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    Patriarchs rejoicing on Simchat Torah – Ask the Rabbi

    Q. How can the Machzor say that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob rejoiced on Simchat Torah?

    A. You are referring to the Simchat Torah poem dating from the medieval period which asserts that Avraham samach b’Simchat Torah – “Abraham rejoiced on Simchat Torah”.

    Historically anachronistic, since Simchat Torah is a post-Talmudic festival, this statement must be trying to tell us something that is not apparent on the surface.

    A Mishnah at the end of Kiddushin compounds the problem when it says, “Abraham observed the whole Torah before it was given”.

    However, it adds a Biblical verse (Gen. 26:5) which declares that Abraham kept God’s commandments, statutes and laws. Rashi explains that “commandments”, in this context, means rules of conduct that, even if they had not been written, would have been appropriate.

    The implication surely is that Abraham had such instinctive perception that even before Mount Sinai he realised what God wanted of him.

    Similar statements are found elsewhere in rabbinic literature. In Eruvin 100b we read, “Had the Torah not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat, aversion to robbery from the ant, chastity from the dove, and sexual mores from the rooster”.

    Yoma 67b says, “Had the laws prohibiting idolatry, immorality, murder, robbery and blasphemy not been written in the Torah, reason would have required them.”

    Does this mean that Judaism has a concept of natural law that is even more basic than the written law? In other words, would human beings have known what to do even without the Torah?

    Superficially this appears to be the case; it does seem to suggest “a primordial and eternal order… certain moral notions indigenous to man and nature and discoverable by unaided reason”.

    But the Jewish way of thinking cannot accept that there is such a thing as “unaided reason”, nor that even a great figure like Abraham could work everything out for himself.

    There may be “natural law” instincts, but Judaism insists that they have a Source with a capital S. God Himself embedded these instincts in the structure of the world, and in man, only later turning them into a formal Torah.

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