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-The Talmud says that Abraham followed halacha [derived from Genesis 26:5].

-The Torah outlaws child sacrifice.

-So: On what grounds did Abraham agree to perform God's command to sacrifice his son Isaac? The rabbis quote the Torah itself: "lo bashamayim hi" ("the Torah is not in heaven") to justify refusing to do something against halacha, even at God's direct command.

-I heard it said that Abraham could do it because he was a prophet, and a prophet has the right to suspend a law in certain cases [Sanhedrin 89b-90a]. Is this correct and who said that?

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  • The Torah also forbids putting up monuments to serve G-d with (Deut. 16:22), yet Jacob did so (Gen. 28:18 and 35:14). Rashi to Deut. there points out this change: "although it was dear to Him in the days of the Patriarchs, now He hates it, since [the Canaanites] made it a statute for idolatry." Now, the command against child sacrifice is also expressed in terms of it being something that the Canaanites did to their deities (Deut. 12:31), so maybe in Abraham's times that wasn't yet so widespread, and so it could conceivably have still been a valid form of service to G-d. – Meir Oct 2 at 19:21
  • @Meir Since I am a rabbi, I can tell you that Abraham did so because it was a hora’at sha’ah, which means the “extraordinary needs of the time or the hour.” Perhaps this was the reason for the seemingly strange actions of Jacob and Abraham. Accordingly, Abraham felt that this was a good way to show love of G-d. Now, this was a common pagan custom at the time. Though Abraham might have been perplexed, he nevertheless, carried out the enactment until an angel appeared and told him otherwise. That G-d was testing Abraham. – Jonathan Oct 2 at 19:44
  • @Jonathan -- With the same logic, you can say that it was Abraham who was testing God, that Abraham never intended to carry out the murder but was just playing along, and would have stopped himself had God not stopped him first. – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 2 at 19:54
  • @MauriceMizrahi I agree that that is a very good interpretation. However, the Midrash seems to disagree. Accordingly, a Midrash states that Abraham was bent of killing Issac even after the fact that an angel appeared. Eventually, the angel convinced him otherwise. – Jonathan Oct 2 at 20:04
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We can draw a fundamental distinction between the case of Abraham obeying God and the general concept of "the Torah is not in heaven". The latter means that God enshrined certain laws in the Torah, and those laws cannot be changed – even based on Divine communication. However, when God commands you to do something against the Torah, He is not changing any Torah law; He is merely demanding that you not follow the Torah in a specific instance. It is certainly logical that one would follow God over the Torah, since the whole force of the Torah in the first place is that it is a command of God.

Note that this parallels the rule for prophets as articulated by Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:3:

וכן אם יאמר לנו הנביא שנודע לנו שהוא נביא לעבור על אחת מכל מצות האמורות בתורה או על מצות הרבה בין קלות בין חמורות לפי שעה מצוה לשמוע לו וכן למדנו מחכמים ראשונים מפי השמועה בכל אם יאמר לך הנביא עבור על דברי תורה כאליהו בהר הכרמל שמע לו חוץ מעבודת כוכבים והוא שיהיה הדבר לפי שעה כגון אליהו בהר הכרמל שהקריב עולה בחוץ וירושלים נבחרת לכך והמקריב בחוץ חייב כרת ומפני שהוא נביא מצוה לשמוע לו וגם בזה נאמר אליו תשמעון ואילו שאלו את אליהו ואמרו לו היאך נעקור מ"ש בתורה פן תעלה עולותיך בכל מקום היה אומר לא נאמר אלא המקריב בחוץ לעולם חייב כרת כמו שצוה משה אבל אני אקריב היום בחוץ בדבר ה' כדי להכחיש נביאי הבעל ועל הדרך הזאת אם צוו כל הנביאים לעבור לפי שעה מצוה לשמוע להם ואם אמרו שהדבר נעקר לעולם מיתתו בחנק שהתורה אמרה לנו ולבנינו עד עולם

When a prophet - who has already proven himself to be a prophet - instructs us to violate one of the mitzvot of the Torah or many mitzvot, whether they be of a severe or light nature, for a limited amount of time, it is a mitzvah to listen to him.

The Sages of the early generation taught as part of the oral tradition: If a prophet tells you to violate the precepts of the Torah as Elijah did on Mount Carmel, listen to him with regard to all things except the worship of false gods. This applies when his command is temporary in nature.

