Avot and Mitzvot – Was Avraham the First Jew/2/en

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Avot and Mitzvot – Was Avraham the First Jew?

Exegetical Approaches


In discussing to what extent the Patriarchs kept the Torah's commandments, commentators offer a full range of possibilities, from full observance to no observance at all. Some sources portray the founding fathers as voluntary pioneers of performance and not just faith, with some even going so far as to claim that they kept even rabbinic ordinances. Others attempt to demonstrate that the Torah is eternal, and that the mitzvot were given already to Adam.

As these earlier positions encounter difficulties in explaining the Patriarch's apparent violations of some Biblical prohibitions, other commentators take the opposite tack, suggesting that the vast majority of the Torah's commandments began only at Sinai. Additionally, a few different variations of a compromise approach suggest that there was partial observance by the Avot. This has the advantage of being able to explain away most transgressions, while simultaneously maintaining a portrait of some early ritual observance.

Full Observance

All of the mitzvot existed and were observed before their transmission at Sinai. This position subdivides over whether there was a pre-Sinai Divine obligation to keep the mitzvot or whether it was man's voluntary initiative.

Hashem Commanded

Who was commanded? This position maintains that the Torah and its commandments were given already to Adam.4 The Midrashim derive this by reading the words "לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ" in Bereshit 2:15 as referring to the Torah.5
Evidence of early adherence – Some exegetes6 point to the Torah's use of the term "הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה" in the Noach stories7 as proof that the laws of Kashrut were known already at that time.8
Punishments for violators – Some Karaite sources assert that the bringing of the Flood, the punishment meted out to the Canaanites for their sins, and the verses in Yechezkel which say that the Israelites deserved to be wiped out in Egypt demonstrate that the commandments existed before Sinai.9
Religiosity of the Patriarchs – This position takes for granted that the Patriarchs observed all of the Torah's commandments.10
Patriarchal transgressions – This approach encounters difficulties in explaining the instances in which our forefathers seem to have violated the Torah's prohibitions, particularly those of forbidden sexual relationships.11 Thus, Yefet goes so far as to assert that Leah and Rachel were merely relatives and not sisters,12 and that Yocheved was Amram's cousin rather than his aunt.13 Alternatively, these actions were, in fact, problematic.14
Polemical motivations – The implication of this position is that the laws of the Torah are immutable and eternal. It thus served as a direct response15 to both Christian contentions that the precepts were given only as a corrective for the sin of the Golden Calf, and Islamic claims that the Law is always subject to change.16

Human Choice

Sources which are ambiguousBavli YomaYoma 28bZevachim 116aZevachim 116a ManuscriptsAbout the Bavli, Shemot Rabbah1:1About Shemot Rabbah, Midrash Aggadah (Buber)Bereshit 32:5About Midrash Aggadah (Buber), RashiBereshit 7:2Bereshit 26:5Rashi Yoma 28bAbout R. Shelomo Yitzchaki, as well as other sources, all speak of the Patriarchs fulfilling all of the commandments, but it is difficult to determine whether they think this was obligatory or voluntary.19
Who observed? These sources ascribe general performance of the mitzvot only to Avraham and his descendants. Avraham's initiative explains his selection to be the father of Hashem's chosen nation. Only a select group of commandments was fulfilled by earlier generations such as Adam and Noach.20
Knowledge of the mitzvot – R. Shimon in Bereshit Rabbah attempts to address the question of "אב לא למדו ורב לא היה לו, ומהיכן למד את התורה". He describes in figurative language how Hashem provided Avraham's kidneys with the intuition to teach him Torah.21
Evidence of adherence – The central prooftext for this position is Bereshit 26:5 which describes Avraham's special reward due to his fulfilling of Hashem's commandments.22 The verse refers to three categories of precepts ("מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי"). While earlier Rabbinic sources do not distinguish between the terms in this verse, Rashi identifies each with a different group of laws.23
Even Rabbinic enactments? R. Yochanan24 in Bereshit Rabbah deduces from the plural of "וְתוֹרֹתָי" that Avraham kept even the later ordinances of the sages such as הלכות עירובי חצרות.‎25 The standard printed edition of the Tosefta, though, applies the plural merely to the reasons for the mitzvot and their details.26 There is also room for discussion as to the scope of what is included according to the Bavli.27
Punishments for violators – According to this approach, the generation of the Flood, the inhabitants of Sedom, and the Canaanites were punished for violating the select group of Noachide laws which were given explicitly or considered to be natural law.28
Religiosity of the Patriarchs – This approach emphasizes the uniqueness of the Patriarchs in that they voluntarily assumed responsibility for keeping all of Hashem's commandments.
Patriarchal transgressions – In explaining cases like Yaakov's marrying sisters and Amram's marriage to his aunt, these sources have a couple of options open to them:
Polemical motivations – This position may have been intended to counter Christian claims that the mitzvot were given only in the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf.30 It thus emphasizes that the mitzvot existed and were observed centuries before that, and that the Patriarchs performed them voluntarily and not because they were an imposed penalty.31

No Observance

The Patriarchs fulfilled only what they were explicitly commanded in Sefer Bereshit, and these did not include mitzvot other than circumcision.

