Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Was the Torah applicable before it was given?

There's a question that's been bothering me for a while.

It hibernates in the back of my mind, and surfaces every once in a while.

And that's about the Torah, and when it became applicable.
Because I've heard- I'm sure you've all heard- this approach which suggests that the Torah was applicable before it was really given over at Har Sinai.

I've always been confused by this approach. First, because I don't see how that's consistent through all of Beraishis and much of Shmos, and secondly, because I don't know where the source for this idea is. So if anyone could help me out, I'd really appreciate it.

Laws, Ideas, and Judicial Systems prior to Matan Torah as I see it (literally speaking)

1. Genesis 2:16- 2:17 : Of every fruit in the garden you may eat, except from the Tree of Life for then you will die.

2. Genesis 2: 18: It is not good for man to be alone

3. Genesis 4: 7: If you improve yourself, you will be forgiven. If you do not improve yourself, sin rests at your door.

4. Genesis 4:10 The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me (murder.)

5. Genesis 4:15 Whomever slays Cain before the appointed time will be punished

6. Genesis 6:5 Men are wicked, and therefore must be punished.

11. Genesis 6:11 This wickedness is robbery. Robbery must be bad, therefore.

12. Genesis 6 throughout: Command of God to Noah to build an Ark, specific instructions as to keeping animals and people alive

13. Genesis 8:15 Go forth from the Ark

14. Genesis 9:1 Be fruitful and multiply.

15. Genesis 9: 3-4 Man may eat meat.

16. Genesis 9: 5-6 The concept of blood-debt is introduced. If you kill, you will be killed. God will demand the blood you shed from YOU.

17. Genesis 12: God commands Abram to leave his land and go in search of another that God will show him

18. Genesis 12: 13 One may lie to save one's life.

19. Genesis 12: 17 Adultery and maybe theft/ kidnapping? (on the man's part) is not allowed. (However, this is subject to debate, because you might claim that only in this instance is it not allowed.)

20. Genesis 14: 14 We are responsible for one another/ it is meritorious to be responsible for one another.

21. Genesis 15: 9 God commands Abraham to slaughter animals for Him. (Bris Bain Ha'Bsarim)

22. God does not command but neither does he negate the idea of having two wives. It is Sarai's suggestion, and Abram does as she asks. This can be viewed as neutral for the time being.

23. Genesis 17: 13 onward: Circumcision

24. Genesis 18: It is good/ meritorious to care for guests. Also, the verse states that Abraham took cream, milk and the calf to serve his guests. The idea of not eating meat and milk together is brought up in a medrish, but from the verse itself it seems like that doesn't apply.

25. Genesis 18:20 There is an outcry that has come before God (similar to by Cain and Hevel) about the wickedness of the people of Sodom and Gemorrah. They must be punished. We also see that it is meritorious to try to defend people, as Abraham does here.

26. Genesis 19: The protection of guests is sacred and binding, to the point where one relinquishes family members before them (not God's command, but possibly a custom of the time. Either way, shows it is meritorious to care for guests.)

27. Genesis 20: Adultery/ kidnapping is not allowed. HOWEVER, God judges people based on their intentions rather than acts (Avimelech is judged on the innocence of his heart.)

28. Genesis 20:11 Fear of God is necessary in a city before you trust to its inhabitants' kindness.

29. Genesis 20: 17 Prayer works!

30. Genesis 21: 12 Heed the voice of your wife (this might refer ONLY to Sarah, in this instance, or could be a law for everyone.)

31. Genesis 22: 1 Take your son and bring him as an offering (by the way, do you notice the verse doesn't say the words "Kill him?" Only "bring him as an offering." In hindsight, it's perfect phrasing.)

32. God helps Eliezer with the sign as to whom Rivka is. However, this is not considered a good thing by everybody, so we can't really learn from here that it's okay to make God perform signs for us.

33. Genesis 22: 57 The woman has to agree to travel with a man (potentially also has to agree to the marriage.)

34. Genesis 25: 31 We learn about legal binding sales- first, that one is ABLE to sell a birthright, and secondly that a legal sale involves some kind of agreement- here, it is food.

35. Genesis 26: 5 Abraham apparently obeyed God's "voice, safeguards, commandments, decrees and Torahs."

36. Lying to save lives/ taking women to sleep with kings motif again

37. Genesis 26: 25 Isaac builds an altar (sacrifices are good.)

38. Genesis 28: 20 Jacob decides to bargain with God. God will do X, Y, Z and I will tithe my wealth and give it over to Him.

