My father is a kind-hearted soul. While doing a favor for an actor friend and taking pro-bono head shots for his audition as a TV doctor, my father borrowed the stethoscope our friend wore and listened around to all our hearts, just for fun. My father’s face changed after he listened to my heartbeat, and then to his own. Something was amiss. Instead of the ba-BUMP of a healthy heart, all he heard from his chest was bum-Tsssssss.
After seeing a specialist, the news fell that he needed open heart surgery as soon as possible. Suddenly, his uncharacteristic lethargy and growing exhaustion of the past several months made sense.
My family was scared. We found the best of the best heart surgeon to preform the operation. The Doctor explained that my father needed a new valve in his heart: he could either choose a synthetic valve or a pig’s valve. Each had its downside. The synthetic valve would last a decade at most, the latter would last longer. My father adamantly refused to use a pig heart, but our rabbi assured us that if it was for the sake of saving his life, it was all kosher. Yet he wavered.
The day approached. My father left handwritten notes for myself and my siblings while we slept. It was only many years later that I realized he wrote these to us just in case. Just in case– perish the thought.
The night before the operation, my father sat down with his bosom friend to learn some Torah.
“What do you want to study?” Efraim asked.
“The Berditchever,” my father answered.
So they opened Kiddushat Levi, the work written by the great-hearted Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740–1809), at random. The book fell open to this week’s parsha, to the Rabbi’s very commentary on the verse, “And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.”
At the heart of Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, is a verse which has always mystified me:
.וּמַלְתֶּם אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם; וְעָרְפְּכֶם לֹא תַקְשׁוּ עוֹד
“And you will circumcise the covering of your hearts and no longer will you harden your necks!” (Deut. 10:16, translation courtesy of Rabbi Aleph-Bet)
Circumcise my heart? What can this possibly mean? This metaphor is rather bizarre.
In order to seek out a truthful answer, I delved deep into the literature that discusses how the ancients, our ancestors, perceived the heart – the lev. I once heard that our contemporary view of the heart has evolved to be quite different from how the Israelites perceived this central organ.
I looked into the matter and found much, much more than I bargained for. A professor of mine sent me one dictionary entry in particular on lev that was 33 printed pages long, and so incredibly rich that it catapulted me into a state of intellectual euphoria which is hard to describe. Suffice it to say that after I earn my PhD in Masorah, now I’m probably going to have to turn around and write a second dissertation on the meanings of the word lev in the Hebrew Bible and the philosophical context of this concept both within Judaism and in the ancient Near East. Thanks a lot, Professor B.
But this ain’t no dissertation. For today, let’s begin with definitions of the term lev, then I’ll introduce you to a letter Mem who wears a special crown, and then I’ll tell you a true story, and then we’ll have a chat about circumcision…if only you’ll journey with me, dear reader.
What’s a Heart?
This might seem basic, but we have to begin by defining our terms. What’s a lev? And if it is a heart, does this actually mean what we all assume it means?
That was anatomy. Now let’s delve into philosophy. While the meaning of the word lev could easily fill several books, I’ve boiled it down for you. Those of you who are deep divers into the oceans of knowledge should seek the original entry from the “Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament”, and those of you who are snorkelers or swimmers – I’m glad you’re here, too! Let’s get to the point (or shall we say apex?).
Contemporary Western culture views the heart as a) the organ that pumps blood throughout the body b) the seat of emotion, especially love, and c) the innermost part of something (ex: heartwood of a tree).
But what kind of heart was Moshe speaking about circumcising? And why use that particular metaphor?
Lev La Lev
If we could travel back in time to ancient Israel, Egypt, or elsewhere in the Ancient Near East or Mesopotamia, we might be surprised at how differently people thought about this essential part of our anatomy. Spoiler alert: Lev doesn’t just mean “heart”.
While the ancients agree with us that the heart is an organ that is a vital center, the seat of human emotion, and something at the center of things (like the heart of the ocean) they had an incredibly vast and complex comprehension of the heart which goes well beyond our modern (and I would say highly simplistic) view.
לֵב lēḇ; לֵבָב lēḇāḇ
- Personal Identity: fundamental nature of a person, akin to נפשׁ, soul
- Noetic Center: intellectual visualization (cognition and memory), thought, understanding, and attention.
- Voluntative Center: conceiving and planning; the seat of courage and enterprise.
These (select) definitions of the term lev should give you some appreciation of just how enormous the range of this hearty concept actually is.
In Moshe’s mind, the lev is not merely the seat of emotion, but also one’s entire identity, soul, and mind. Lev is the locus of voluntary decision making, free will, and the nucleus of memory. It is where our vices and virtues lie, where our courage and integrity are born and die, and are reborn again.
