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How are we to understand the tradition that the patriarchs kept all of the mitzvot in the Torah (see for example the last mishna in Kidushin, Rashi Bereshit 32:5, etc.) in light of the many obvious logical contradictions that this would seem to imply?

For examples of such logical contradictions presented in a humorous/irreverent manner see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8MG9YtaZXg

Here are examples of apparent contradictions, some of which are brought up in the above video, and some of which are easier to resolve than others:

  • The Chumash records instances of the avot seemingly violating certain mitzvot, e.g. Yaakov marrying sisters, Avraham serving milk/meat together
  • The Chumash records instances of the avot being given mitzvot, e.g. Avraham and circumcision. So he clearly was not observing the mitzva of circumcision before this time. So when did he start observing various other mitzvot?
  • Even with knowledge of future events, some mitzvot cannot logically be done at the time of the Avot, e.g. remembering things that have not yet occurred, such as the exodus and Amalek.
  • Did they observe the mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah? Does that mean they knew of all events that are recorded in the Torah, including their own lives?
  • How were the mitzvot of Teruma and Ma'aser observed, if there were no Kohanim & Levi'im yet? Did they being korbanot?
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Great little video! –  Gary Oct 27 '13 at 13:45
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7 Answers

This question was discussed by the Meforshim (traditional commentators), who use Genesis 26:5 as a springboard for this discussion. The verse states: עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר-שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְו‍ֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי.

Rashi holds that the Avot kept the entire corpus of Halacha - all of Torah sheBa'al Peh — including Rabbinic laws. This opinion is expressed in the Midrash (source) and Gemara (Yoma 28b), where Rav holds that Avraham kept the whole Torah, and Raba (or R. Ashi) extendeds this and holds that Avraham kept even Rabbinic decrees.

However, Rashi and Rav are pretty much alone. Almost all of the other commentators disagree.

Rashbam, Chizkuni, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ramban, and Seforno all explain the verse as referring to the Mitzvot that God explicitly commanded Avraham, such as Brit Milah, the Akeida, and Aliyah l'Aretz\Living in Israel, and the 7 Mitzvot Bnei Noach and other ethical commandments that he could have figured out on his own. Ramah, Tosafos, R. Yosef Karo, Rambam (in Hilchos Melachim 9:1 and in his letter to R. Chasdai HaLevi), Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam and Meiri (in his introduction to Pirkei Avos) all express similar views.

Even the Gemara has an opinion like this. R. Shimi b. Hiyya argued with Rav (above), and held that Avraham only kept the 7 Mitzvot Bnei Noach and Brit Milah.

To summarize, we see that the major commentators did believe that Avraham kept some of the Mitzvot, but nearly all only believe that he kept the ones that "made sense" for him to keep, ie. the ones he was explicitly commanded, or the ones he could have figured out on his own. The only exception is Rashi, who claims that the Avot kept all the Mitzvot.


How can we explain the seemingly illogical statement Avraham followed the whole Torah, including Rabbinic laws? One approach is to explain that this statement is not meant to be taken literally, and instead is commenting on the importance of learning Torah, the authority of the Torah sheBa'al Peh, or the righteousness and holiness of the Avot.

For example, R' Yehuda Amital suggests that "The avot did not observe the mitzvot in the sense in which we observe them. They did not put on tefillin or shake the lulav. But they understood and appreciated the underlying messages of the mitzvot," and R' Josh Waxman proposes that this was an "inspirational speech encouraging people to learn Torah as a profession."

(For a dissenting view, see R' Yair Hoffman. See also R' Hyim Shafner, and this and that.)


