Parshas Lech Lecha – Circumcision, Yishmael and the Land of Israel

By Avner Friedmann

In Parshas Lech Lecha we learn of the birth of Yishmael[1]: “Sarai, Avraham’s wife, had not borne him children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Avraham, ‘See, now, HaShem has prevented me from bearing children, so now come to my maidservant. Perhaps I will be built up through her.’ Avraham heeded Sarai’s voice etc.” Later, an angel of HaShem said to Hagar[2], “Behold, you will conceive and give birth to a son. You shall name him Yishmael, etc… He will be a wild man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand will be against him etc.” As we know, the Arabs of today are the descendents of Yishmael.

Later in the Parsha HaShem tells Avraham[3]: “And I will establish my covenant (circumcision) between Me, you and your offspring after you, throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be the G-d of you and your offspring after you. I will give you and your offspring after you, the Land of your sojourn, the whole Land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their G-d.” From this we see that there is a direct link between the covenant of circumcision and possession of the Holy land.  We see this again in the book of Yehoshua[4]. Upon entering the Land, Yehoshua circumcised all the males at Gilgal.

Avraham’s son Yishmael was thirteen years old when HaShem commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household, as scripture states,[5] “His son Yishmael was thirteen years old when his foreskin was circumcised.” Later, when Yitzchak was miraculously born to Sarah, he was circumcised at eight days old, according to HaShem’s command,[6] “At the age of eight days all your males shall be circumcised, throughout your generations.”

The Holy Zohar states[7] that for four hundred years the Guardian Angel of the nation of Yishmael argued before HaShem saying, “Is it not true that whoever is circumcised has a connection to the Land of Israel and a share in your name?” (The term “El”, which means “G-d”, appears in the names of only two nations – Israel and Yishmael). “Yes,” replied HaShem. The angel continued, “Yishmael was circumcised.  Why does he not have a share in the land of Israel as his brother?” HaShem replied: “Yitzchak’s circumcision was complete while Yishmael’s was incomplete.[8] Moreover, Yitzchak was circumcised at the age of eight days old, which is the appropriate age, as written[9]: “At the age of eight days all your males shall be circumcised, throughout your generations”, whereas Yishmael was only circumcised at thirteen years of age”[10]. The Angel asked, “Nevertheless he was circumcised; does he not deserve at least some reward for it?”

The Zohar continues and states that HaShem appeased the Angel by giving Yishmael’s descendants temporary physical possession the Land, without any deep spiritual connection to it, during which time it would be sparsely populated and desolate.  (Indeed, throughout Muslim domination, the land was generally neglected.  Only with the return of the Jews, did it once again begin to flourish.) Just as Yishmael’s circumcision was empty and incomplete, so too, throughout Muslim domination the land was empty and incomplete[11].

The Zohar continues, “Woe to the time that Yishmael was born and woe to the time he was circumcised”. It then prophesizes that in the end of days, Yishmael will fight the Jews for possession of the land; causing the Jews much suffering and sorrow, until ultimately HaShem will remove them from the Land[12].

Almost five hundred years ago, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the holy Arizal) stated that the Yishmaelites would dominate the land of Israel for 1,300 years; one century for each of Yshmael’s thirteen years when he was circumcised. Mohammed died in the year 632 CE. His followers conquered Jerusalem in the year 638 CE and by 648 CE had achieved full hegemony over the land. The State of Israel was established in 1948 CE, 1,300 years later.

The Arizal’s chief student, Rabbi Chaim Vital[13] wrote, “In the end of days, the Jewish people will suffer the exile of Yishmael. This will be the fifth and the last exile, which will be more difficult than the previous ones. They will want to swallow us alive and erase the name of Israel from under the heavens, as if it never was. Yishmael will cause great and terrible suffering to Israel, like never before, and we will be bewildered about how to respond. Eventually, we will realize that our only hope is to trust in HaShem’s great Name to save us from their hand. As our sages stated, this is why he is called Yishmael; because in the future, Israel will cry out and HaShem will hear (Ishmael means “G-d will hear”). HaShem will answer us. He will help us and redeem us with the complete future redemption.”

From this we learn that ultimately, for us as Jews, our salvation cannot be based solely on military might or diplomacy, but on calling out to HaShem, our G-d, with trust and faith in His salvation, as scripture states[14], “Now I know that HaShem has saved His Moshiach. He will answer him from His holy heavens. He saves with the might of His right hand. Some go with chariots and some with horses, but we will call out in the name of HaShem, our G-d! They will kneel and fall, but we will rise up and be invigorated. HaShem, save us! The King will answer us on the day that we call! May this take place speedily, with the true and complete redemption, through our righteous Moshiach. Amen!


[1] Bereshit 16:1-2

[2] Bereshit 16:11-12

[3] Bereshit 17:7-8.

[4] Yehoshua 5:2-8

[5] Bereshit 17:25

[6] Bereshit 17:12

[7] Zohar, Vaera 32a.

[8] The commandment of circumcision includes two actions in it, milah and peri’a. The Yishmaelites only perform milah and do not have the practice of performing peri’a.

[9] 17:12.

[10] Bereshit 17:25.  To this day, the Ishmaelites have the practice of performing circumcision after the boy has reached puberty.

[11] Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi, was the foremost authority of contemporary Kabbala (1534-1572)

[12] Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Perek 30 lists 15 things that the children of Yishmael will do in the land of Israel prior to Moshiach’s coming, one of which is controlling the Temple Mount and building on it.

[13] In his book Eitz Hada’at Tov, interpreting Psalms 124.

[14] Psalms 20:7-10

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