Intriguing Insights On Jewish History – Did The Avot (Patriarchs) Keep The Torah?

What does it mean when the Midrash says that the Avot kept the entire Torah?

This week we have the first major communal sin of the golden calf in Parshat Ki Tisa. At that time, Hashem made a new covenant with us, which the Rambam (Issurei Bi’ah 13:1-4) likens to the conversion of non-Jews in our time.

The Rambam elaborates, stating, “Israel entered into the covenant through three acts: brit (circumcision), immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath), and offering a sacrifice. Similarly, for future generations, when a non-Jew desires to enter into the covenant, seeking the embrace of the Divine Presence and assuming the responsibilities of Torah, they too require brit milah, immersion, and the acceptance of a sacrificial offering.

Discussing the Torah of the Avot

Tracing back the Torah of the Avot

This suggests that at Sinai, the Jewish people not only received the Torah but also attained a higher sense of “Jewishness” unlike anything they had experienced before.

However, what exactly were they lacking until this point? Since Chazal in Yoma (28b) inform us that Avraham Avinu already observed the Torah hundreds of years prior, what did this new covenant add that was absent before?

In the initial segment of his work, “Parshat Derachim,” Rav Yehuda Rozanes (renowned for his “Mishneh Lemelech” on the Rambam) delves into this inquiry, exploring various possibilities without arriving at definitive conclusions. While many events in the Chumash hint at this theme, there are often multiple interpretations. Ultimately, “Parshat Derachim” refrains from pinpointing precisely what the Jews lacked prior to their seminal conversion at Sinai, yet it presents intriguing insights for contemplation.

Rozanes begins by highlighting several disparities that might have existed in the status of Klal Israel before and after the covenant at Sinai.

Firstly, when the Avot began observing the Torah, did this entail a complete relinquishment of their non-Jewish status, allowing them to observe Torah law even when it conflicted with the seven commandments of Bnei Noach? Alternatively, did they adhere strictly to Torah law only when it aligned with the Noahide laws?

Secondly, regarding the Avot’s observance of the Torah, was it entirely voluntary, or did they face consequences for non-compliance?

Thirdly, as an extension of the second query, when the Avot fulfilled mitzvot, did Hashem reward them as one who is commanded to fulfill a mitzvah (metzuveh ve’oseh), or did they receive the lesser reward of one who voluntarily fulfills a mitzvah (eino metzuveh ve’oseh)?

“Parshat Derachim” scrutinizes numerous incidents in Bereshit and Shemot, analyzing their relevance to these inquiries.

Rozanes endeavors to argue that Avraham Avinu relinquished his non-Jewish status from the moment Nebuchadnezzar threatened him with a fiery furnace unless he renounced his beliefs. If Avraham maintained any vestige of non-Jewish status and observed their seven commands stringently, how could he willingly face death for the sanctification of Hashem’s name?

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 74b) explicitly states that non-Jews are not obligated to die in sanctification of Hashem’s name, and the Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 5:4) asserts that one who dies needlessly al kiddush Hashem is deemed a suicide! Yet, Hashem miraculously saved Avraham from the flames, suggesting that Avraham’s decision was correct.

“Parshat Derachim” acknowledges that this argument can be rebutted, citing the Midrash (Bereshit Raba Parsha 63:2), which suggests otherwise: “Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak said, Avraham was only saved from the fiery furnace in the merit of Yaakov.” This implies that Avraham was saved not due to his own merit but because of Yaakov. Thus, it seems plausible that Avraham’s choice to sacrifice himself al kiddush Hashem may have been misguided.

This seems like quite a big but consider the Ramban himself writes explicitly that when Avraham told Sarah to tell the Egyptians she was his sister, he “made a big error”. Of course we can’t simply analyze the Avot at face value based on our perceptions, the calculations they did for every single breath they took were beyond our understanding.

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Yehuda’s Argument

However, subsequent events in Bereshit do suggest that the Avot observed the Torah even when it resulted in leniencies.

The Midrash Rabba (Shemot parsha 93:5) recounts that when Yosef threatened to imprison Binyamin for allegedly stealing his goblet, Yehuda argued vehemently against it, citing Torah law: “In our laws it is written (Exodus 22:2), ‘If he has nothing [to repay], he shall be sold for his theft,’ but this person [Binyamin] has the means to pay!” Essentially, Yehuda was advocating for applying the Torah laws of parshat Mishpatim to Binyamin’s case. This argument would only hold weight if the Avot adhered to the Torah even when it offered leniencies beyond the seven laws of Bnei Noach. Otherwise, Yosef could have countered, “Why should your Torah laws, which are more lenient, exempt Binyamin when according to the laws of Bnei Noach, he should be put to death for theft?” Yehuda’s argument underscores that the Avot not only observed the Torah but also followed its guidance even when it led to leniency.

