How Religious Were The Avos?: The Pre-Sinaitic Torah

It is well known that the Torah was given to the Jews in the desert at Har Sinai. This, however, begs the question: to what extent, if at all, did the Torah exist before it was given at Sinai? What did pre-Sinaitic Judaism look like? Did the Avos, living before the giving of the Torah, live by the guidelines that we adhere to today? Better yet, could they have possibly followed a code of law that was not to be given for another couple hundred years?

It’s Not So Simple

Upon a quick perusing of divrei Chazal, it seems rather clear that the Avos, at least to some extent, did follow the Torah and keep the mitzvos. Rashi makes many comments throughout Sefer Bereishis quoting Chazal to this point1 — most famously commenting that when Yaakov revealed to his brother Eisav that he had lived (“גרתי”) with Lavan, Yaakov was hinting to the fact that he kept all 613 mitzvos2. In truth, however, Rashi did not come up with this idea by himself. The Gemara clearly states as follows:

Yuma 28b:

קיים אברהם אבינו אפילו עירובי תבשילין שנאמר תורותי אחת תורה שבכתב ואחת תורה שבעל פה

Abraham, our father, kept even the law concerning the Mitzvah of the joining of cooked foods, as it is said: ‘My Torahs’: one being the Written Torah, the other the Oral Torah.”

From this Gemara, seemingly, not only did Avraham keep the 613 Biblical commandments, he even kept the Rabbinic ones as well!

This view, however, presents a number of major difficulties. First, how could the Avos have possibly even known about the mitzvos – especially those of Rabbinic nature? Second, what about all the commemorative mitzvos like the mitzvah to remember the Exodus from Egypt, an event that had not happened yet?! Finally, and perhaps the biggest issue of them all, we see that there are certain instances where the Avos very blatantly did not, in fact, adhere to halacha – most notably when Yaakov married two sisters. How are we to reconcile all of this with the apparent tradition that the Avos adhered to the commandments in the Torah?

For the sake of brevity, we will mainly deal with the last of the questions posed above; as we shall see, by answering the last question we may also find answers to the first two as well.

In order to resolve the issue of the Avos keeping the mitzvos before the Torah was given, there seem to be three different general approaches, each one tied into the very status of pre-Sinaitic Torah3.

“Mitzvos”, But Not All the Mitzvos

The first approach is to limit the way in which the Avos kept the mitzvos. Meaning, while they may have, in general, kept the mitzvos, they certainly did not keep all of them. Rama4 seems to be of this opinion. Keeping in line with the Gemara in Yuma, he states that while Avraham did, indeed, keep all 613 commandments, the rest of the Avos did not hold themselves to such a high standard. This makes it easy to answer any questions about Yaakov marring two sisters, or any questions about anyone other than Avraham keeping the whole Torah.

One of the more famous approaches to this question is that of Ramban. He believes that the Avos did keep the entirety of the Torah with one caveat — they did so only in Eretz Yisroel. He limits the definition of what it meant for the Avos to “keep the Torah”, thereby reconciling the Gemara with the problems of the Avos doing things that were counter to halacha. According to Ramban, any case of the Avos breaking normative halacha, such as Yaakov marrying two sisters, happened outside of Eretz Yisroel, where the Avos, accordingly, were not bound by the Torah.

The Da’as Zekainim adds another element to this discussion. He addresses how the Avos knew about the Torah in the first place. Commenting on Bereshis 37:35, he states that while the Avos knew the Torah through Ruach HaKodesh, since they weren’t commanded to keep it5, they were thus able to pick and choose which mitzvos they did and did not keep.

The final approach in this section, similar to that of the Da’as Zekainim, is that of the Gur Aryeh, or, as he is more commonly known, Maharal. He says6 that the Avos only kept the positive commandments, but did not, necessarily, adhere to the negative commandments. This is, again, with the exclusion of Avraham who also observed the negative mitzvos. Maharal explains that there is inherent benefit in doing a positive commandment — even if there was no command to do so — namely, fulfilling the will of HaShem. Such is not the case by a negative commandment. The purpose of refraining from doing a negative commandment is to ensure one does not do something against the will of God. If, however, God never told you that he doesn’t want a certain thing done, then you are not going against His will.

The common thread amongst all those in this camp is that the Torah was not given or commanded to the Avos; they were able to figure things out through Ruach HaKodesh. Essentially, they used their elevated level of spirituality to determine what HaShem desired of them and did as such. To them, the Torah as we know it was virtually non-existent. All they had was an idea of what they were supposed to do. Therefore, since there was no real Torah to adhere to, they were not obligated to follow it.

