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Was Abraham Jewish?

Was Abraham Jewish?

On the identity of the pre-Sinai Hebrews

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Did the Chosen Nation Start with Abraham?

Abraham is widely known as the first Jew1—including in some excellent articles on our site.2 But Abraham (and all the forefathers) lived well before the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai—the two defining events in Jewish history. Can he, then, really be considered a Jew? In other words, were there Jews before there was a “Jewish people”? When did the Jewish nation begin? And what does it mean to be Jewish?3

To answer these questions, let’s begin by reviewing the story of Abraham’s life as it is recorded in scripture, Midrash and the commentaries.

Who Was Abraham?

Abraham was born in the year 1948 from creation (1813 BCE4), during the reign of the mighty Nimrod, who ruled over almost all of civilization.5 Abraham’s father Terach was one of Nimrod’s noblemen. Abraham grew up in a society where everyone, including Abraham himself, worshiped idols.6

As a mere child of three,7 Abraham began to think incessantly about the nature of the world, its origins and what power was behind it all.8 Abraham continued this search throughout his early years, gradually distancing himself from the idolatrous practices of his generation, as he began to formulate a pure monotheism.9

At age 2510 he married his niece11 Yiskah (also known as Sarai, and later, Sarah). Around this time Nimrod began building the Tower of Babel. The construction of the tower was a tremendous undertaking, in which most of humanity participated, and lasted many years. The Midrash explains that at its greatest height, the tower was so tall that it took a year to reach the top. At that point, a brick became more precious in the eyes of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, no one took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it.12

Abraham—who, according to some, participated in building the tower in its initial stages13—turned vehemently against the project. He took it upon himself to repeatedly rebuke those involved.14

Here’s how the Midrash tells the next part of the story: When Abraham was 48 years old, in the year 1996 (1765 BCE), G‑d gazed upon the great tower that was still under construction. Turning to the seventy angels that surround His throne (obviously this is meant in metaphorical terms), He said, “They are one people, and they all have one language . . . Let us go down, and there confound their language, that they will become seventy nations with seventy languages.”15

The Midrash then tells how G‑d and the seventy angels cast lots to see which angel would be charged with which language and nation. When G‑d’s lot was Abraham, He proclaimed, “Portions have fallen to Me in pleasant places; even the lot pleases Me.”16

This is the earliest instance in Abraham’s life in which he is described as being "chosen" by G‑d. (According to some opinions, it was in this year that the covenant between G‑d and Abraham took place.)17

Later,18 we read of Abraham’s return to his father’s house, how he destroys his father’s idols, and is arrested for heresy. Holding steadfast to his faith even in the face of death, he is thrown into a fiery furnace, but G‑d performs a miracle and he survives.

Everything until this point is recorded in Talmudic and Midrashic sources. Only now do we finally meet Abraham in the text of the Bible, when G‑d commands him: “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”19

After many further trials and tribulations that are recounted in the Bible, G‑d forms a covenant with Abraham and proclaims: “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River . . .”20

When Abraham is 99, G‑d commands him to circumcise himself and his offspring, saying:

You shall keep My covenant, you and your seed after you throughout their generations. This is My covenant, which you shall observe between Me and you and your seed after you: that every male among you be circumcised. You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be as the sign of a covenant between Me and you . . .21

From all the above, we see clearly that:

a) Abraham was chosen by G‑d.

b) G‑d made a covenant between Himself and Abraham.

Additionally, according to our sages, the forefathers not only learned the Torah, but kept its commandments even though it had not yet been “given.”22 This does seem to be implied in the verse: “Because Abraham hearkened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes and My instructions.”23

To return to our original question, all of this would seem to point to the clear and unequivocal answer that, indeed, Abraham was chosen by G‑d, just as the entire Jewish nation was chosen at Mount Sinai, making him the first Jew.

But this conclusion is premature. At Sinai the Jews were chosen by G‑d, but they also assumed the obligation to observe the Torah’s 613 commandments. Non-Jews are obligated to keep only the seven Noahide laws. If Abraham was indeed Jewish, he would need to do more than fulfill all the commandments of the Torah. He would have to be bound and obligated to fulfill them. And it seems this was not the case.

