Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Did the Patriarchs (Avot) Keep the Whole Torah? - Apples of Gold in Vessels of Silver.

I got into a discussion with a friend regarding the meaning of the saying of Chazal that the Avot (patriarchs) kept the 613 Mitzvot. This discussion was also briefly touched on at the excellent Divrei Chaim blog (although dealing with an even more radical extrapolation of the idea) as well as on the follow up posts. See also the recent posting on the also excellent Mevaseretzion blog .

My friend a product of the mainstream Yeshiva world, after much prodding on my part, came out with the following statement (note the slightly frustrated undertone) –

“Taryag Mitzvos – The Avos knew innately to keep the Mitzvos without a specific commandment. According to some, the perception of theirs extended to Derabanans (such as Eiruv Tavshilin) as well. And perhaps only when they were in Israel, where the Kedusha is greater.”

So I ask, “Does this make sense to you?” – And he answers –


Let me make it clear that I am not at all critical of this young man. He is the product of a system that Rambam already struggled with during his time.

The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfils his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence, he is lost in perplexity and anxiety. If he were guided solely by reason, and renounce his previous views which are based on those expressions, he would consider that he had rejected the fundamental principles of the Law. Even if he retains the opinions which were derived from those expressions, and if, instead of following his reason, he abandon its guidance altogether, it would still appear that his religious convictions had suffered loss and injury. For, he would then be left with those errors which give rise to fear and anxiety, constant grief and great perplexity.” (Introduction to MN)

They teach you in Yeshiva how to interpret a Halachik Ramban, Rashba and a Reb Chaim here and there, but to read a Midrash Chazal rationally trying to understand what they teach us – they were not storytellers or reporters of magical events – is too much to ask. The Mussar Schmuessen are so focused on Midot and other practical matters, so little on Hashkafah that most just blank out and ignore them. I also am convinced that the Rashei Yeshivot and Mashgichim do not have a clue themselves. If they do, they are afraid to voice their opinions for fear of excommunication. Only those like Rav Dessler, R. Chaim Shmulevitz et al. who achieved fame and were respected as Gedolim, dared openly discuss these issues.

Understanding the meaning of the Avot keeping the Torah before it was given as I see it, hinges on how we understand the reason for Mitzvot. As I discussed in the series of posts on Yaakov’s Ladder, Ramban sees a world full of spirits and magic that needs to be harnessed so that man is not buffeted by events beyond his control. The Torah teaches man how to remove himself from the control of the capricious and magical nature, to throw himself on the mercy of God. The Mitzvot have therefore intrinsic meaning and they interfere with the natural order of things, deflecting the nefarious influence of the magical forces. By focusing on HKBH and attaching himself to Him, accepting with his whole heart that all comes from Him, man throws himself on His mercies. HKBH orders the spiritual forces that control nature to protect that particular person. Certain acts are prohibited because they interfere with the proper functioning of these spiritual forces. A typical example of such a prohibition is the Issur of Kilayim. Each entity, animal fibers or vegetal ones, vine and grains, grains and vegetables, each has a different spiritual source, is controlled by a different power that watches over them. Mixing them together creates confusion in those powers[1]. According to this understanding of Mitzvot, the Avot too understood this spiritual world and were able to develop on their own or through their nevuah similar actions that took them from under the influence of the stars and threw them under God’s direct supervision.

Rambam on the other hand understands the world differently. HKBH does not need intermediaries to run the world. He is omniscient and omnipotent having created a perfect world that runs itself without the need of constant spiritual input. Man cannot manipulate nor change nature other than through his physical actions. If there is no rain in an area, he must bring waters from afar, build canals and work the land in such a way that it will produce. No amount of Mitzvot or prayer will change the physical reality. However, man also has the ability to act beyond his immediate needs for survival. He can also try to understand how his actions have a long-term effect, sometimes beyond his own lifetime. He can try to find and decipher the will of HKBH and partake with Him in creating. He searches for meaning beyond the present and wants to understand the meaning of his own existence. Man on this quest can very easily get lost in an imaginary universe, out of touch with reality, a world of fantasy and eventually idolatry. Torah and Mitzvot is the path that, if followed properly, prevents us from veering off into this world of fantasy. It also establishes interpersonal relationships so that we can dedicate ourselves to thought rather than spending time defending ourselves against our neighbors. It teaches us restraint, so that we don’t dedicate our life to the accumulation of wealth. It teaches discipline both in actions and thought. It teaches us to think about God at all times by doing Mitzvot like Shabbat, Yom Tov, prayer etc… It tells us not to act in the superstitious ways of the idolaters who believed in the spiritual control of the world and tried to influence the spirits through actions that affected them. They planted vines with grains because they believed that the powers that controlled them liked these types of combinations.