“Kept”, But A Different Way Of Doing Them

The Zohar7 states that the Torah preceded the world by 2,000 years, and when HaShem wanted to create the world, He looked into the Torah for every detail. The Sfas Emes8 explains based on this that this is why the Avos are always digging wells. He says that the Hebrew word for well, “באר”, can also mean “to explain”. Thus, when the Torah tells us that the Avos were “digging wells”, it also means that they were “explaining the wisdom of Creation”. Since everything was created based off the Torah, the Avos were able to reverse engineer the world, so to speak, in order to figure out the Torah.

This view creates a stronger bond between the Avos and the Torah than the previous view. Under this second perspective, the Torah, to the Avos, was not merely something abstract, but was rather a semi-concrete understanding of how the world worked. Such a connection created a stronger obligation to obey the commandments inside of said Torah.

It is perhaps in light of this Zohar that the Nefesh HaChaim has a different perspective on how the Avos related to the mitzvos. Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the author of Nefesh HaChaim, states that the Avos did not physically do the mitzvos the same way that we do nowadays. They did the mitzvos on a spiritual plane, affecting the upper realms. He posits that this is why HaShem didn’t actually give them the Torah – because if He had, then they would have been bound by it and would not have been able to do some of the things that they needed to do in order to properly affect the upper worlds.

It is this view that Rav Asher Weiss10 claims that Rambam takes as well. In a letter to Rav Chasdai HaLevi in Alexandria11, Rambam writes that the Avos did not keep the Torah, but nonetheless avoided Gehenom as they were able to “מתקן”, or rectify, their souls as necessary. Rav Asher Weiss interprets this to mean that while they didn’t physically do the mitzvos, they most certainly kept the spiritual aspects of the Torah.

Being that the Avos figured out the inner working of the Torah — the deeper understandings behind the physical words — that is essentially how they kept it. Because they weren’t given the physical Torah, they did not have to keep the physical Torah.

This understanding can be seen in the Zohar as well. In Parshas Vayeitzei (Sisrei Torah 162a) the Zohar states that Yaakov, in some sense, wore tefillin by using the staffs that he made that aided his sheep in reproducing in the way that he desired. This shows that Yaakov somehow kept the mitzvah of tefillin without wearing the actual tefillin that we wear nowadays. This is to say that he fulfilled the mitzvah of tefillin on its spiritual plane.

They Kept The Mitzvos Like We Do Today

The final approach, and perhaps the most difficult one to understand, is to take the Gemara literally, at face value, without any modifications. This approach is taken by the Ohr HaChaim. He comments (Bereishis 49:3) that the Avos had the full Torah as it was handed down to them from HaShem to Adam to Chanoch to Noach to them. However, he says, they were only commanded in the 7 Noahide laws; they would get reward for keeping the rest of the Torah, but would not be punished for not keeping it. Nonetheless, the Avos, out of their love for HaShem, endeavored to keep the entire Torah to the best of their ability. However, in certain instances, when they saw benefit in violating the Torah, they departed from what the Torah says since there was no punishment. Additionally, the Ohr HaChaim adds, the Avos were prophets and HaShem instructed them to violate the Torah in the cases where they did so12.

The Beis HaLevi has a similar understanding. He addresses the issue of how the Avos could have possibly kept the Torah given that many of the events much of the commandments are based on did not transpire yet. He states13 that the Avos kept the Torah as a chok — a mitzvah that is beyond human understanding. The same way that we don’t understand the reason behind a Para Adumah, for instance, the Avos didn’t know why they ate matzah on the 15th of Nissan. (He takes this idea further and explains that the same way that after leaving Egypt the mitzvah to eat matzah made sense, so too some time in the future we will understand the reason behind Para Adumah.)

In Aderes HaYakar, Rav Kook relates a novel understanding of how the Avos kept the Torah before Har Sinai. He writes that from the time of Creation certain things were implanted in Man’s collective consciousness; things like religion, growing closer to God, and being a good person. He further explains that because of these intuitions, the Avos were able to practice a Judaism extremely similar to that which we have today. They didn’t keep the Torah because of the Torah, but rather because of an inherent desire or need to fulfill part of what they felt was their human nature.