On Obligation

Getting down to the details, there are varying opinions concerning Abraham’s status vis-à-vis mitzvah observance.24

Some do indeed explain, as would seem logical, that Abraham initially did have the halachic status of a non-Jewish Noahide, but that once he entered the covenant with G‑d and was given the commandment to circumcise himself, he was considered a full-fledged Jew.25

However, most disagree. Although it is true that our forefathers not only learned the Torah but kept its laws, even though it had not been given, they were never commanded to do so. Their fulfillment of these commandments was a personal and voluntary sign of their devotion to G‑d. They were not obligated in the way their descendants would be after Sinai.26

Accordingly, when we refer to Abraham as the first Jew or convert,27 that is a true statement: When he was told to “go from your land,” he became distinguished by that mission from all others of his time. When we look back in time, we see here the first idea of a Jew. But it does not mean that he was Jewish in the sense that we are today, in the sense of a binding obligation. Rather, he had the technical status of a Noahide, just like any other person of the time (albeit one who was given additional unique commandments such as circumcision, in which he was indeed obligated28).29 It was not until his descendants stood at Mount Sinai and G‑d proclaimed, “You shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples . . . and you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation”30 that we became the Jewish people.

There is a practical application in the distinction between voluntary and obligatory observance of the Torah commandments. As we said, a Noahide is obligated to keep the Seven Noahide Laws, but not the 613 Torah laws. If there were to be any conflict between keeping the future Torah laws and the Noahide laws, the obligation to keep the Noahide laws would supersede the Torah laws which they were not yet obligated to do. Based on this, the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, resolves the question of how Jacob could marry two sisters.

But all this now leaves us with a glaring question: What is so special about the covenant at Mount Sinai that only then did we become the Jewish people, something not yet achieved in Abraham’s time? Wasn’t Abraham himself chosen by G‑d? Didn’t Abraham himself learn the Torah, keep its commandments, and make a covenant with G‑d? So what is the difference?

On Chosenness

To get to the bottom of this, we have to ask some more fundamental questions—not about Jewishness, but about chosenness: What is choosing all about? And what does chosenness mean?

From taking out clothes to wear in the morning, to deciding what to have for dinner, we are constantly engaged in making choices. Most of these choices are made after weighing the specific factors and qualities associated of whatever’s being chosen. We choose our clothing based on the image we wish to project, our own self-identity, or perhaps job requirements. We choose our dinner based on health or taste. None of these choices are truly what we call free choices. In fact, it would probably be more accurate to call them compelled choice, for ultimately, the reason you chose what you did is because there is something about it which made you need or want it.

It is only when we are faced with two seemingly identical objects, and we nevertheless choose one over the other, that we can say that we have truly chosen.

Now, back to Abraham.

Already at age three, Abraham began his lifelong quest for the one true G‑d.31 Once he recognized the one true G‑d, he devoted the rest of his life to spreading this truth to a completely pagan world. Abraham’s lonely task often called on him to use all of his energies, often going even beyond the point of self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, he never shied away from it, and always persevered.

In light of this, it is no wonder that G‑d promises Abraham that “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a G‑d and to your seed after you . . .”32

Thus, in a sense, G‑d did not choose Abraham. It was his inherent superiority, and the fact that he was ready to give everything up for the sake of G‑d, that compelled G‑d to choose him.

It was not until the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai that G‑d truly chose the Jewish nation. He chose them not because of any superior qualities they may have had. On the contrary, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai celebrates G‑d choosing the Jews to be “a kingdom of princes and a holy nation,”33 in spite of their apparent similarity to the other nations of the world.

In other words, before Mount Sinai, G‑d’s choosing Abraham and his descendants was based on what can be termed a “reasoned choice.” At Mount Sinai it was a supra-rational,34 “true” choice.35

Unbreakable Bond

The Mishnah states: “Any love that is dependent upon a specific consideration—when that consideration vanishes, the love ceases. If it is not dependent upon a specific consideration, it will never cease.”36

We were chosen to become “a light upon the nations” not due to any unique qualities. On the contrary, Jewishness is based on G‑d choosing us despite our un-uniqueness. But it is precisely this type of choseness which makes our unique mission in the world the most humbling and inspiring. We are humble because of our un-uniqueness, and inspired because of the everlasting bond it entails.

FOOTNOTES
1.

For example, in the Talmud, Chagigah 3a, he is called the first convert.

2.

See, for example, Jew: Noun or Verb? and The First Jew.

3.

Obviously, when we use the word “Jew,” we mean it in the broader sense that it carries today. The actual term “Jew,” however, didn’t appear until late in the biblical era. For more on this, see What is the Meaning of the Name “Jew”? and Who Are the Hebrews?

4.

The secular year is calculated based on the current year of 5773 being the equivalent of 2012–2013.