According to Ramban, there is an intrinsic value to Mitzvot. Keeping them properly has a real effect out there. Rambam sees them as tools. They have no intrinsic value other than what they teach, what they represent. Keeping this in mind Meiri (1249-1310), the great Maimonidean Rabbi who lived in Provence during the 13th century, addresses the issue of the Avot keeping the 613 Mitzvot in his introduction to Pirkei Avot. When Chazal tell us that Avraham Avinu kept the whole Torah including Eiruvei Chatzerot, (Breishit Rabah 64) they are referring to a minor detail in Hilchot Shabbat, as if to say that Avraham taught the whole idea behind Shabbat. He taught in great detail, what Shabbat stands for, that God created the world and the practical implications of that belief. When the Rabbis say that Avraham kept Eiruvei Tavshilin (Yoma 28b) they are telling us that Avraham taught the meaning of Yom Tov. Yom Tov stands for Yetziat Mitzraim, the Exodus, which teaches that there is reward and punishment in this world, that there is Divine Providence and that there are miracles.

Rambam’s Mitzvot are meant to help us understand our existence and find God. This idea of searching for God was introduced to the world by the Avot who taught these lessons in their times. They tried to accomplish this without the practical Mitzvot, teaching the underlying theology. These teachings were almost lost when the natural course of events interfered and their descendants ended up in slavery in Egypt. By a miraculous confluence of events, God gave us Moshe Rabbeinu, who then gave us a Torah and Mitzvot so that the near catastrophe of Egypt does not repeat itself. They are the practical anchor that keeps us focused.

“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in vessels of silver" (Prov. 25:11).

[1] Ramban Vaykra 19:19 –
רמב"ן פרשת קדשים

ומחברינו מוסיף בטעם הכלאים, כי הוא שלא לערבב הכחות המגדלים הצמחים להיות יונקים זה מזה, ממה שאמרו בבראשית רבה (י ו), אמר רבי סימון אין לך כל עשב ועשב מלמטה שאין לו מזל ברקיע ומכה אותו ואומר לו גדל, הדא הוא דכתיב (איוב לח לג) הידעת חקות שמים אם תשים משטרו בארץ. והנה המרכיב כלאים או זורען בכדי שינקו זה מזה מבטל חקות שמים, ולכך אמר בהם את חקותי תשמורו, כי הם חקות שמים, וכך אמר רבי חנינא משום רבי פנחס משום חקים שחקקתי בהם את עולמי (ירושלמי כלאים פ"א ה"ז):
וכבר כתבתי בסדר בראשית (א יא) שהצמחים כולם יסודותם בעליונים ומשם צוה להם השם את הברכה חיים עד העולם, והנה המערב כלאים מכחיש ומערב מעשה בראשית:


  1. Anyone who even a smattering of experience with parshanut, and rishonim beyong Rashi know that a literal interpretation of this dictum is simply one interpretation of many of a pasuk. And a more unlikely and forced interpretation than almost all the others.

  2. David - I thank you for referring to me as a friend and as a young man.

    Can you please explain the difference between my comment "The Avos knew innately to keep the Mitzvos without a specific commandment" and the Ramban's approach "According to this understanding of Mitzvot, the Avot too understood this spiritual world and were able to develop on their own or through their nevuah similar actions..."

  3. >Can you please explain the difference between my comment "The Avos knew innately to keep the Mitzvos without a specific commandment" and the Ramban's approach "According to this understanding of Mitzvot, the Avot too understood this spiritual world and were able to develop on their own or through their nevuah similar actions..."

    None at all. I just defined where you were coming from. If you believe the world operates in Ramban's way - you are correct in assuming that the Avot acted in certain mystical ways to influence God who controls the stars. They in fact made eruvei tavshillin!

    I did not judge one shita against the other though I do not hide my preference. I also believe that had Ramban been alive nowadays he would not agree with those who follow him blindly without somehow reinterpreting his thought to agree with reality. He was too much of a seeker of truth.

