By Israel Drazin
In Genesis 26:4 and 5, God tells the patriarch Isaac that he will give him many descendants and the land of Canaan, and that people will bless them “because Abraham listened to my voice and kept my charge, commandments, statutes, and laws.” Leaving aside the issue of why Abraham’s descendants should be rewarded for his acts, what did Abraham do to merit this reward?
Rashi, basing his view on Midrash Genesis Rabbah 79:7, 92:4, and 95:2, the Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 21, and other sources, states that Abraham observed the entire Torah even though it was not revealed until centuries later to Moses, including even rabbinical prohibitions that weren’t enacted until a millennium later. Nachmanides adds that the afore-mentioned sources say that the other Israelite ancestors also observed the Torah before it was revealed. He asks, if so how did Jacob erect a pillar and Moses twelve pillars, Jacob marry two wives in their lifetime, and Moses’ father marry his aunt.
Nachmanides states that he agrees with Rashi and is convinced that although the Torah was not yet revealed and the rabbinical enactments not yet established, Abraham knew both by prophecy. Why then, he asks, did the ancestors violate biblical commands? He offers his unusual view that Torah laws were meant to be observed in Canaan, but not outside this land. Jews observe them in the diaspora, according to him, only by rabbinical decree (see his commentary to Leviticus 18:25). He explains that the seeming violations he mentions were done outside Canaan and the Deuteronomy 16:22 prohibition of pillars applied only to a certain time, not when Jacob and Moses erected them. Nachmanides was thus able to support his view based on his unusual idea that Torah rules only apply in Canaan and because he ignored other patriarchal violations of later Torah law as interpreted by the rabbis such as Abraham serving a meal of meat and dairy products in Genesis 18:8.
Contrary to Rashi and Nachmanides, it is possible that the many rabbinical statements that the patriarchs observed the Torah were hyperbolic sermons devised to highlight the importance of Torah observance and were not meant to be taken literally. If the patriarchs did observe the Torah and rabbinical enactments, the Torah would have mentioned it to stress the importance of Torah as it emphasizes this lesson on many other occasions in many different ways.