For example, on Mount Carmel, Elijah offered a sacrifice outside [the Temple's premises], even though Jerusalem was chosen for such [service], and one who offers a sacrifice outside [the Temple's premises] is liable for karet. Since he was [already established as] a prophet, it was a mitzvah to listen to him. The commandment, "Listen to him," applies in these circumstances as well.

If they would have asked Elijah: How can we violate the Torah's command [Deuteronomy 12:13]: "[Be careful...] lest you offer your burnt offerings everywhere"?, he would have told them: We should not say anything, but anyone who offers a sacrifice outside [the Temple premises] is liable for karet, as Moses said. [The present instance,] however, [is an exception]. I am offering a sacrifice today outside [the Temple] at God's command in order to disprove the prophets of Ba'al.

Similarly, if any [other] prophet commands us to transgress for a limited time, it is a mitzvah to listen to him. If, however, he says that the mitzvah has been nullified forever, he is liable for execution by strangulation, for the Torah has told us: "[It is] for us and our children forever."

(Touger translation, my emphasis)

As you can see from the parts that I bolded, there is a clear distinction between temporarily suspending or overriding a particular command and actually changing a command.

That this applies to God as well seems evident from Tosafot in Avodah Zarah 13a. Tosafot there writes:

הקשה הר"ר אלחנן (וא"ת) למ"ד (שבת קכח:) צער בעלי חיים דאורייתא מאי ראיה מייתי מיהושע דלמא שאני התם דעל פי הדבור הוה

R. Elchanan asked that according to the view that causing pain to living creatures is a Torah [prohibition], what proof is there to bring from Joshua? Perhaps there it was different since it was based on a Divine command.

Here Tosafot seems to be taking for granted that God could command Joshua to violate the Torah and Joshua would obey God, and this wouldn't present a problem.

Indeed this comment of Tosafot is adduced by R. Avraham Maskileison as support for this very distinction, in a discussion of a case in Chullin 5a:

וקשה דאי איתא דאיכא איסורא האיך אכל אליהו וסמך על נבואתו הא קיי"ל דאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר ואף לפי שעה אא"כ למיגדר מילתא כדאיתא בפ' א"ר והכא ליכא משום מגדר מילתא וי"ל דה"מ אחרים אבל הנביא עצמו רשאי כדמוכח בתוס' ע"ז

And it is difficult, for if it is true that there is a prohibition how could Elijah have eaten and relied on his prophecy? We hold that a prophet is not permitted to come up with anything new, and even temporarily only if it is to fix something as is found in Chapter Isha Rabba! And here there is nothing being fixed. One could answer that that's only [with regard to] others, but the prophet himself is permitted [to violate the Torah] as is clear in Tosafot in Avodah Zarah.

R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes's comments to the same Talmudic passage seem to be indicative of this as well:

ומשני ע"פ הדבור שאני דהקב"ה התירו לפי שעה

And [the Talmud] answers that by Divine command it is different, for God permitted it to him temporarily.

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Unfortunately, I cannot answer the second part of your question, but I will attempt to answer the first. Regarding Abraham and the binding of Isaac, child sacrifice was the norm in ancient pagan culture.[1] People felt this was a good way to show of G-d. For example, there is a possible link to Greek myth, though I am convinced it was independently derived by the Greeks.

In Greek myth, King Agamemnon was commanded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia by the goddess Artemis. One version has the king succeed and is later killed by his son, Perseus, yet another version tells that the hero Odysseus, in angle-like fashion, shouted to Agamemnon: “The goddess wants the deer, not the maiden.” Thus, Iphigenia was set loose and a deer was sacrificed in her place much like the ram in Genesis 22. In fact, this version closely resembles the Akedah story, the binding of Isaac.

So when G-d commanded Abraham to sacrifice his child, he would do so because you don't argue with G-d. Now Abraham must have known that the Torah prohibits child sacrifice and so he must have felt perplexed at this command, possibly realizing that G-d would not enforce it anyway. In any event, a Midrash claims that an angel approached Abraham, yelling at him to stop, however, Abraham declared that he will obey G-d's command and again, the angel shouted, "do not harm the boy, do nothing to him."[2] Thus, the patriarch Abraham repelled the brute force of his knife and set Isaac free, offering a ram in his place.[3]