Sources: Yoma 28b; Genesis 26:5 - Mikraot Gedolot; R' Menachem Leibtag; R' Natan Slifkin

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Your answer is inconclusive. Even Rashi agrees that the simple meaning in the pasuk regards actions that Hashem commanded Avraham. Hence the language "My voice, commandments, statutes, laws". Rashi is just bringing a midrash that Toros (plural) tells us that Avraham was keeping more than 1 body of law, and that Avraham "kept" everything, even baal pe, even though his actual commandments did not include it. The Ramban has an issue even with that- how did Yaakov build a matzeva and marry two sisters? Btw, Ramban concludes in support of the midrash- where mitzvos only truly apply in Israel. –  YDK Dec 8 '11 at 4:48
    
@YDK I've revised my answer. Is it better now? –  Shmuel L Dec 8 '11 at 5:17
    
Shmuel, your answer is better, but doesn't address my point: Rashi admits to all others that the simple meaning cannot mean torah sheb'al pe- that Torah was not commanded to Avraham and is not law. But the unnecessary plural of Toros hints to an extra meaning (a drasha). Rashi is merely quoting that drasha. A proof is that for mishmarti, Rashi says shnios l'arayos. Why limit the mishmeres to a ben noach mitzva? –  YDK Dec 8 '11 at 7:09
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The Rashba explains:

When Chazal teach that the Avos kept the Torah, they mean that every mitzvah hints to a certain aspect of Divine Wisdom, and this Divine Wisdom obligates us to do deeds and allusions which hint to this Wisdom.

The Avos with their superlative intelligence perceived the roots of this Wisdom and thus performed 'mitzvos' accordingly, but not necessariy the same ones or in the same way as we were commanded at the giving of the Torah.

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Rashba == Shlomo ben Aderet? Who's translation is this? Where in that work can I find this explanation? –  Double AA Nov 26 '13 at 23:41
    
You call that a translation? More like a summary. –  Double AA Nov 27 '13 at 6:57
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  1. With regards to the video, The Rogatchover would often give halachic reasons for stories in the Torah (see the Samplers in this article). Here's one example.

    Bereishis 22:6 - Before the Akei'dah, Abraham loaded the wood on Isaac, but not the knife, because there is a disagreement between the Talmud Bavli (Pesachim 66a) and the Yerushalmi (Pesachim 6:1) if it is permissible to lean the knife on the sacrifice once it has been sanctified. Abraham wanted to make sure that every detail of his precious korban was perfect, and was scrupulous to fulfill all halachic opinions.

I guess one could argue about whether this was actually Avraham's intention or if this is just a "pshat", but I'm pretty sure it doesn't deserves the ridicule given in the video.

  1. As a proof that Torah was learned before it was given, our sages point out that if Noach didn't have Torah, how would he know which animals were pure, and which ones were impure. (many other similar proofs are brought as well)

  2. With regards to the questions and contradictions between the laws in the Torah and the actions of the Avot, R' Chaim Volozhin, in Nefesh Hachaim Sha'ar 1 Chapter 21, says that when our sages say the Avot kept the whole Torah (in this he included Amram as well, not just Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov), they didn't do so because they were commanded to do so. If they were commanded to do so, they would never violate any of the commandments of Torah. Rather they understood with the great Tikkunim that are accomplished by doing the Mitzvos, and the destruction the would be caused by them not fulfilling the Mitzvos. So they always made sure to do the actions that they understood that their souls would cause Tikkunim.

    Therefore, when for example, Ya'akov Avinu saw that his soul could accomplish amazing Tikkunim in this world by marrying two sisters (since he understood that it was specifically through them that the Jewish nation would be brought into this world), he worked hard to make sure this happened. So too, Amram married his aunt so since he understood that doing this would bring Moshe Rabbeinu into this world.

    And that's one of the reasons why the Torah wasn't given to the Avos, since if they already had the Torah, it wouldn't matter if they realized that great Tikkunim could be accomplished by going against the Torah, they would not be able to do so.

  3. R' Shneur Zalman of Liadi, explains in Torah Ohr (page 134 "Moshe Yidaber...") that every Mitzvah brings down a different revelation of Godliness into this physical world (which is why Mitzvos are done with physical objects and actions). The Avot were able to draw down this same revelation even before the Torah was given. This is what it means that the Avos kept the whole Torah even before it was given. However, the Avos brought down these revelation spiritually, not physically.

    In a footnote to his father-in-law's Ma'amar, the Lubavitcher Rebbe notes there were some Mitzvos that the Avot only kept spiritually (e.g. Tefillin, which mention the exodus from Egypt, which hadn't happened yet), and some Mitzvos that the Avot physically performed. Even the Mitzvos they did physically however, were only able to draw down Godliness into the spiritual worlds, the physical item they did the Mitzvah with remained unchanged.

