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Which Came First: Abraham and the Patriarchs or Moses and the Torah?

A Talmudic problem: Abraham lived before the law was given, so how can his actions be used to interpret the law?

Adam Kirsch
December 17, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

One source of Judaism’s complexity, and also perhaps of its durability, is that it was founded twice. The first founding occurs in the book of Genesis, when God calls Abraham to leave his home in Ur and travel to the Promised Land, which will be a possession for his descendants forever. According to this covenant, the Jews are a family—the Children of Israel, as they would come to be called—and they inherit a special relationship with God based on the promise he made to their ancestors.

But then, in the book of Exodus, Judaism is founded again on a new basis. This time, God delivers an extensive set of commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai, which the whole people of Israel agrees to obey. As long as the Jews follow God’s laws, he promises to give them possession of the Land of Israel and good fortune; but if they disobey God and break the covenant, they will be exiled and punished. On this model, the Jews are not a family so much as a political community, with God as their sovereign. The covenant is based not on a gratuitous promise but on a contract of obedience.

This dual founding creates a number of ambiguities in Judaism, one of which came to the fore in this week’s Daf Yomi reading. To the rabbis of the Talmud, the service of God was defined as the study of Torah. As we have seen much earlier in the Daf Yomi cycle, they imagined even a warrior-king like David as a Torah scholar at heart, and they described his feats of military conquest as feats of learning. Naturally, the rabbis want to think about Abraham, the first Jew, in the same way. But Abraham, by any reckoning, lived many generations before Moses received the Torah. What, then, could Abraham have studied, and how did he know how to live?

The question arises in Yoma 28b, when the sages are discussing the activities of the high priest on Yom Kippur. The first thing that happens on that day, we read at the beginning of Chapter 3, is that a priest goes outside the Temple to observe if the sun has risen. If the sky is illuminated “even to Hebron,” then the day has officially begun and the slaughtering of animals can commence. This gives rise to a question in the Gemara: Exactly how bright does the sky have to be in order for it to be considered morning? According to Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira, it was when “the entire eastern sky is illuminated all the way to Hebron and the entire nation has gone out, each and every person to his labor.” When people go to work is when the morning begins.

But Rav Safra disagrees. People go to work well after the sky first begins to lighten, so waiting for that moment would mean waiting too long. In sacred matters, we are supposed to act as soon as we possibly can. This can be deduced from the example of Abraham, who prayed his afternoon prayer “when the walls began to blacken”—that is, as soon as shadows became visible in the afternoon, which would have been just after the sun passed its height. Just as Abraham prayed mincha as soon as he could, so the priests on Yom Kippur would have begun sacrificing as soon as they could.

This is where the Abraham problem comes into play. Rav Yosef asks, “Will we arise and derive a halakha from Abraham?” Abraham lived before the law was given, so how can his actions be used to interpret the law? But the Gemara rejects this argument. In fact, the rabbis maintain that Abraham actually “sat in a yeshiva,” an academy for studying Torah. For as long as there have been Israelites, Rabba Chama teaches, there have been such study houses: “From the days of our ancestors, yeshiva never left them.” To support this counterintuitive claim, the Gemara cites many biblical verses that refer to the “Elders of Israel,” to prove that such “Elders” were present in Egypt and in the desert. Elders, to the rabbis, cannot simply mean older men of high status and authority; it must refer specifically to men learned in Torah, since that is the only form of authority they recognize. For this reason, they believe that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, each of whom is referred to at some point as being “old” or “heavy with age,” must have been “elders” in the sense of Torah scholars.

This raises an obvious question, however. If the patriarchs lived centuries before Moses, what exactly were they studying in their yeshivas? How could they study a Torah that hadn’t been given yet? Rav supplies the answer: “Abraham our patriarch fulfilled the entire Torah” even before it was given. His source is Genesis 26:5, in which God praises Abraham for keeping “My laws,” literally “My Torahs.” Rav Shimi bar Chiyya raises an alternative interpretation: Maybe this means simply that Abraham kept the seven Noahide laws, the basic commandments forbidding murder and theft that are applicable to all the nations? But Rav dismisses this notion, insisting that Abraham knew and followed every single commandment in the Torah. He even followed rabbinic laws, which wouldn’t be laid down until long after Sinai.

The Talmud’s discussion ends there, leaving some big theological questions unresolved. If Abraham knew the Torah, one might ask, why didn’t he teach it to the Israelites? If the Torah pre-existed Moses, what was the need for the dramatic revelation on Sinai? The idea that the Torah existed from the beginning of time, that it was created long before it was revealed, plays a major role in Jewish mysticism; this discussion seems to lend support to that mystical idea.

Tractate Yoma goes on to discuss, in great detail, the order of the services performed by the high priest on Yom Kippur: how many times he immersed himself in the ritual bath, how many times he changed clothes, when he made a burnt offering and when he lit incense. As we have seen before in regard to other details, the rabbis are operating with little definite information, trying to reconcile the description of Aaron’s duties in the Book of Leviticus with later traditions about what happened in the Temple in Jerusalem. This leads to some creative problem-solving, which may or may not capture the reality of what took place in the Temple.

Along the way, the rabbis offer a homily about Torah study that draws on the biography of Hillel, perhaps the greatest of all the rabbis. “A poor person, a wealthy person, and a wicked person come to judgment,” the Gemara says. In the afterlife, all three will be asked by the heavenly court, “Why did you not engage in Torah?” If a man pleads that he was too poor to study, “they say to him: Were you any poorer than Hillel?” The Gemara then tells a story, which has become famous, to illustrate Hillel’s poverty and devotion to Torah. To enter the study hall in his day, students had to pay a fee to the guard. Hillel was a day-laborer, and every day he would take half his earnings to pay the guard, keeping the other half to feed his family.

One Friday, Hillel couldn’t find work, so he couldn’t afford to enter the study hall. He was so devoted to studying Torah, however, that he climbed up on the roof of the hall and listened through the skylight. It was a snowy winter day, and Hillel was soon buried under snow. That evening, on Shabbat, the leading rabbis of the day, Shemalya and Avtalyon, noticed that the light from the skylight was blocked, and went up to the roof to investigate. When they found Hillel buried in snow “three cubits high,” they rescued him and sat him by the fire to recover. “This man is worthy for us to desecrate Shabbat for him,” they said. His selfless devotion to Torah study made him a kind of saint, and they were happy to build the fire, even though it was Shabbat.

You can never be too poor to study Torah, Hillel’s example shows; but you can never be too rich, either. If a rich man tells the heavenly court that he was too busy managing his affairs to study Torah, “they say to him: Were you any wealthier than Rabbi Elazar?” Elazar ben Charsum was so rich that he owned a thousand villages and a thousand ships, yet he spent his whole life traveling “from city to city and from state to state to study Torah” with various masters. Once, he was passing through one of his own properties, when his servants seized him and put him to forced labor. They didn’t recognize their employer, because “in all his days, he never went and saw” his properties. He was too busy with Torah study. From Abraham to Rabbi Elazar and beyond, the Talmud cannot imagine a good Jewish life that doesn’t have Torah at its center.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.