Whether they actually had the Torah, according to the Ohr HaChaim, or if they merely had it hidden inside of them, like Rav Kook’s approach, it is apparent that the Avos had a deep connection to the Torah and as such kept it to the best of their abilities. Any case of discrepancy between their actions and what the Torah dictates to be proper must be explained on an individual basis. For the Ohr HaChaim, each case was a direct prophecy from God, while Rav Kook would have to work to explain each case on an individual basis.


Putting it all together, there seem to be three different understandings as to how the Torah existed before it was formally given to the Jews at Har Sinai.

The first understanding believed that it didn’t really exist at all. The Avos were able to intuit what HaShem desired and did their best to follow that. Nonetheless, since they didn’t have any structure of the Torah, they were not at all bound by it. Those who adhere to this understanding, therefore, assume that the Avos did not keep all the mitzvos (“all” being the key word here — they still did keep many, if not most, of them).

The second opinion, based on the Zohar, understood that the Torah existed before the world was created — it just wasn’t formally given until Sinai. Grounded with this understanding, the Avos did have some form of the Torah to guide their lives. Yet, this Torah was much more spiritual — it was not, necessarily, the physical Torah that we read today. Consequently, the way the Avos followed the Torah was in a purely spiritual fashion, not in the physical manner that we practice today.

And finally, the last outlook believes that the Avos had the physical Torah that we have today14. Since they had the physical Torah, they were bound by it to the same extent that we are bound by it today. Therefore, proponents of this view must explain each case of the Avos departing from normative halacha on an individual basis, as well as the necessary conclusion that the Avos knew the full future of the Jewish people and yet seemed to act as if they did not.

What Is The Significance Of Har Sinai?

One thing that seems to be agreed upon by all the opinions, however, is that the Avos were not commanded in the mitzvos. As such, any mitzvah which they did, they did as one who isn’t commanded. This all changed at Har Sinai, when we were actually commanded in the mitzvos.

The Gemara15 says in the name of Rav Chanina that “one who is commanded and does is better than the one who isn’t commanded and does”. Why is this? Tosfos answer, on Kiddushin 31, that when you are commanded, you worry and pain yourself more about the mitzvah. This is in contrast to one who isn’t commanded, since if you aren’t commanded, you know that there are no real repercussions if you fail.

Maharal16 gives another two answers. First, he suggests that when you are commanded, you know for sure that HaShem wants you to do the mitzvah. Additionally, he says, when one is commanded, he or she does it for the sake of Heaven, while if one was not commanded he or she might be doing it for ulterior motives. Finally, Ran17 suggests that it is possible, if one isn’t commanded, that HaShem doesn’t want that person to do that mitzvah18. Therefore, when one is commanded, it is a superior observance, as he or she knows that HaShem wants this mitzvah performed.

As interesting as it is to talk about the extent to which our forefathers adhered to the strict laws that we do today, as a whole, the discussion is largely irrelevant, and can stay in the category of דרוש וקבל שכר19. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that, regardless of what, exactly, they were obligated in, the Avos strived to grow. As their offspring, we must do the same.

1. Bereishis 7:2, 19:3, 26:5, and 28:11.

2. Bereshis 32:5

3. Before fully getting into the topic, it is interesting to note Rav Sadiah Gaon’s approach: the mitzvos that we see that the Torah tells us the Avos kept, they kept. The mitzvos that were impossible for them to keep, they didn’t keep. And the others, it is possible they kept them, and equally possible that they didn’t. (Bereishis, 4th chapter)

4. Shut Rama Siman 10

5. Rambam, Hilchos Melachim 9:1

6. Bereishis 46:10

7. Terumah 161

8. Toldos 661

9. Nefesh HaChaim 1:21:1-3

10. Minchas Asher, Vayishlach 273. He also attributes this view to Rav Avraham Ben HaRambam and Oneg Tom Tov.

11. Some scholars claim that this letter was a forgery.

12. Rambam, Yesodai HaTorah, 9:3 – A known Navi may command us to transgress the Torah as a temporary practice.

13. Shemos, Perek 13

14. It would be a fascinating discussion as to how this affected other things, such as predicting the future, but that is not our topic.

15. Baba Kama 38a

16. Chiddushei Aggados, Kiddushin 31a

17. Derashot HaRan, 7th derosh, “ד׳׳ה: השנית והטענה”

18. This is different from the first answer of Maharal, as Maharal suggests that HaShem might not want it, but nonetheless appreciates it, while Ran suggest that HaShem is not happy with one who does this mitzvah.

19. Sanhedrin 71a

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