  4. David - What is the view of other Rishonim on the subject?

    Does Rambam agree with Rashi that Lot was eating Matza?

  5. Rashi does not make it up he quotes a midrash without explaining what it means. Rambam agrees that there is such a midrash and trusts that you will figure out what it means as I believe did Rashi, and not take it literally. You can get an idea of Rashi's attitude from the exchange Rashbam reports in the beginning of toldot.

  6. David - There are shivim ponim latorah.The Rambam is perhaps the pre-eminent Rishon but there are other views and other Rishonim e.g. the Ramban's view you quoted.

    One day we will find out whether the Avos kept the Taryag mitvos in the literal sense but in the meantime I am prepared to accept that there are different views in the Rishonim/ Achronim on this issue. Rambam is not the only view.

  7. >>> I also am convinced that the Rashei Yeshivot and Mashgichim do not have a clue themselves.

    The list of people who took a literalist approach to the shmiras hamitzvos of the Avos includes: the Netziv, the Meshech Chochma, the Parashas Derachim, the Chasam Sofer, the Yismach Moshe, and many others (my sample spans Litvishe to Hungarian/Chassidishe). These are the people who you think "do not have a clue"???

  8. >These are the people who you think "do not have a clue"???

    That is taking my words out of context. the Rashei Yeshivot who do not present both approaches and accuse anyone who thinks it is allegorical as kofrim, and these are very well represented among our contemporary RY,have no clue as do others who have no opinion. As you know R. Chaim real hashkafah, like yediat hashem and even understanding that there is a difference between Rambam and ramban shitot, what they are and the implications is non existent in the yeshiva world except a few yechidim.

    BTW, I have the meshech chochma at home but i remember him explaining eiruvei tavshilin by avrohom as making nefashot outside his own family and ya'akov Eruvei techumim as setting a havdala between us and the rest of the world.

    BTW I said Ramban too held it was literal, I also explained why he held so, and I hope you are not choshed that I think Ramban has no clue. Apparently Netziv et al held like him though i have no idea why as I explained in my earlier post "clarification".

  9. Once again, another great analysis. Its funny that we are still running over the same ground trodden by these greats. One might even argue, as Heschel did, that the argument is even older than that. He compared Akiva and Ishmael of course, but the point is this...the argument is very old and there are greats on either side of the equation to back up one view or the other. Since this is the case, perhaps some mutual respect of the kind that you always seem to show is in order.

  10. I recall Avraham serving meat with milk so they definitely did not keep all of it.

    BTW, do you have the source at hand for the Ramban I quote in my new post? that would help me out allot. Thanks.

  11. David,
    R. Avraham ben HaRambam in parshat Vayishlach(I forget exactly where) explicitly says that the Avot didn't actually keep all the mitzvot. Also there is an interesting Da'at Zekenim Mebaalei Hatosfot on this week's parsha in discussing the 'daughters' of Yaakov, that asks how the Avot could act contrary to the Torah. He answers that they knew the entire Torah but they didn't necessarily keep everything.

  12. >that would help me out allot. Thanks.

    Sorry no.

  13. R. Chaim B. See Meshech Chochma Breishit 33:18 on Vaychan et pnei ha'ir. Vehatziur Bezeh -

  14. No matter what extent you stretch the literalness of this midrash, we must somewhere break for sanity. I've found the following discussion quite successful in battling closed-minded individuals on this issue:

    The Ramban held that it is a mitzva dioroysa to tell your children that har sinai happened. Do you think that the avos lied to their children, telling them that har sinai happened though it really did not?

    Response: well, quite obviously the Ramban MEANS that they communicated the ideas behind har sinai, not the actual MITZVA. In instances where the mitzva was do-able, they would do the mitzva in line with the ideas behind it. How could you accuse the avos of lying!!!



    I find that often we must pit two charedi emotions against eachother to achieve truth. Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.


  15. In Kellner's latest book, he argues that Rambam did not hold of the principle that the Avos kept the Torah.

  16. Totally unrelated subject: Do you know of any sources that discuss the question of the miracle of Hanukkah, in light of the fact that miracles are generally a function of prophecy and there was no prophet around when the miracle occurred?

