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by Dr. Avigdor Bonchek


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Parashas Toldos (70)

This week's sedra tells of the birth of Jacob and Esau; their development; Esau's selling the birthright and Jacob taking Isaac's blessing intended for Esau.

This week let us look at a Rashi comment and the Ramban's contribution to understanding p'shat.

Genesis 26:5

"In as much as Abraham obeyed My voice, and he observed My charge, My commandments, My decrees and My Torahs."


Abraham listened to My voice: Rashi: When I tested him.

And he kept My charge: Rashi: this refers to cautionary measures intended to keep a distance from Biblical prohibitions such as Rabbinical prohibitions of sexual alliances and activities forbidden by the Rabbis on the Sabbath,

My commandments: Rashi: refers to matters which had they not been written should have been commanded such as robbery and murder.

My statues : Rashi: are matters which the evil inclination and the nations argue against, like eating pork and wearing shatnez garments, there being no apparent rationale for them except that they are decrees of the King imposed on his subjects.

And My laws: Rashi: [In the plural] includes the Oral law and laws given to Moses at Sinai.


The verse tells us that Abraham kept the many different commands of G-d. Rashi has sought out the meanings of these various commandments that the words in this verse are referring to. Rashi's comment is based on a Midrash.

Ramban quotes Rashi, and comments on his comment.


After quoting Rashi's comment (based on a Midrash) the Ramban elaborates on it and shows its implications.

Ramban: If this is so it is based on the opinion that Abraham had fulfilled and observed the laws of the Torah even before it was given (at Mt. Sinai). The Midrash also says (Bereishis Rabbah 94:3) on the verse (Genesis 45:21): "And Joseph gave them wagons" explained that he (Joseph) was separated from him (Jacob) when they were learning the section of the Eglah Arufa (See Rashi Genesis 45:21); that he was occupied in learning Torah as were his fathers, and until then the Torah had not been given. For it says (our verse): "And he observed My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My laws." And there they said that he observed even the finer points of law and he taught his sons, etc.


Ramban then questions the assumption that the Fathers observed the Torah as given at Sinai:

Ramban: One could ask: If so how could Jacob set up a monument (further on 28:18) and marry two sisters (forbidden in the Torah), and in our Rabbis' opinion (Bereishis Rabbah 74:11) four sisters. And Amram married his aunt (Exodus 6:20); and Moses, our teacher, set up twelve monuments (ibid 24:4); and how could they have permitted themselves something in the Torah which Abraham had taken upon himself as forbidden and Hashem rewared him for "commanding his sons and his family after him to go in His way"? And regarding Jacob they taught (Bereishis Rabbah 79:6) that he observed the Sabbath and set the limits of walking on Shabbat. In the matter of the Sabbath it is possible that Jacob observed it because it is equal in importance to the entire Torah since it testifies to the act of creation.

So, Ramban asks, what we find written in the Torah seems to refute the assumption that the Forefathers observed the Torah even before it was given at Sinai, since we see several instances where the Fathers did not observe the Torah.

Ramban has a long comment on these words in it he explains the Midrash and in the end offers his p'shat interpretation of the verse.


Ramban: And according to the p'shat, we can say that "My charges" means faith in G-d, that he believed in the one G-d and he kept this charge in his heart and refuted idol worship and proclaimed G-d's name, to return the many to His service; "My mitzvos" refers to all that He commanded him to "Leave your homeland", and offering his son on the altar and sending away Hagar and her son; "My statues" refers to going in G-d's way to be gracious and merciful and doing righteousness and justice and to command his children and household after him; "My Torahs" refers to circumcising himself, his sons and his servants and all the commandments of the sons of Noah, which are Torah for them.


In his long comment (of which we quoted only part) the Ramban shows his unique brand of commentary. First, starting with Rashi's drash interpretation, the Ramban explains and justifies how the verse can be understood in drash terms and makes clear the drash's underlying assumption. He then questions that assumption of the drash from facts as recorded in the Torah. He then answers these questions, all in the framework of drash, and then, in the end of his comment, he offers his original p'shat interpretation. Note that Ramban interprets each of the terms ("Charges", "statutes", etc.) based on verses that appear in the Torah during Abraham's lifetime.


It should be noted, that most Torah students accept Rashi's interpretation of this verse as the final word. And while it may not be p'shat, nevertheless, the various terms ("My charge, My commandments, My decrees and My Torahs") create a problem for a simple p'shat understand. The problem: When was Abraham commanded all these various things?

Because of this problem, it would seem that the drash may be the only explanation available and may very well be the closest to p'shat of this verse than we can get, in spite of its difficulties which the Ramban had pointed out. It is for this reason that the Ramban's comment is so significant. He shows us his creative skills at p'shat interpretation and shows us how, in spite of the apparent difficulties, we can understand, all the various terms in our verse quite reasonably in a way where each term has its meaning based on other verses in the Torah. That is what is meant by p'shat.

Shabbat Shalom
Avigdor Bonchek

"What's Bothering Rashi?" is produced by the Institute for the Study of Rashi and Early Commentaries. The five volume set of "What's Bothering Rashi?" is available at all Judaica bookstores.

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