rabbi Arik referred to a passage in the Talmud (Bava Kamma 85a) which states that it is possible to administer a drug or anesthetic before severing a hand, to minimize the pain.
While this passage is not discussing Bris Milah, Rabbi Arik infers from here that anesthesia was available and used during Talmudic times. Since there are no instances in the Talmud or later halachic texts of anesthesia being used for circumcision, it must be that it is not permitted.
Rabbi Arik concludes that just like when Abraham circumcised himself he experienced pain, so too, every bris milah must be accompanied by pain.
Enter Rabbi Yisrael Veltz of Budapest, who asked a similar question to Rabbi Yehudah Leib Tzirelson (1859-1941), chief rabbi of Bessarabia.
This case involved a 5-year-old boy who, due to weakness, had never received a bris. The boy’s mother agreed for him to have a bris, on one condition: That a doctor administer an anesthetic such as cocaine, in order that her son not feel pain.
Under these extenuating circumstances, Rabbi Tzirelson argued that anesthesia should be permitted. He referenced the Talmud (Shabbat 135a), where there is a dispute what to do if a gentile who was already circumcised wishes to convert.
Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai argue whether it is necesarry to drip covenantal blood from him (in lieu of circumcision of the foreskin). Rabbi Tzirelson posits that if pain were an integral element of bris, then all would agree that it would be necessary to drip covenantal blood in such a case.
That being said, the natural state of a human is to feel pain when cut.
Although it is not permitted according to halacha to purposefully inflict pain on oneself, nevertheless, sometimes life can be painful.
One message from Bris Milah is that we should not look to avoid pain at all costs. Sometimes, things that are very important are not pleasant in the moment. Maybe it’s an uncomfortable conversation or a personal challenge that I am trying to avoid.
G-d Almighty has given us the obligation and privilege of learning Torah and doing Mitzvot, revealing His presence and underlying unity throughout the world.
It’s not always easy; sometimes it may even be painful to do what’s right.
In this week’s parsha, we read the story of how Avraham Avinu circumcised himself at the age of 99. Avraham bequeaths his great spiritual capabilities to each and every one of us, helping us garner strength to connect to Hashem, shedding light in a world that needs His light now more than ever before.
* Based on Likkutei Sichos vol.10, p.48, footnote 35.