LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: The new Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis is announced at St John's Synagogue on December 19, 2012 in London, England. Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, who was former chief Rabbi of Ireland, will succeed Lord Jonathan Sacks when he steps down from the post next year. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

How do we explain the incongruous nature of the blessings at a brit milah? At a circumcision the mohel makes the bracha: ‘al hamila’ – ‘concerning the circumcision,’ the father says the bracha: ‘lehachniso b’vrito shel Avraham avinu’- ‘to bring the child into the covenant of Avraham our father.’ In this way we recall events described in Parashat Vayera when Avraham was the first to be circumcised and to this day we strive to bring our children into that very covenant.
But why does the mohel say ‘al’ and the father says ‘le’? This was the essence of a question which was asked under tragic circumstances. In 1941 the Jews of Kovno were herded into the ninth fort where they were shot. One of those who was about to die realised what was to happen and asked a shayla to his Rabbi, he said ‘just before they kill me I want to say a blessing on being a martyr but should the blessing be ‘lekaddesh hashem’ or ‘al kiddush hashem’? Is it le or al?
The Rabbi answered as follows, he said: when you say le it’s for something that others can do for you, for example ‘lishmoa kol shofar’ – ‘on the blowing of the shofar,’ ‘lehadlik ner shel Shabbat’ – ‘kindling the Sabbath lights,’ ‘shel yom tov’ – ‘the Yom Tov lights’; somebody can say the bracha, I say amen and they cover me.
However, the Rabbis said: when we say al that’s for a precept I must perform by myself: ‘al sefirat haomer,’ nobody can count the omer for me, ‘al netilat yadayim’ nobody can wash my hands for me. I must do it myself.
Therefore, the Rabbi responded, the blessing we will recite is ‘al kiddush hashem’ because it is something that we will have to do ourselves.
There is an alternative way of approaching this question: to explain as follows when we say ‘al’ it is for a precept which we complete: al achilat matza, al achilat maror, al netilat yadayim you wash hands, you eat matza or maror and it’s over.
However, ‘le’ is the beginning of a process: ‘leishev besukka’, ‘laasok b’divrei torah’ – to dwell in the sukkah, to study Torah through the day. These are starts of a process.
So now, coming to the brit the mohel makes the bracha: ‘al hamila’ because once he has performed the circumcision it will be over, behind them all, the boy and his family. However, ‘lehachniso b’vrito shel Avraham Avinu’ – to guarantee that our children live a life through which they reflect the virtues and the values of the life of Avraham is going to take a lifetime. We’re starting the process of Jewish education which will lead to meaningful Jewish life. Isn’t it incredible how through the slightest change in the version of a blessing, we can gain inspiration for incredible, meaningful and joyous living.
Shabbat shalom
What a difference a single letter makes!

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