5.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 11.

6.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry 1:3.

7.

Talmud, Nedarim 32a.

8.

Mishneh Torah, ibid.

9.

See commentaries to Mishneh Torah, ibid., regarding the different stages of his philosophical development.

10.

Tana D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 18; Yalkut Shimoni 78.
There are differing opinions as to the years in which certain events in Abraham’s life took place. For simplicity’s sake, and due to the fact that it has no bearing on the point of the article, we have chosen to follow the timeline as given in Seder Hadorot.

11.

Talmud, Sanhedrin 69b.

12.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 24.

13.

See commentary of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra to Genesis 11:1.

14.

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ibid.

15.

Genesis 11:6–7.

16.

Psalms 16:6.

17.

Midrash Tanchuma, cited in Seder Hadorot.

18.

According to Seder Hadorot, Abraham was fifty years old at the time.

19.

Genesis 12:1.

20.

Genesis 15:18.

21.

Genesis 17:9–11.

22.

Talmud, Yoma 28b; Genesis Rabbah 95:3.

23.

Genesis 26:5.

24.

For an in-depth discussion about our forefathers’ halachic status, see Prishat Derachim, Derech Hasarim 1, and Beit Haotzar, section 1.

25.

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), commentary to Leviticus 24:10.

26.

See Likutei Sichot vol. 5 p. 143-45 and footnote 16.

27.

See footnote 1.

28.

See Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, Kovetz Shiurim to Talmud Bava Batra, sec. 54, where he explains that with regards to these unique commandments Abraham and his descendants had the halachic status of Jews.

29.

See Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), commentary to Talmud, Sanhedrin 59a–b and 82a; Tosafot to Bava Batra 58a and 141a; the “French sages” quoted by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides), commentary to Leviticus 24:10; see also Likkutei Sichot, ibid.

30.

Exodus 19:5–6.

31.

Talmud, Nedarim 32a.

32.

Genesis 17:7.

33.

Exodus 19:6.

34.

While we refer to it as a “supra-rational” choice, this does not mean that there was ever any question of an alternative being chosen. For more on this see On the Essence of Choice.

35.

From a talk by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the second day of Shavuot 5739 (1979), printed in Sichot Kodesh 5739, vol. 3.

36.

Ethics of Our Fathers 5:16.

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Discussion (98)
June 18, 2014
Father
Every Father has a special lesson to teach . His lesson must be that one who is honest , God takes care of all the needs of such a person. Do not look at what others do or have or even how they do it. One only needs to fear the one who is above .He received his heritage from his parents and passed it on to his children.He never even required it , it was a gift from his parents. Heritage is everything physical, spiritual and as a father desires to give his children. Some he may bless with material things and some with spiritual gifts. Those who are given less in material things will end up with more spiritual gifts.
Anonymous
toronto
October 14, 2013
Here is how Avraham can be called Yehudi (jewish)
In links I found online it says Mordechai is from the tribe of Binyamin because his father was. It was all patrilineal lineage back then. It also says he was from the tribe of Yehuda by mother line and that "he is called a Yehudi because he denied and defied idol worship for the name Yehuda is not merely the name of a tribe of Israel, it is the title which was given to Chananyah, Mishael and Azaryah when they were reported to Nevuchadnetzar for defying his order to bow to the statue, even though it meant being cast into a fiery furnace". So, if we take this rabbinical interpretation of the word "Yehudi" (meaning it is not derived from one of the Yaakov's sons) instead of just written Torah which calls Abraham "ivri", then we can call Avraham a jew.
Anonymous
USA
October 13, 2013
To Yehudis (about Mordechai HaYehudi)
1. 'Leah, Jacob's wife named her 4th son Yehuda (Judah) for she had been grateful to god (...odeh et H). The family and Judah's tribe descendants, are called therefore by this name ( Yehudim)as well as the area of their settlement and habitation' (the TaNaC encyclopedia) my translation from Heb. 2.The tribe of Benjamin was almost exterminated due to its neutrality in a war. To circumvent the oath the Judeans had given in a haste after a tribal cleansing, 400 virgins were kidnapped from East of the River Jordan (not a Benjaminite domain) and defiled. Mordechai is a descendant of these non Benjaminaite virgins that were kidnapped and defiled by Judeans. And therefore Mordechai is a Yehudi even if he doesn't like his family tree and the forced tribal affiliation.3.The events in the Scroll of Esther taking place in a time of a certain Persian King. Also an exile that Mordechai had experienced is mentioned. Based on these two Historical points Mordechai is 123+ years old.You decide!
Lev Anenberg
Woodbridge,Ontario
October 13, 2013
an interesting comment about humility
Humility too, as is pointed out here, has its codicils. Too much "umble" is wearing, and almost feels, like, the opposite, totally. So be careful about how "humble" was Moses, because in a way, he was "entitled", so we all are personally juggling with this, and I am sure, being Moses, he did too.

