The Avos: Jews or Non-Jews?

Moshe Abarbanel  


This question has plagued commentators for years.  Let us examine the Torah for insights into this issue.  

In the Parsha Va Yishlach, Yaacov sends his messengers to his twin brother Esau.  In part of the message, they tell Esau, “I have sojourned with Laban” (Genesis 32:5.  that is I, Yaacov have lived with Laban. The Hebrew word for sojourn “Gartee” bothers Rashi.  He offers multiple explanations for the word.  But one in particular sheds light on our question.  Rashi quotes: “Midrashically the numerical value of Gartee equals Tariag 613.  Thus Yaacov implied to Easu ‘though I sojourned with Laban I kept all of God's 613 Mitzvot'.”  At first glance this addresses our question clearly stating that Rashi believes the Avos were Jews observing all 613 commandments.  


Let us look even further in Rashi.  Genesis 26:5 Isaac receives a prophecy from God and in this sentence God tells him, “Because Abraham listened to my voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My Law.”  The word Charge, Commandments, Statues and Laws in Hebrew very often refer to Gods different type of laws that He obligated the Jews to keep after receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. In fact  Rashi explains these word as follows:  

“Keep My Charge ...Rabbinical prohibitions regarding Shabbos.  My Statutes, matters which the evil inclination of the gentiles of the world criticize, such as the prohibition of eating swine flesh and the wearing of material mixed of wool and linen of which there is no explanation given but the decree of the king and his statues for his servants. And My Laws, This includes the Oral Law, the laws revealed to Moses at Sinai.”    


It appears very clear that Rashi implies that all the Avos had entire system of Jewish Law from the written book of the Moses to the Oral tradition and including Rabbinical injunctions.  But how can Rashi take these Medrashim as literal?  As Yaacov sends his message to his brother Esau he is married to at least two sisters in their life time...four, if want to take all of Rashi’s statements as literal (Genesis 31:50).  So how can the Avos observing all of Torah, be a literal statement according to the Medrash? The Ramban takes up this exact question and goes even further with it in Genesis 26:5: “The Question presents itself: If it be the case [that the laws of the Torah were observed by our ancestors before the Torah was given on Sinai], how did Jacob erect a pillar, and marry two sisters in their lifetime, and in the opinion of our Rabbis, four sisters? How then was it possible that they should be permissive in matters of Torah which Abraham their ancestor had prohibited on himself and for which God gave him reward, when he [Abraham] was wont ‘to command his children and his household after him’ to walk in His way?”  

The Ramban offers two solutions:  The first is that the Avos kept the Mitzvos, even though they were not commanded.  This would imply that their status was that of  non-Jews.  He states “Now it appears to me from a study of the opinions of our Rabbis that Abraham our father learned the entire Torah by Ruach HaKodash, occupied himself with its study and the reason for its commandments and its secrets and observed it in it entirety as ‘one who is not commanded but nevertheless observes it'.” Who is one that is not commanded? That is a non-Jew.  This approach still leaves many problems, such as if they only voluntarily kept the commands and only in the Land of Israel, Yaacov remains married to three surviving sisters.


The Ramban’s last solution has the least problems as he returns from the metaphorical world of Medrash to the simple meaning of the text:  “In accordance with the literal meaning of Scripture, you may say 'My Charge' means faith in the Deity, implying that Abraham believed in the unique Divine Name and kept vigilant guard over it in his heart, differing thereby with the worshipers of idols and calling by the name of Eternal to bring many to his worship.  'My Commands' refers to all that God commanded Abraham: 'Go out of thy land', the bringing of his son as a burnt offering and the expulsion of the maid-servant and her son.”  

Now according this line of reasoning, the Avos were clearly non-Jews.  They had certain temporal commands that did not become part of the 613 Torah system.  This approach has the least issues.


I would like to digress into the Rambam.  His position is clear that the Avos were Noahides who kept the 7 Mitzvos of Noah, plus a few new ones given to them for all time.  In his work of the Mishnah Torah. The book of Shoftim (Judges) Hilchos Malachim chapter 9.1 he states how the 7 Noahide laws were commanded and continues: “And this is how it continued in the entire world until Abraham.  Abraham came and received an additional command of bris mila and he prayed the morning service.  And Issac separated the tithing and added the afternoon prayer service.  Yaacov added Gid Hanasha and the evening prayer.”  Now, had the Avos been commanded in all 613, how could they "add", that which they already possessed? Yet, Rambam clearly states based on historical fact that they did in fact add new acts of perfection of their own thinking. "Add" indicates that such actions were not previously given to them by God.


One last point on the Medrash of "im Lavan gartee".  What do the Medrashim point us to?  Why bother stating that the Avos kept the 613 Commandments down to the rabbinical decrees, if they were non-Jews?  I once heard from Rabbi Israel Chait that this means the Avos had the entire philosophical ideas of the Torah System. All of God's Laws are given to us to perfect our Moral Character and our Intellect.  The Avos had these perfections, without the formal commandments..."as if" they were commanded.  And in particular, Yaacov is telling Easu that during his sojourn with their corrupt uncle Lavan, he remained Morally and Intellectually pure. Yaacov did not literally keep the 613 Commandments.