Evidence of adherenceBereshit 18:19 and Bereshit 26:5 refer merely to ethical laws or to ad hoc instructions given to the Patriarchs.32
Punishments for violators – The generation of the Flood, the inhabitants of Sedom, and the Canaanites were punished for violating natural law.33 This position is presented by ChizkuniBereshit 7:21Bereshit 26:5About R. Chizkiyah b. Manoach.
Religiosity of the Patriarchs – The religiosity of our forefathers was manifest in their monotheistic dedication to following Hashem's instructions and in their moral and ethical standard of behavior, but it did not generally reflect itself through ritual performance.
Patriarchal transgressions – These commentators explain that the Patriarchs and their families were not yet bound by Torah laws.34

Partial Observance

The Patriarchs only partially observed the commandments. The multiple variations of this approach maintain that distinctions existed between different Patriarchs, types of commandments, and locations.

Only Avraham

Who observed? According to this position, only Avraham chose to keep all of the mitzvot, while his descendants observed, at most, only selected commandments.
Evidence of adherenceBereshit 26:5 speaks specifically of Avraham's performance of all of the various types of mitzvot. According to the Rema, Bereshit 18:19, which describes Avraham's legacy to his descendants, is referring only to the seven basic Noachide laws.
Punishments for violators – The generation of the Flood, the inhabitants of Sedom, and the Canaanites were punished for disregarding the basic Noachide laws.
Religiosity of the Patriarchs – According to this approach, there is a fundamental difference in character between Avraham, as the first Patriarch and the founder of monotheism, and the other Patriarchs and their descendants.37
Patriarchal transgressions – Rema notes that this opinion entirely avoids the problem raised by Yaakov's marrying two sisters. Only cases regarding Avraham would still be an issue, and see Maharal's discussion of Avraham's possible marriage to his half sister.
Polemical motivations – This position is able to maintain that the mitzvot predate Sinai and the Golden Calf, without being forced to defend each and every action of the Patriarchs and their households.

Only Selected Commandments

Who observed? According to this approach, all of the Patriarchs observed the commandments only selectively. Jubilees attributes the performance of certain mitzvot already to Noach.
Which commandments?
  • Rashbam suggests that only rational mitzvot which relate to a moral ethic were observed.39
  • According to the Maharal, since the mitzvot had not yet been commanded, there was a constructive purpose in keeping only the positive, but not the negative, commandments.
Knowledge of the mitzvot – Jubilees maintains that books and traditions were transmitted through the generations forming an unbroken chain from Chanokh40 all the way down to Levi.41 For Rashbam, though, Avraham could have deduced ethical commandments on his own.
Evidence of adherence – This position maintains that Bereshit 18:19 and Bereshit 26:5 constitute proof only for certain precepts being observed. Jubilees and R. Saadia also find numerous additional verses which hint at the observance of other individual mitzvot.
Punishments for violators – The generation of the Flood, the inhabitants of Sedom, and the Canaanites were punished for their immoral behavior.42
Patriarchal transgressions – With regard to the actions of Reuven and Yehuda, Jubilees notes that their violations were not punished because the Torah was not yet given.
Polemical motivations – Some maintain that Jubilees was motivated to associate various commandments with characters going as far back as Noach, in order to combat Hellenist claims that the Jewish people's difficulties with the nations of the world began when the Israelites began to observe the mitzvot.43

Only In Israel

Who observed? Avraham and his descendants kept all of the commandments of their own volition ("as one who is not commanded but nevertheless does"), but they did so only while living in Israel.44
Knowledge of the mitzvot – Ramban says that Avraham learned the Torah and its commandments through Divine inspiration.
Evidence of adherenceBereshit 26:5 refers to all of the commandments.45
Punishments for violators – The generation of the Flood, the inhabitants of Sedom, and the Canaanites were punished for disregarding the basic Noachide laws.
Religiosity of the Patriarchs – According to this approach, part of the greatness of the Patriarchs lies in their voluntarily keeping all of Hashem's commandments.
Patriarchal transgressions – Ramban explains that the Patriarchs did not abide by the commandments only when they were outside the Land of Israel, where obligations that are not "חובות הגוף" are not enforced.46 This is consistent with Ramban's overall take on the connection between observance of mizvot and living in the Land of Israel.47