    As an example, the Zohar says that the sticks Ya'akov used to affect the look of the sheep born (Genesis 30:37 and on) was how he spiritually observed the mitzvah of Tefillin. However, once he was done the sticks did not retain any holiness and could be thrown away (unlike our Tefillin). See here and here.

  4. The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likutei Sichot Volume 5, page 146) gives a very practical reason why Avraham waited to have a bris. Rashi explains that G-d's commandment to Noach after the flood, forbidding spilling a mans blood (Genesis 9:6) applies to spilling ones own blood as well. As such, Avraham was legally unable to circumcise himself until G-d explicitly commanded him to do so.

  5. Also, I once read and explanation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that even Rabbinical Decrees are the will of G-d. If so, why aren't they recorded in the Torah? Because it was G-d's will that they be Rabbinical and not Biblical.

    There are differences if a Mitzvah is Biblical or Rabbinical. For example, in the case of a doubt. When you have a doubt whether the prohibition applies, in a Biblical Mitzvah you must be strict, but with a Rabbinical Mitzvah you may be lenient.

    Also, at least according to some opinions, when something that is Biblically prohibited the item itself is prohibited, whereas when the item is Rabinically prohibited, the prohibition is on the person, not the item (Gavrah vs. Cheftzah). See here.

    If so, it makes sense why the Avot kept even the Rabbinical Decrees, since they too are the will of G-d, not just decrees that the Rabbis created later.

See here as well for many of the major commentaries of whether the Avos kept the Torah or not.

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re 5: we have examples of rabbinic prohibitions which were later rescinded (eg. oil of non-Jews). Would you say these were never the will of God and it was a mistake to enact them, or that it was the will of God that those prohibitions be operative in that particular closed time interval? If the latter, then there is no reason why the Avot would keep rabbinic laws before they were enacted even if while enacted they are the will of God (unless you revert back to an earlier answer of the Avot just keeping mitzvot for spiritual benefit as they knew to be fit). –  Double AA Apr 15 '13 at 22:08
    
@DoubleAA: Perhaps it falls under the catagory of "Kevan DeDashu Bo Rabim, Shomer Petaim, Hashem", since the multitude tramples over them, G-d will guard the fools. (This idea is used to explain why certain halachot aren't kept, even - arguably - biblical ones -- R' Moshe uses this to justify smoking, which is seemingly in violation of "You should guard your life") –  Menachem Apr 15 '13 at 23:36
    
You mean, perhaps it was only rescinded because they were 'forced to' but not because it is no longer the will of God? Interesting suggestion. It would imply, though, that there is still value (middat chasidut / lifnim mishurat hadin / etc.) in holding to those enactments. I've never heard such an opinion though it might exist. –  Double AA Apr 15 '13 at 23:39
    
@DoubleAA: If I remember correctly, the Talmud says that the reason the decrees were enacted was because the people couldn't handle it. That would seem to fit with my line of thought. -- Interestingly, the talk of the Rebbe I based answer 5 on (I still can't remember where I learned it) also addresses Minhagim, and says that they too are the will of G-d, but because not everyone is expected to or capable of keep them, they were never codified into law, Biblical or Rabinical. –  Menachem Apr 15 '13 at 23:44
    
גזירה שאין הציבור יכול לעמוד בה can just as easily be interpreted as an indication that the time period where God wanted this enactment enacted has now concluded. re minhagim: if you want to say that the Wills of God here are for application eternally in both directions, you have to wonder because so many minhagim are pretty clearly later developments. It's definitely easier to say that it is the Will of God for certain time periods and not others. –  Double AA Apr 16 '13 at 0:02
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First of all, the main sources in chazal just say that Avraham kept the commandments, not that all the avos did: מצינו שעשה אברהם אבינו את כל התורה כלה עד שלא נתנה , שנאמר , ( שם כו ) עקב אשר שמע אברהם בקלי וישמר משמרתי מצותי חקותי ותורתי : so that might avoid any questions from Yakov.