  17. RJM, I have not read anything on the subject. Reflecting on it though, prophecy is needed for a miracle predicted or performed by a navi like kryat yam suf. Here they just managed to light 8 days there was no one telling them that it will happen so. Any event that is not "Keminhago shel olam" is seen as a ness a posteriori and does not require anything pther than it happenning.

  18. The issue of our Avot fulfilling the mitzvoth has always caused me some acute disquiet since, e.g. God cannot command mad to celebrate the Egyptian Exodus, until it occurred. So it is clear that the Torah of 613 commands could not possibly exist in early generations. The Rabbinic commentaries that state that the Avot fulfilled the mitzvoth must be understood on a deeper lever, since the Exodus did not yet transpire.”

    A look back a few parashot at the Akeida Yitzhak may yeild some answers. Specifically, just as Abraham was about to plunge the knife into his most beloved son Yitzhak and offer his child up to Hashem as a korban, Hashem prevents this most perplexing of deeds and tells him in Bereshit Chapter 22 verse 12. “Do not lay a hand on the boy”, he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

    What does it mean that Hashem only now knows that Abraham fears Hashem? Which Abraham is Hashem referring to? The Abraham who had already passed nine (9) previous tests in which his fealty to God was tested and in each and every circumstance his fidelity to Hashem was proven to be unsurpassed? The Abraham who founded ethical monotheism – an idea that is unsurpassed in its impact in the entire course of world history? The Abraham who is 99 years old and has only shown love and dedication to Hashem since his early age? So given everything that preceded the Akeda, how could it be that only now Hashem knows that Abraham fears God? Moreover, by all accounts this fear of God is apparently the apotheosis of knowledge and love of God since God required no further tests of Abraham. What exactly is this fear of God that we should aspire to?

    If one turns to Devarim 10:12 I think we may find the answer. There, Moshe tells us: “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God.” What is it that Moshe is asking Israel in asking that they “fear the Lord our God.” What does that entail? How does one fear God? Simply continue on with the verse and the answer unveils itself - “to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” And that was Abraham, to wit, in fulfilling the dictate to sacrifice his own son; Abraham demonstrated that he loved Hashem with all his heart and with all his soul. He was the paragon of faith and the quintessential Jew. Abraham possessed the same perfections “as if” he fulfilled all the mitvoth.

    In allowing himself to fulfill every command, he demonstrated to the world that he loved Hashem with all his heart and with all his soul; a level that stands as the ultimate standard by which we all are to aspire. But the question remains – how do we simple Jews “serve the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart and with all [our] soul.” While we may aspire to be an Abraham, we are certainly not there yet. Is there any message the Torah can impart that can help us reach this most sought after, yet elusive of goals? Certainly, just continue reading the next sentence – “observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good.” Thus, by observing Hashem’s commands and decrees, or more specifically, the mitzvoth we too can be on our way towards “serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

    Which brings us back to the original question - what did the Hachamim mean when they stated the Avot fulfilled the mitzvoth? Simple – inasmuch as Abraham proved that he feared Hashem he had shown that he had indeed “serve[d] the LORD God with all [his] heart and with all [his] soul” as if he had “observed the Lord’s commands and decrees.” However, most people aren’t an Abraham. Thus, we need a Torah to assist us towards a lifestyle Abraham led. For Abraham, it as if he followed all the mitzvoth since he wholly and fully responded to the call of “what does the Lord your God ask of you.” For us post-Sinaitic Jews, we must follow the mitzvoth – but not for Hashem’s good but “for our own good.”


    Nativ Winiarsky

  19. Nativ thank you for an interesting way of describing Avraham's love of HKBH.

    I wonder how you understand Avraham's sacrificing his son equals love of God? The comparative instance in history is the sacrifice of children during the Crusades to save them from the fate of forced conversions. It was however not a universally accepted act and I doubt Rambam would subscribe to it.

  20. Danish said hi Grandpa

  21. See Maharal Tiferes Yisroel chap 20.

  22. Nu Ergo, Vos zogt ehr?

    Can you give us concisely what his idea is and explain it in practical terms?

    I cannot for the life of me.

  23. I don't have a copy of Maharal at work (or at home) but essentially (if I recall correctly) he says Avrohom kept all mitvos and Yitschok and Yakov kept mitvos asei but not lo sasei which is how Yakkov could marry 2 sisters.