Part of the explanation for the heart taking on so much meaning, I think, is because Hebrew did not have a separate word for “chest”, so the term lev actually encompasses one’s entire upper body or thorasic cage: everything between the diaphragm and the collar bones. The lev therefore represents the entire top half of the core of our being.
The Crowned Mem
At this point, let’s compare our original verse with another that mentions the heart, this time employing the synonym levav:
.וְיָדַעְתָּ, עִם-לְבָבֶךָ: כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת-בְּנוֹ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְיַסְּרֶךָּ
“You should know in your heart that just as a father disciplines his son, so HASHEM, your G!d disciplines you.” (Deut. 8:5)
The Masorah indicates that this verse contains a special letter: A Mem with a crown. Usually, Mems don’t get to wear these. The Sefer Tagin enumerates 39 words in the Torah where the letter Mem is written with tagin (crownlets). The word meyasrekha which I’ll translate as “disciplines you” or “chastens you” in our verse contains one of these special Mems.
Why should a word for rebuke be decorated like this, and why only the first letter of that word?
First and foremost, the Masorah tells us that this word is unique: it is the is the only occurrence of the word Meyasrekha in the entire TaNaKh (Hebrew Bible). But unique words are frequent, and their first letter is not always decorated with crownlets.
The Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Jacob ben Asher c.1269-1343) has an answer for us. He teaches that the numerical value of Mem is 40, and that “The crownlets indicate a connection between the soul [נפשׁ nefesh] and the Torah, for the soul is given its form forty days after conception, and the Torah was given to Moshe on Mount Sinai in 40 days.”
What’s beautiful about this comment is that the Baal HaTurim is picking up on the parent – child metaphor in this verse. Just as a father teaches his child by rebuking him when the kid’s made a mistake, G!d corrects our behavior when we’ve chosen the wrong path. Both corrections can be unwelcome and uncomfortable, but they both come from a place of love with the end goal of developing one’s moral character.
We’ve established that lev (heart) and nefesh (soul) are one and the same. We see that concept in this comment as well. What’s more – the Baal HaTurim here introduces the idea of conception; we’ll return to this later.
There is a Mishnaic dictum that “A 40 year old gains understanding” (Pirkei Avot 5:21; Peirush HaRokeach). Furthermore, in the phrase “and his heart shall understand” (Isaiah 6:10), the Gematria (numerical equivalent) of levavo, “his heart”, is also 40.
Truth and understanding, like the hidden heart, are concealed from the eye and must be sought over great lengths of time, even 40 years, to uncover.
Yet if the heart is found in the center of the body, then where can truth be found?
Just as the heart is at the center of ourselves, the letter Mem is in the center of the Aleph Bet. An incredible example: Lies, Sheker, are found everywhere, and are easy to come across. Even in the Aleph Bet itself, the very word is spelled out: Shin, Kuf, Reish.
Yet Truth, Emet, must be sought out: the first letter of Truth is the first letter of the Aleph Bet, the second letter, our Mem, is at the center, and the final letter of Truth, Taf, is the last letter of the Aleph bet. Truth exists, but you gotta mine for it, like panning for gold.
An Open Heart
The hour of my father’s operation arrived. While hey lay under those harsh lights, his chest open, the master surgeon debated which material to use to replace my father’s weak valve. He set aside the synthetic valve. He set aside the flesh of the pig.
He reached out with his scalpel and carved a piece of the pericardium – the flesh around my father’s heart – away from the heart itself. He fashioned the tissue into a ring, and used that piece of the heart to repair the ailing valve.
The operation was a success. My father was restored to us. He is healthy and vibrant, alive and vitally well, Be’ezrat Hashem. To this day, when I lean my head against his chest, I drink in the strong, healthy Ba-BUMP of his heartbeat along with the warmth and ardent love that radiates from his chest, and I thank Heaven boundlessly that his life was saved.
“All your heart and all your soul”
This morning, my father told me Rabbi Itzik Evron’s interpretation of the metaphor Circumcise your heart: “Just as a man cannot be a Jew without removing his foreskin through circumcision – so must we remove the ‘blockage’ within our heart that might prevent us from fully loving the Abishter – only then we will be able to make ourselves whole with Heaven.”
A beautiful sentiment.
Yet this whole discussion begs the question: what about us girls? Not all of us can take this so literally – not all of us should (G!d forbid) go and get open-heart surgery!
There is a minhag (tradition) for women to substitute a particular word during the Bentsching (Grace After Meals). When men speak of the covenant with G!d inscribed al besareinu (on our flesh) women say al levaveinu (on our hearts). This custom is derived from this very verse: circumcise your heart.
Have you understood where I’m going with this yet? Can you appreciate the genius of Moshe’s turn of phrase?
Circumcision is an inherently male commandment, and rightfully so. From the firsthand accounts I have read, (The Third Leg: And Other Short Stories by female circumcision is horrific, destroys the health of women who are forced to undergo it, and is unbearably traumatic and irreversible. But then how can women share in becoming full members of the covenant with G!d…without possessing members?