Serving meat & milk at the same time is not a problem, since a non-Jew can eat it. In addition, it is only biblically prohibited when they are cooked together.

If you understand it completely literally, that he kept every mitzvah, there will still be many logical difficulties. I think it may mean Avraham kept many of the principles of the Torah, those represented by the words "משמרתי מצותי חקותי ותורת". He may have even kept the actual mitzvos that he was able to figure out on his own, but its unlikely he could have kept everything. Besides explaining the passuk, I think chazal may have been trying to explain how the father of the Jews must have lived. They do not think he could have not been somehow keeping to the ideals of the Torah, even if it had not been given yet.

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Ari, Unless you are correct and Ramban is wrong, I believe you are mistaken. Ramban explicitly deals with the issue of Yaakov marrying two sisters. I do not have it in front of me at the moment but it is a famous piece. –  Yahu Apr 7 '11 at 18:33
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Perhaps there are other midrashim that discuss it, but the main 2 sources in chazal that I saw just mentioned Avraham. I edited my answer slightly. –  Ariel K Apr 7 '11 at 21:09
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Rav Moshe (cited elsewhere in this discussion) uses the logic that if Avraham was observing mitzvos then his sons and successors Yitzchak and Ya'akov probably were as well. –  WAF Apr 7 '11 at 22:08
    
Umm, A Jew is not allowed to serve a non-Jew milk and meat together, because you gain benefit from it, and you are not allowed to gain benefit. –  avi Dec 8 '11 at 7:18
    
OK, I edited it to "at the same time". I assume that's not a problem (at least m'd'oraysa). –  Ariel K Dec 8 '11 at 15:51
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I think it bears explanation exactly what the "obvious logical contradictions" are. After all, once one accepts the possibility of prophecy, as arguably one must, the אבות knowing the future is really not a problem.

In addition, there is a strong argument to be made for all of the מצוות having the essential purpose of refining/perfecting their agents. Therefore, it is not a stretch to posit that a very careful examination of which actions benefit a person with an understanding of God (which the אבות undeniably had) would result in most if not all of the actions prescribed by the מצוות in the תורה.

That said, it is important to note that many of the מצוות apply exclusively in ארץ ישראל and/or to בני ישראל, and many purveyors of modern הלכה were fully aware of these facts and their ramifications for the אבות adhering to a system that involved them. No less than Rav Moshe Feinstein (e.g. אגרות משה אבן העזר חלק ד סימן ט) and Rav Ovadia Yosef grappled with this exact issue and came out with better answers than forfeiting to the difficulty of the question.

  • Rav Moshe holds that the prohibition against marrying sisters applies to the preliminary stage of marriage (kidushin), which is not done by בני נח (and not obligatory even for a בן ישראל according to the רא"ש and others, but that's another story).

  • I think it would be a little bit fruitless to pinpoint the moment at which he started keeping each מצוה. Since the משנה does not give a time reference for when he had kept the entire תורה we can assume that event was at most coterminous with the end of his life. It is therefore not contradictory to say that he implemented the מצוה of ברית מילה after it was told to him and not before.

  • Again, אברהם was informed explicitly that יציאת מצרים would happen. If the problem is a temporal-semantic one of remembering something that hasn't happened yet, I think it is a minor problem to overcome once we enter the realm of prophecy. (It is analogous to the more mundane and common occurrence of "forgetting to do something". The event of forgetting precedes the event of doing, yet is intuitively digestible.)

  • The reference to "the תורה" in this case probably means the legal elements thereof. After all, is it possible to "uphold" a narrative?

  • Indeed we find the אבות separating מעשרות and bringing קרבנות to Hashem.