    David - can you accept there are 2appraoches to this subject and that there are eminent Rishonim and Achronim who take a literalist approach?

    It seems to me you refuse to accept the literalist view because it does not make sense to you?

  24. >It seems to me you refuse to accept the literalist view because it does not make sense to you?

    Does it to you? I do not accept that there are things in this physical world that we live in that have to be accepted when they don't make sense. I am not impressed by anyo Rishon or acharon especially when I know their basis is an erroneous understanding of science and the world they live in. I am convinced that being they were great men they would agree with me if they had the information we now have. I also believe that as we accept that Betzelem Elokim asa et ha'adam we are required to think thus.

  25. Advancements in science may shed new light on matters of metzios commented on by previous authorities but science is not relevant to the issue of whether or not the Avos observed taryag mitvos. What information do we have today which would render the opinion of the Rishonim/ Achronim taking a literalist approach wrong? Can you not accept the possible validity of a position supported by most Rishonim/ achronim simply because you do not understand it? Out of respect for the giants of previous generations would it not seem sensible to accept the possibility of 2 approaches rather than discard the opinion because you have a kashe?Do we only observe mitvos we understand? Can you please elaborate on your point "I also believe that as we accept that Betzelem Elokim asa et ha'adam we are required to think thus".

  26. >What information do we have today which would render the opinion of the Rishonim/ Achronim taking a literalist approach wrong?

    I think I explained in my post that the reason some Rishonim believed the avot kept the mitzvot literally is because there is an inherent power in the mitzvos and they are here to help us control our destiny. Therefore there is a specific action that has to be done, e.g. taking the lulav to accomplish what it was meant to. They are therefore forced to say that avot did the mitzvot literally. That is based on an erroneous understanding on how nature works and that we can, with our deeds, influence nature which is composed of spiritual powers.

    This understanding of nature has been shown to be erroneous. It is therefore clear that it is not the action per se that does anything - it is the idea behind the Mitzva. One can accomplish the same thing a lilav with a different ma'asseh which will remind us that HKBH is the cause for all this plenty. The Torah chose Lulav among other possibilities and that is why the Miutzvah is lulav. That being the case, before the Torah established that rule any other similar action would have taught the same lesson. Clearly then the Avot could have taught the same lessons mitzvot do in other ways.

    Being that the spiritual understanding is proven wrong why stick to it other than out of unnecessary stubborness. we are not granting those greats any Kavod by not acknowledging that had they the same information we have they would have changed their position. What is greater than a modeh al ha'emess whch is the tzelem elokim - chotamo shel HKBH emet.

    I ronically you picked on Maharal. I am not an expert though I have read a lot of his stuff and also about him. (see the Eisen article in hakirah on him - it is worthwhile). He was davka a truth seeker and tried to explain the Ramban's approach in view of the scientific developments of his time as he was keenly aware of Copernicus, Galileo and Tycho Brahe. He would have encouraged a reassesment after his science was shown to be wrong again.

    So to me there is just a waste of time and a lack of realism in fact denying Torah when one sticks to his guns in the face of contrary evidence.

  27. I looked at the Meiri in the introduction to Avos, and while I agree that he most probably means what you say, it remains ambiguous. He distinguishes between 'iyunios' and 'torasios.' I assume the first means philosophical and the second modes of behavior. According to you, the latter is not much different than the former.

  28. Barzilai,

    I do get emails of all comments on the blog. The way I understand it is that the Meiri differentiates between Metziut and Achdut hashem which are empirically provable Yediot - even Aristotle (according to Rambam) knew that - and ontological beliefs like Chidush which we only know through nevuah - see MN 2:25 - thus he calls it Toriot - without the Torah or Nevuah we would not know that the world was created yesh me'ayin.

  29. Barzilai

    You got me thinking . There is no Mitzvah to remind us of metziut hashem - there is one direct mitzva Anochi (aliba derambam) which is Yediat Hashem. On the other hand beliefs that are based on nevuah require mitzvot that bring about zechirah - shabbat for Chidush and Yom tov for Hashgacha for example. Ramban when he talks about zechira in mitzvot also uses the term Chidush haolam, yedia and hashgacha. He adds yrdiah after chidush because he holds chidush teaches on metziut. Anyway thank you for opening an intersting avenue. I am sure I will get on it,