If the Midrash is telling a true event, then it is possible that Abraham was really tricking G-d, that he never intended to kill Isaac. But if G-d is all-knowing and all-powerful, He would have known Abraham's intent and never sent an angel to warn him. In that case, it would make more sense to say the story as a whole is a parable and is no more than daytime thinking. If it was an internal struggle, Abrahams might have felt that he should sacrifice what's most important to him, his son. Many ancient cultures practiced this ritual as seen above, the way of the pagans. In due course, Abraham reflected and decided that G-d is not cruel and would never demand the death of his son.[4]

The rabbinical statements in the Talmud say that Abraham observed all the Torah enactments before the Torah was given at Sinai.[5] Accordingly, G-d gave the option of following the Torah to the patriarchs, though they were not obliged to do so. It is possible that the many seemingly contradictions between the Torah and rabbinic enactments weren't that the rabbis made up the Oral Law at a later date but rather that the patriarchs chose not to obey all the laws since they were only optional. Yet others feel that the hyperbolic sermons were designed to highlight the importance of Torah observance for if the Torah were revealed to them the Torah would have stressed the importance in different ways - yet Abraham was righteous in the eyes of the L-rd G-d for “Abraham listened to my voice and kept my charge, commandments, statutes, and laws.”[6]

Genesis 26:5 states that G-d said that Abraham "listened to my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws, the Talmud and Midrash Genesis Rabba comments that Abraham observed all the biblical and rabbinical commands. The rabbis here are emphasizing not only the importance of the Oral Torah (or, Oral Law), but that the Torah and rabbinic laws are part of nature, natural laws, something intelligent man such as Abraham could deduce from nature. Indeed the Rambam quotes a midrash which says that Abraham discovered G-d by studying the heavens, natural law. Additionally, G-d revealed to Abraham and gave the option of observing the mitzvot and all the laws of Judaism to the patriarchs who could choose to observe them fully, partially, or none at all; it was optional. They did it to show love of G-d.

To answer part two of your question on whether a prophet can temporarily nullify a biblical enactment please see here How to reconcile the concept of hora'at sha' ah in regards to a legitimate prophet?

[1] For example, the king of Moab sacrificed his firstborn in a burnt offering.

[2] See Genesis 22:12. The Midrash Genesis Rabbah explains that although Abraham was being submissive to G-d's command he would never maim the child on his own.

[3] Talmud, Sanhedrin 89b says that a prophet can suspend a law, apparently even if its murder as in the case of Genesis 22.

[4] Guide 3.24.

[5] Talmud (Tractate Yoma 28b).

[6] [Genesis 26:5].

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An addition to the previous answers regarding the practice of Tora by Avraham Avinu from A Gemara in Yevamot 71b.

אמר רבה בר יצחק אמר רב: לא ניתנה פריעת מילה לאברהם אבינו, שנאמר: (יהושע ה') בעת ההיא אמר ה' אל יהושע עשה לך חרבות צורים וגו'. ‏

Rabbah Bar Isaac stated in the name of Rab: The commandment of uncovering the corona at circumcision was not given to Abraham; for it is said, At that time the Lord said unto Joshua: 'Make thee knives of flint etc.

Explanation: Yehoshua made the Mila in Egypt, when Bene Israel did go away. This was before Matan Tora. So they were following the Mila as practiced by Avraham Avinu. Matan Tora was in the Desert, and there because of the harmful situation, nobody made the Mila. When Bene Israel reached Erets Israel, Yehoshua began to make Mila to everybody. But he and Kalev were already Mehulim from the Yetsiat Mitsrayim. Indeed, the verse say to make even for himself kinves. The Gemara learns from this that he wasn't Mahul with the Peria. We say from this Gemara that Avraham Avinu didn't make the Peria.

But Tosfot Notices that Avraham himself did The peria, because of the Gemara in Yoma. And he concludes that Avraham himself did it but it was an individual behavior, and Yehosua didn't. Yehoshua did it only because of the Halacha LeMosha miSinay.

לא ניתנה פריעת מילה לאברהם אבינו. ומ''מ אברהם פרע מילתן אע''ג דלא נצטווה כדאמר בב''ר. (פ' (ס''ד) [מ''ז]) דאפי' עירוב תבשילין קיים וא''ת אם לא ניתנה פריעה עד יהושע היכי גמרינן מיניה הא כתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה. ויש לומר דהלכה למשה מסיני הוא ויהושע אסמכיה אקרא:‏ ( Yoma 28b Raba or R`Ashi said: Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the 'erub of the dishes,' as it is said: 'My Torahs': one being the written Torah, the other the oral Torah.)

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