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    Keeping the commandments before they were given – Vayyishlach

    There is a well-known tradition that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kept the commandments even before the 613 mitzvot were given. The festival prayer books even claim that the patriarchs kept Simchat Torah.

    The Ramban thinks that the patriarchs kept the commandments only outside Israel but not in the Promised Land itself, such as when Jacob and his family were in Haran.

    This is hard to understand when we know that Rashi tells us that Jacob kept the 613 mitzvot even when he was living with Laban in Haran (Gen. 32:5): Im Lavan garti (“Ï dwelt with Laban”) v’taryag mitzvot sharmarti (“and I kept the 613 commandments”).

    The best answer seems to be that the patriarchs had the gift of prophecy and realised what God wanted from human beings. Other Israelites did not have this spiritual sense and since this all took place before Sinai there was not yet a general obligation to observe the Divine laws.

    Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not have a duty to keep the commandments but imposed strict observance on themselves as a mark of love and personal stringency.

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