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Thanks, I edited my question to give examples of seeming contradictions. I wasn't referring to knowledge of the future per se, although this does have the potential to generate logical paradoxes. In any case, you do already address some of the issues I have listed. I will have to look at the Igrot Moshe you cited when I get a chance, but if would care to list some of the answers you found, that would also be useful. Also, I am curious to know what you mean by mitzvot that apply exclusively to Bnei Yisra'el. Which mitzvot are not in that category? –  Sam Nov 25 '10 at 1:25
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The Seven Noachide Laws are binding on non-Jews as well. Also, there are some other mitzvos that are applicable to them (even though they're not officially included in the Seven). –  Alex Nov 25 '10 at 5:26
    
But clearly WAF did not mean to say that the Avot only followed mitzvot that are binding on non-Jews. That's why I wonder what he meant by mitzvot that apply only to Bnei Yisra'el (as opposed to the Avot). –  Sam Nov 25 '10 at 16:11
    
Indeed I meant to say that we need not assume they kept any מצוות that are only obligatory for members of the nation that received the תורה at הר סיני and entered the land. (I am only avoiding the term "Jew" because its meaning is unclear in a discussion this far back in history. And I therefore apologize for my anachronistic use of "ארץ ישראל".) Additionally, the רמב"ם (I believe, although I am still looking for the source) explains that the מצוות kept by אברהם אבינו were those which can be arrived at logically, based on the observable world. –  WAF Nov 25 '10 at 16:34
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Prophecy in Jsm has nothing at all to do with knowing or predicting the future. Prophecy is God speaking to Man. That's all. Very rarely in the Bible do we see people forecasting the future, and when they do, it's through paganistic means. On occasion (especially in the Later Prophets) God reveals to the prophet what will\may happen in the future, but there is no reason from a P'shat perspective to believe that God revealed to the Avot the future Mitzvot and their details. See R' Menachem Leibtag for more. –  Shmuel L Dec 8 '11 at 3:28
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I think that we do necessarily have to suppose that they kept some mitzvos only in the non-literal sense. For example, there are the mitzvos concerning a "depraved city" (ir hanidachas), a "rebellious son" (ben sorer umoreh), and a house with tzaraas, all of which are pretty rare (and indeed according to some opinions in Sanhedrin 71a, never actually happened).

One possibility is that they fulfilled these mitzvos by learning their laws (which indeed the Gemara gives as the reason why we have these mitzvos at all).

How could they have done that before the Torah was given? WAF provided a couple of possibilities.

Another approach is based on the idea that the Torah, though it ostensibly discusses our physical world, its peoples, flora and fauna, etc. - is really actually "speaking of the higher worlds but hinting at the lower ones" (Shaloh), and that it is "a parable from the Primordial One" (I Sam. 24:13, as explained in Torah Ohr, Miketz 42b and elsewhere); each mitzvah, and each statement in the Torah, therefore is in reality referring to some spiritual object, of which the corresponding material existence is just an imitation.

So to take one of your examples, about remembering Amalek's evil deeds: the Tzemach Tzedek of Lubavitch (דרך מצותיך, מצות זכירת ומחיית עמלק) explains that the terrestrial nation of Amalek embodies the sefirah of "knowledge" (daas) of unholiness (kelipah) (thus our Sages describe them as "knowing G-d and deliberately rebelling against Him"). The way to overcome this force, he says, is via "remembrance," something which is supra-rational and hence higher than their corrupt "knowledge." Now "daas of kelipah" existed long before Eisav's grandson Amalek was born, and so did this idea of surpassing and defeating it via "remembrance," all on a purely spiritual level.

In the same way, then, the Avos could have written a Torah scroll with the same words as we have now, but representing the true reality as it exists Above rather than the one their descendants were to later experience. [Incidentally, this also explains how in the era of Moshiach, when Hashem promises that He will "no longer remember our sins" (Jer. 30:33, compare also Is. 49:15 as explained in Berachos 32b), we'll still read the portions of the Torah that discuss the episodes of the Golden Calf, the Spies, etc.; we will understand that in truth they refer to events and realities on higher planes, which didn't necessarily have to play out in our physical world as they did.]

Some of your other examples deserve separate treatment, so I'll try to update my answer later (unless one of our other resident experts gets to it first).

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Alex, thank you for giving this answer. I think it is clear from the משנה - and even clearer from the תוספתא (see bottom here: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20419&st=&pgnum=372 and next page: hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20419&st=&pgnum=373) - that the discussion here overlaps between the physical and the spiritual. For our purposes though, I believe it is necessary to distinguish between the two and you have done just that. –  WAF Nov 25 '10 at 16:40
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