39. Genesis 31: 3 God commands Jacob to return to Israel.

40. Monument-making motif appears again (first time was with Avimelech, this time with Laban)

41. Genesis 34: 7 Intermarriage is not okay/ He had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with a daughter of Jacob!

42. Genesis 35:1 Go make an altar.

43. Genesis 38: 9 Masturbation is not okay. (You know, in this context it actually seems that the spitefulness of what Onan was doing is the problem- he wasn't willing to build up his brother's house/ have children that would be the spiritual children of his brother. So how do we learn from this that masturbation on a whole is a problem? I guess it's probably learned from a different verse.)

44. Harlotry. It seems that men could consort with harlots, no problem, but Jewish women (or I guess, betrothed Jewish women? For Tamar was, after all, betrothed) could not be harlots, and moreover could not/ should not conceive through harlotry.

45. Genesis 39:10 Adultery is considered a sin against God.

46. Genesis 41: 38 One who foretells events accurately is considered to be a person in whom 'the spirit of God' resides.

47. Genesis 44: 4 It is considered evil to steal (granted, the brothers didn't really steal, but the word is used here.)

48. Genesis 46: 3 Do not fear descending to Egypt.

49. Blessings of Jacob: Impetuosity, rash anger, and rage are bad qualities to have.

50. Genesis 50: 17 What the brothers did- the sale of Joseph- is considered a sin.


All right. So by the time we've concluded Genesis, we've figured out some societal norms, alongside some specific laws God has given us. Circumcision, procreation, and not spilling one's seed (or perhaps, being spiteful) are all commands/ laws. We see through example that killing is bad (Cain and Hevel) and we also see that God will demand the blood we spill from us later on, by Noah. The idea of sacrifices and building altars is prevalent throughout Genesis.

As for relationships, however- God does not seem to intercede, doesn't seem to be pro or con- having many wives. He doesn't tell Abraham not to take Hagar, and we see that the Jewish people descends from all four of Jacob's wives, so it seems that there is some sort of implicit agreement that this is all right.

In many situations, we see deception and lies that seem to be all right (lying to save lives, lying to get the birthright), or at the very least, God doesn't become angry and rail at the perpetrators.

Intermarriage doesn't seem to work (Dinah and Shechem) and neither does harlotry (Tamar.) Men cannot sleep with married women (Joseph.) So there are certain key, cardinal ideas that are in place/ enforced.

However, the idea that is often brought down is that the forefathers were observant of the whole Torah. I don't see it. How is this possible? From where? And how does that work with circumstances like the meat-and-milk situation (which, as it is derived by the Sages, may not be such a strong example, however)?

In Chumash class, I learned that Phaorah had the ability to quote halakha to the midwives. Now, that really boggles my mind, especially as later on Pharoah claims that he does not know of this Hebrew God. To solve that problem, my Chumash teacher brought up the Tanchuma, which states that Phaorah began by claiming that he "did not know Joseph" (the key statement written about him) and went down a slippery slope, so that just as he did not show gratitude to Joseph and decided to forget him (because it's impossible he wouldn't have heard about him and how he saved all of Egypt), so too he reached a point where similarly, he "didn't know God."

Okay. That works, I suppose. But how can we really say that Phaorah had the ability to quote halakha to the midwives? If Pharoah knew the Torah so intimately that he was able to quote halakha to the midwives, wouldn't he have believed in God? Wouldn't he have known that it was inevitable that he lose this fight? Why would he have taken on such a strong God?

It's the Torah Temimah who states that Pharoah knew the halakha. He's writing about Exodus 1: 16

"What?" he begins. "The Pharoah needs to tell the midwives the signs of childbirth?" No, rather, the Pharoah was well aware that the midwives would not commit murder. Therefore, he explained to them that there was a way of killing before the infants exited into the atmosphere (were delivered from the mother.) There's an idea that a gentile who kills a baby before the baby's head protrudes from the mother's womb is found guilty/ may be put to death, but a Jew who does so is not put to death. So the question becomes, at that point in time (prior to the giving of the Torah) were we judged by the Noachide code or as full-blooded Jews?