Moshe’s genius is that he broadened the concept of circumcision, of a foundational covenant with the Divine, from being essentially male to that which transcends gender. “Anyone who has a heart can be a part of this covenant with G!d”, boldly states Moshe.
G!d adjures us that he is like our father, our parent. We were conceived by G!d, and commanded to circumcise ourselves: for men that means themselves, for men and women that means their hearts.
Here’s my chiddush (new concept):
Just as the male organ exists to conceive human life, the heart is also an organ of conception. Lev is our vital center, that which generates our very life force. It is the crux of our free will, the originating point of our minds and beliefs, the apex of our complex process of abstract and reflective thinking, the beating center of our perception of reality.
If the lev lacks wisdom, it falls into the grip of heedlessness, willfulness, and failure to see the larger picture.
When the Shema says we should “love G!d with all our heart and all our soul”, that means with absolutely everything we’ve got: including our intellect.
Take Courage in Discipline
We’ve covered a lot of ground. But what’s the key? How to approach this act of ‘cutting away’ a piece of our hearts?
Circumcision is seminal to being Jewish. This act is what sealed the covenant between Avraham and G!d – one can argue that Avraham became the first Hebrew after circumcising himself. So important is this mitzvah that the Talmud asserts that “circumcision overrides all 613 commandments and prohibitions” (Babylonian, Nedarim 32a).
One way to think of this, again in a universal way, is that “Circumcision is circumcision of the heart” (H.-J. Hermisson, Sprache und Ritus im altisraelitischen Kult. WMANT, 1; my emphasis).
The key to circumcising the lev, I believe, is the crowned Mem, our teacher of 40, wisdom, and time, who preaches Discipline.
The only way we can reach our G!d given potential, serve our creator and live up to ourselves is if we embrace the Mem’s lesson in discipline. A little sacrifice goes a long way. If I didn’t carve out time each morning to think & write, I would never produce anything worth reading. If a person who is selfish at heart works on themselves they can become generous. If a person who is overweight works out, the fat around their heart lessens and they will live a longer, healthier life.
What’s more: I’ll quote Warren Buffet, who says that there are certain things one cannot rush. A baby takes nine months to develop. You can’t get a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant! The number 40 is a measurement of time: 40 days and 40 nights on the mountaintop, in Noah’s Ark, 40 years of age before one can truly attain wisdom.
And once we determine that we will voluntarily inflict the covenant with G!d on our involuntary organ, we realize that: “An intention becomes a desire when one cannot accomplish it by oneself” (Dict. of the OT, lēḇ לֵב, Vol. 7, p. 424).
Neither G!d nor ourselves can accomplish our vision of creation alone. Rather, we need to work in a growth-oriented partnership to achieve the kind of world that deserves to exist.
The relationship between parent and child, teacher and student, Heaven and humankind, thrives in disciplined, moral behavior – though sometimes, that sacrifice may make our hearts bleed.
So write these words upon your lev: With uprightness of heart come confidence and joy; wisdom comes to the heart open to instruction and correction.
Go forth with courage; be of stout heart. Seek Truth. Develop discipline. And thereby earn your crown of wisdom.
I thank my Aba & Aema for giving me the precious gift of life and of Torah education.
I offer my heartfelt thanks to Dr. H., bechol levavi, for saving the lev of our Aba with an expert Pericardial Angioplasty mitral valve repair.
My whole lev is perpetually grateful to Rabbi Aleph-Bet for his teachings, mentorship and guidance.
I am indebted to Professor B. for introducing me to the Theological Dictionary of the OT, and for sending me both the entry on לֵב lēḇ;* לֵבָב lēḇāḇ and on מוּל mûl;* מוּלָה mûlâ.
1. Theological Dictionary of the OT, לֵב lēḇ;* לֵבָב lēḇāḇ, Vol. 7, p. 399-414.
2. Strong’s Concordance on לֵב: https://biblehub.com/str/hebrew/3820.htm
3. Strong’s Concordance on מְיַסְּרֶֽךָּ: https://biblehub.com/hebrew/meyassereka_3256.htm
4. Conception definition: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/conception
5. Brit Milah Ceremony: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-brit-milah-bris-ceremony/
6. Brit Milah History: https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/a-history-of-brit-milah/
7. The Third Leg: And Other Short Stories by
8. A Time to Be Born: Customs and Folklore of Jewish Birth by Michele Klein, 1998.
Aleph Bet Insights:
9. Sanctity of the Aleph Bet: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/alphabet-hebrew-in-midrash-talmud-and-kabbalah
10. Meaning of the Aleph Bet: Talmud Shabbat 104a – 105b
12. Baal HaTurim Chumash, ed. Avie Gold, 2007, p. 1904-1951.