He was a human being and he had his foibles, and his particular set of problems to overcome. For example, he wasn't the greatest orator. He "stuttered" so it is said. We all sit on the horns of the same dilemma, too much of any thing, even this much vaunted humility, becomes cloying.

Celebrate the me in the mirror. Celebrate! And then go out and celebrate your friends. And, under a night of stars, both up there, and down here, those you know, feel small, because there is something far far greater than any one of us, powering us, and a Mighty Story.
ruth housman
marshfield hills, ma
October 11, 2013
to Lev Anenberg
You wrote, "If you read the bible in Hebrew you must have noticed the word Yehudi is mention there perhaps only twice and in both cases in reference to membership in the tribe of Yehuda."

This is incorrect. In Megillas Esther 2:5 Mordechai is described as an "Ish Yehudi" and he was from the tribe of Binyamin.
Yehudis
October 8, 2013
Abraham is and remains the quintessential Jew.
"... and you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation."

It is 5774. How are we faring with the above commandment? For it is a commandment to comply with and NOT a prophetic statement on G-d's part.

Unlike Abraham and the other Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we had to be obligated and commanded. It was a necessity, not a choice of any kind. Sinai introduced the factors fear and awe into the equation, for without these we were not up to the Task.

Also: humility does not predicate un-uniqueness; on the very contrary it predicates superiority and extraordinariness.

And let us not be too smug on the unbreakability of the bond either. There is only one single certainty in this and all the other universes and that is G-D.
zeynep
October 7, 2013
Nowhere in the Hebrew text it says that Abraham was a "Jew".
Besides "Jew" is an English word in which different people put different meanings like religion, or ethnicity.
Anonymous
USA
October 7, 2013
Was the patriarch Abraham a Jew
I am inclined to agree with Rabbi Micha Sloman's comment about Abraham.
Isn't it also true that without Abraham and his wholehearted obedience and faith in G-d, there will be no Jews nor Judaism now? Therefore I too feel that it is demeaning to say that Abraham was not a Jew.
Anonymous
October 4, 2013
Was Abrham Jewish?
It doesn't matter what one believes according to their own brain power or that of others regardless of what your religion is. However, in the book of Genesis the real story about Father Abraham is plain and simple. It just takes reading and understanding, and by faith just accept what the account has to say. It is either the truth or many of you are calling G'd a liar. I choose to believe the account, and by faith, I know it is the truth, and it is as clear as crystal. God made Abraham the father of many people. Two nations came out of his loins, and there is no doubt about the Jewishness of Abraham.....because G'd made him the first Jew by proclamation. G'd can do that....because he is G'd.
Anonymous
October 1, 2013
To Lev Anenberg: Haim Rabinovich may by nationality be Hebrew and by religion - Christian. And he is still "Jewish".
"Judaism is established by your father therefore genetic" makes no less sence than "mother". "Russian Jew is a Russian by nationality" - ask russian jews. "Hebrew" was written in the 5th line in the soviet passport next to the "nationality" title. In US they say "American national" which is citizenship, but in USSR "nationality" meant race. In your passport you do not have this line. You and your mother and your grandmother can be a 100 times scientific atheist and a communist family and still this would be written in your passport making career problems. This is not an "idea", it is facts of life, history, it's just how it was. Police department which was making that passport record have not even for a single second had anything about "religion" in their mind. And all this has nothing to do with Khazars but Jews in Ukraine, Poland, Russia are a subject here. Sammy Davis Jr. may by nationality be African American and Jewish by religion. Haim Rabinovich may by nationality be Hebrew and by religion - Christian. And he may still be "Jewish" anyway. He still has those "manners", and long nose too, so HR department will "calculate" him right on the spot, just by looking at him from a distance. They would have much more difficulty with Sammy Davis Jr about it.
Also, Abraham didn't exactly convert, he was just following the inner truth, the new system wasn't there yet. Especially his circumsicion (making covenant) had nothing to do with "conversion", even biblical text shows he was already a "Hebrew" at that time, and he wasn't thinking about "conversion" either, he was busy with real spirituality.
Anonymous
USA
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