This really, really confuses me. How would Pharoah possibly know this? And if he did know the halakha, doesn't it make sense that the midwives would know it, too- after all, this is their religion, isn't it? But most importantly, how is Pharoah quoting halakah before the Torah was given? And how does this idea of how we are judged- in accordance to the Noachide code or the Judaic code- even apply at all?

What is the source for this? I don't know the Torah Temimah well at all. Is this a common stance of his- this idea of the Torah and even the halakhot being practiced before it was officially given? And what is the source for this idea at all?

Moreover, why would the Torah have been practiced/ needed to have been practiced prior to its officially being given to us?

And how does the idea of Moshe marrying Tzipporah (who is the daughter of a Midianite priest, and therefore a Midianite) work at ALL if the people were already practicing the Torah? I thought that the whole defense of Moshe to Zimri ought to have been/ was that he, Moshe had married Tzipporah before the Torah and its laws applied, whereas Zimri wanted to sleep with Cosbi now, after the Torah had been given, and it was forbidden!

Anybody who knows, I'd really, really appreciate some explanations.


Freelance Kiruv Maniac (Mr. Hyde) said...

The Ramban has very extensive pieces throughout his commentary that deal with when the Avos/Shevatim did and did not keep various mitzvos of the Torah before it was given.

There is a midrash that Rashi quotes in Vayera on the verse that says God will inform Avraham of His plans because he has heeded My Mitzvos, Chukim and "Torahs".

This verse, without any midrash, is already quite suggestive of this idea.
The Midrash derives from "Torahs" that Avraham kept both written and oral Torah.

Whole volumes of classic sefarim have been written to clarify and iron out the dozens of counter-examples of this principle.
But if you what a conceptual grasp of this idea, see the last few chapters of Shaar 1 of the Nefesh Hachaim of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin.
(It's classic "mitnaggedic ideology" that Rav Soloveitchik drew much of his world view from)

Freelance Kiruv Maniac (Mr. Hyde) said...

Correction. The explicit verse which is the point of departure for this whole discussion is not in Vayera as I said above, but in Toldos Chap 26 verse 6.
See an extended debate I had with S. on his subject.
His post is here:

But make sure to read my rejoinder
in the comments half way through here:
E-mail me if you want even more primary souces to look at.

Chana said...

That debate is about the Documentary Hypothesis and why we believe. I want to know whether the Torah was applicable before it was given. How do these two ideas mesh?

Freelance Kiruv Maniac (Mr. Hyde) said...

I didn't mean to distract you with the DH issue. I was mainly trying to point to the classic sources I cited in that debate to show that Traditional Judaism has always taken for granted that the Avos were aware of the content of the Torah (If not the actual text) and often acted based on that knowledge.

This subtly related to DH in the sense that we do not project our contemporary theological system onto the previous generations retroactively to create a facade of authenticity, as DH claims.
Rather we take very seriously that the theological system of Torah Judaism existed it its complete skeletal structure from the very beginning of Jewish history starting with Avraham.

adk said...

there is a sefer called Parshas Drachim which deal with this issue at length - his major issue is did the Avos in fact keep the torah

Looking Forward said...

i've always heard that the stories of the avos where recorded because they where ment to serve as an exapmle to their chidlren. Thus the instruction of listening to sarah was ment to teach us that "all people should listen to their wives for their wives are greater than they".

but this is something i learned from a rabbid ultra orthodox feminist, so take is as you will.

Charlie Hall said...

' the forefathers were observant of the whole Torah. I don't see it. '

And Yaakov Avinu married two sisters, so clearly at least one of the Avot was not observant of at least one mitzvah.

Anonymous said...

To Charlie Hall:

That is one of many classic counter-examples.
The Ramban gives a qualification that the Avos did not obligate themselves to keep the mitzvos outside Eretz Yiroeal.
This is why, only when Yaakov re-entered the Holyland, Rachel promptly died.

Diet Dr. Pepper said...


You've raised some really good questions, and I don't know how to answer them. However, I'd like to respond to your following question: "And if he did know the halakha, doesn't it make sense that the midwives would know it, too- after all, this is their religion, isn't it?"
Some commentators, including the Abarbanel and the Shadal, actually explain that the midwives were not Jewish. One Midrash explains that they were converts. I'm not sure how this impacts your argument, but it's a small piece of information that can be added to the mix.