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By Nechama Stampler | Series: | Level:

Which Mitzvos Did The Avos Observe1?

Shimon’s sons: Yemu’el and Yamin and Ohad and Yavin and Tzochar and Sha’ul the son of the Canaanite woman.

Rashi: This is Dinah, who was violated by Shechem the Canaanite. When her brothers killed him, Dinah refused to leave until Shimon promised that he would marry her.

Maharal: This has special meaning in the mystical tradition, where Shimon is associated with din/ justice. Dinah took her name from the same attribute. Mystically, they were meant for each other.

Halachah, however, suggests otherwise. How was Shimon permitted to marry his sister? After all, the Avos knew the entire Torah through ruach hakodesh, and surely observed it!

Some explain that before the Torah was given to us at Sinai, its observance required a voluntary assumption of obligation. That commitment was the equivalent of a conversion. Conversion erases previous familial relationships. The gemara tells us that a convert is “like a newborn child,” and that he is no longer considered related to those who previously were considered family. Thus, Shimon was no longer related to Dinah, and permitted to marry her.

It is also possible that the same way that the avos understood the Torah through ruach hakodesh, they also understood when an exception was to be made to the ordinary rules. Thus Yaakov understood that it was proper for him to marry two sisters. His sons understood that as the first large family unit of the Jewish people, it was important for them to marry within the group and not outside of it. They therefore found it compelling to wed the twin sisters that were born with each of the brothers, just as Kayin and Hevel had no choice but to wed their own sisters if human society were to continue. Similarly, it is possible that Yaakov married two sisters and Moshe married his aunt because of the crucial importance to them of producing offspring. A person does not merit to have children with just any woman; Yaakov and Moshe saw their spouses as particularly well-suited to them.

Ramban questions these choices. How, he asks, could they act contrary to Avrohom’s acceptance upon himself of the entire Torah? His question, however, is not so compelling. Avrohom’s acceptance does not imply that his children will follow suit. We see that in regard to affirmative mitzvos commanded by Hashem in the times of the avos that our forefathers were not always on the same page. Particular mitzvos were assigned to particular avos; they did not apply equally to all of them. Milah was given to Avrohom; gid hanasheh to Yaakov. These mitzvos were matched to the personality traits of different avos rather than made obligatory to all.

The same holds true for the mitzvos that remained uncommanded in their day. They were practiced unequally by the avos. Chazal teach that Avrohom observed the entire Torah{2}. To Avrohom alone – and not to his children – was the entirety of the Torah appropriate. Torah is a toras chesed; Avrohom’s individual strength was chesed. Additionally, Avrohom showed a special proclivity for comprehending supernal wisdom. For these two reasons, Avrohom had an affinity for the totality of Torah not shared by the other avos. (This is Chazal’s intent in stating that he recognized his Creator at the age of three{3}. ) On the other hand, individual avos are linked to individual mitzvos: Yitzchok to shechitah{4}, and Yaakov to Shabbos{5}.

Putting it all together, we can say that those who were not especially well suited to all of the mitzvos did not observe all of the mitzvos! One might still argue that suitability and personality should not play a role. Mitzvos – all mitzvos – relate to righteous living. As righteous individuals, the avos should have observed all of them. Our response would be that this should only apply to prescriptive, affirmative mitzvos, but not to prohibitions. (The same distinction holds in regard to the reward for performance of a mitzvah on a voluntary basis. A person who performs a mitzvah in which he is not legally obligated will be rewarded for his effort{6}. Should the same person voluntarily subscribe to a mitzvas lo sa’aseh, he will not be rewarded.)

The two kinds of mitzvah are separated by an important distinction. An affirmative mitzvah concretizes part of the Divine Will. As such, performing such a mitzvah is a laudatory, worthwhile practice. This is not so in regard to prohibitions, which are designed to keep us out of harm’s way. If there were anything spiritually harmful in some action, Hashem would certainly deal with it by prohibiting it to the righteous. Why should someone observe such a mitzvah – unless he had a particular, personal connection to that mitzvah? We can conclude, therefore, that it was only Avrohom who observed all mitzvos of the Torah, both proscriptive and prescriptive. Yaakov, on the other hand, observed the affirmative obligations, but not the prohibitions. Nothing barred him from marrying two sisters.

It is easy to explain the difference between the two. Each mitzvah acquires for the practitioner some positive attribute. Even if not legally commanded, one who practices it will come away with something worthwhile. Observance of mitzvos lo sa’aseh, however, evidences regard for Hashem’s Will – stepping back from participating in certain activities so as not to transgress His wishes. Where He has not indicated that something is prohibited, there is no reason to assume that doing it contravenes His Will! (Indeed, it is wrong to prohibit to oneself something that is permissible!)

As an example of this thinking we can point to the prohibition of flaunting one’s tzitzis in a cemetery{7}, where the dead are shamed by their inability to perform the mitzvah. On the other hand, Chazal see nothing wrong with dressing the dead in shrouds of shatnez{8}. Since G-d does not prohibit shatnez to the dead, there is simply no reason for them to be strict about it.

While all of this analysis is appealing, it is not the unanimous opinion of Chazal. The author of the Medrash that Yaakov observed all 613 commandments{9} must hold that the totality of Torah had relevance to Yaakov, just as it did to Avrohom. (Yaakov’s marriage to two sisters, according to this view, has to be accounted for by assuming some special ruach hakodesh that this was permissible to him.) Our analysis of mitzvos aseh, however, remains true, at least in part. Not all the mitzvos “belonged” to all the avos. The fact that Chazal see a special connection between Yaakov and Shabbos indicates that the same was not true of all positive mitzvos. While he may have observed all 613 commandments, including the positive ones, he was especially scrupulous in the ones (like Shabbos) that somehow matched his spiritual personality.

1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Bereishis 46:10 and Tiferes Yisrael chap. 20

2. Yoma 28B

3. Nedarim 32A

4. Bereishis Rabbah 65:13

5. Bereishis Rabbah 79:6

6. Tosafos Eruvin 96A s.v. v’dilma

7. Berachos 18A

8. Pesachim 40B

9. Ibid.