Nevertheless, Parshat Derachim acknowledges that the extent to which the Avot observed the Torah remains a matter of debate on various levels.

In parshat Emor, where the Torah recounts the account of the son of an Egyptian man and a Jewish woman who “blasphemed” Hashem and was subsequently executed, the Toras Kohanim suggests that the Torah’s mention of “in the midst of Bnei Yisrael” indicates that he had converted prior to the incident. But why was conversion necessary? Wouldn’t being born to a Jewish mother automatically confer Jewish status?

The French Sages (Chachmei Tzorfas) propose that before Sinai, Jewish lineage was determined patrilineally rather than matrilineally. Hence, the Egyptian’s son must have undergone conversion, or else he wouldn’t have been subject to Torah law. However, the Ramban disputes this notion, stating, “I do not agree, because from the time Avraham made a covenant they were Jews and not counted among the nations.

The Ramban substantiates his position with the Gemara in Kiddushin (67a), which seeks to establish that non-Jews inherit from their fathers, citing the case of Eisav inheriting the Mountain of Seir. However, the Gemara dismisses this argument, suggesting that “perhaps a renegade Jew is different.” In essence, this implies that even before Sinai, Torah inheritance laws superseded non-Jewish legal principles.

Based on this analysis, Parshat Derachim suggests that the extent to which the Avot observed Torah is a matter of contention between the Ramban and the Sages of France.

However, it is notable that Parshat Derachim overlooks another statement by the Ramban that seems to present a contradictory view.

In Bereishis (26:5), the Ramban poses a perplexing question: if the Avot indeed adhered to the entire Torah, why do we find instances such as Yaakov marrying two sisters, Amram marrying his aunt, and Moshe erecting twelve sacrificial stones (matzeivot) at Sinai—actions all seemingly prohibited by the Torah? The Ramban resolves this by asserting that the Avot observed the Torah exclusively within Eretz Yisrael.

The Ramban elucidates, “It seems to me from our Sages that Avraham learned the entire Torah with Ruach HaKodesh (Divine inspiration)… and observed the whole of it as someone who is not commanded, and he only observed it in the Land. Thus Yaakov married sisters outside the land, and so Amram, etc.”

At face value, the Ramban appears to hold both perspectives: affirming that the Avot were fully recognized as Jews and not categorized among the nations, while simultaneously asserting that they were not bound by obligation to observe the Torah but did so voluntarily.

It’s conceivable that the Ramban perceives these two aspects as unrelated. Despite possessing the full status of Jews, the Avot were not compelled to observe the Torah since they had not yet formally accepted it at Sinai. As for the laws of inheritance, one could argue that the Avot bequeathed their property to their sons not because of Torah mandates, but rather due to their inherent Jewish identity.

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Ancient argument

The Parshat Derachim later uncovers that the debate concerning the extent of the Avot’s Jewish identity isn’t solely a matter between medieval scholars (Rishonim) but also existed during the time of the Gemara.

Rabbi Chanina asserts in Sanhedrin (58b), “A non-Jew who strikes a Jew is liable for the death penalty because it says (Exodus 2:12), ‘He looked this way and that and saw there was no person, and struck the Egyptian.’” This suggests that Moshe invoked Torah law in his actions against the Egyptian, even though executing someone for striking a Jew contradicted the seven laws of Bnei Noach.

However, not all voices align with the notion that Moshe’s actions were solely driven by the Egyptian striking a Jew. The Midrash Rabba (Shemot parsha 1:29) elucidates that Moshe acted only after being informed by angels that the Egyptian was deserving of capital punishment. In essence, Moshe didn’t slay the Egyptian for assaulting the Jew, but rather for another undisclosed reason. The Yefei To’ar conjectures that this undisclosed reason may be the incident mentioned by Rashi in parshas Shemot (2:12).

This divergence implies that the status of the Avot hinges on a dispute between the Gemara and the Midrash.

Lastly, the Parshat Derachim extends the debate regarding Jewish status back to the era of Yosef and his brothers. Regarding the episode where Yosef gives a negative report about his brothers to their father, Yaakov, Chazal explain that among other grievances, he accuses them of consuming flesh from a living animal. However, in reality, the brothers had slaughtered the animal but had taken flesh from it while it was still moving (mefarkeses).

According to Torah law, mefarkeses is permissible only for Jews and not for non-Jews. Therefore, it’s plausible that while the brothers considered themselves full-fledged Jews and deemed the meat permissible, Yosef disagreed, viewing them as Jewish lechumra (stringently), hence prohibiting them from consuming such meat.

By this interpretation, the seemingly innocuous question with which we initiated this discussion proves to be significant, as the disagreement among the brothers regarding its resolution leads to their conflict and the subsequent exile of Klal Israel to Egypt.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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