Something magical happens during Torah study when we relate to the characters in the text on a personal level. When we feel the awesome power of nature, we connect with the wonder Adam must have felt wandering around the Garden of Eden. When we know deep life disappointments, we connect with the pain of the barren Hannah and her lamentations. When we survive life’s challenges, we connect with the relief Miriam must have felt as she sang to God following the splitting of the Red Sea.
But on today’s daf, the rabbis take the connection they feel to the characters in the Bible to a whole new level. They see the patriarchs in the Torah as their rabbis, and they imagine that they studied Torah in study halls just like they did — even though we know the Torah wasn’t given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai until generations later.
Of Abraham, the Gemara tells us that he “was an Elder and sat and studied Torah in a yeshiva.” The prooftext for this is found in Genesis 24:1, which states: “And Abraham was old, advanced in his years.” The sages associate Abraham’s old age with what they knew: that elders carried wisdom from years of study.
The rabbis go on to make similar claims about other biblical figures.
Isaac our Patriarch was an Elder and sat in yeshiva, as it is stated: “And it came to pass when Isaac was old and his eyes were dim” (Genesis 27:1). Similarly, Jacob our Patriarch was an Elder and sat in yeshiva, as it is stated: “And Israel’s eyes were heavy with age” (Genesis 48:10).
Eliezer, servant of Abraham, was an Elder and sat in yeshiva, as it is stated: “And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his household, who ruled over all he had” (Genesis 24:2). Rabbi Elazar said: The verse means that he had mastery over the Torah of his master, having gained proficiency in all of the Torah of Abraham. That is the meaning of the verse: “He is Damascus [Dammesek] Eliezer” (Genesis 15:2). Rabbi Elazar said: The word Dammesek is a contraction of he who draws [doleh] and gives drink [mashke] to others from his master’s Torah.
They even claim that there was a yeshiva in Egypt when the Israelites were enslaved there, and a yeshiva in the desert after the Israelites were freed. How could an enslaved people, or one that was constantly on the move, possibly set up a study hall? And if they did, what were they studying? Historically, how would it have been possible that there could have been Torah study ten generations before Moses received the Torah on Mount Sinai?
The Gemara takes up this idea and wonders if Abraham at least observed the Noahide commandments, the seven ethical laws that were given to Noah’s descendants after the flood and which Jewish tradition teaches are incumbent upon all of humanity, Jewish and not. But the sages dismiss this idea and offer proof instead that Abraham observed laws beyond the seven universal laws, citing the example of his self-performed circumcision, which is decidedly a Jewish ritual commanded by Torah. And not only did they insist that Abraham knew and observed the Torah, but they even claim that Abraham observed rabbinic laws that were instituted later, long after the revelation at Sinai.
What we see from this is that the sages in the Talmud radically reimagined the experience of the patriarchs. In them, they saw themselves. It must have been a divine miracle for these figures to study and observe the Torah generations before the Torah was given. But then again, sometimes we know and observe deep truths before we actively learn them, right?
Read all of Yoma 28 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 9th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.