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Vayera: Did Abraham Keep Kosher? (Do Angels?)

Genesis 18:1–22:24

It was the prophet Isaiah who conferred on Abraham and Sarah the honorific titles of metaphysical first parents, saying: "Listen to me, you who pursue justice and seek God; look toward the rock whence you were hewn and toward the pit whence you were dug. Look toward Abraham, your father, and toward Sarah, who bore you" (Isaiah 51:1-2). Indeed, the relentless pursuit of justice and a persistent, often pernickety, commitment to the traditional religious beliefs and cultural mores modeled by these ancestors have lasted with the Jewish people throughout the ages.

Abraham's penchant for justice is explicit in this week's portion. When he learns that one of the angels who visited him earlier is about to destroy the righteous of Sodom along with the wicked, his challenge to God is unequivocal: "Should not the Judge of the world practice justice?" (18:25). Although he loses the argument in the end, his passion, as well as his negotiating skills, elicit admiration—and emulation.

His religious devotion, however, seems to suffer a setback in the opening scene of the week's portion. Abraham receives three guests—traditionally assumed to have been angels. After inviting them into his tent, he serves them a meal consisting of bread, cream, milk, and veal. It was a repast worthy of his legendary hospitality, with but a single caveat: it violated kashrut, the religious dietary laws that famously prohibit dairy and meat at the same meal.

At first glance, it seems patently anachronistic to regard Abraham through the prism of later Jewish jurisprudence. Why assume his observance of the Law prior to its revelation at Sinai? At most, one might speculate that Abraham could have been informed about future Torah legislation without being obliged in its performance, just as Jacob could have been aware that Jewish law would eventually prohibit being married simultaneously to two sisters, as he was to Rachel and Leah.

Upon further reflection, however, there is something attractive about the prospect of casting the first patriarch in a traditional Jewish mold and as an upholder of one of the most identifiable of all Jewish practices. Indeed, the Talmud makes just such an assumption, basing itself on the verse: "Because Abraham obeyed Me, observing My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Genesis 26:5). Interestingly, the Hebrew for laws here is torotay—literally: my Torahs, in the plural. To the talmudic rabbis, plural Torahs could mean only one thing: Abraham observed both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. That would obviously include kashrut regulations!

A closer reading of the biblical text leads in another direction entirely, exonerating Abraham himself of any direct responsibility for the irksome meal. "He took the cream, and the milk, and the veal that he had prepared and set it before them" (18:8). On the reasonable supposition that the "he" who set it before them is the same "he" who had prepared it, does it not follow that Abraham's innocent servant lad, entrusted in the previous verse with the task of preparing the meat, then gathered the milk and cream and—quite possibly without Abraham's foreknowledge of the prohibition—placed it all before the honored guests?

However one resolves that particular conundrum, still another question arises: how did the guests, assuming they were angels, get around the prohibition? This is actually the crux of a celebrated disagreement between Maimonides (1135-1204) and Nahmanides (1194-1270). In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides understands the portion's opening verse—"God appeared to [Abraham]"—as introducing a prophetic experience. That is, the account of Abraham's hospitality comprises a vision, initiated by God's appearance. Ergo, the "men" whom Abraham saw and fed, and with whom he conversed, existed only in his prophetic imagination.

For his part, Nahmanides adduces the chapter's wealth of mundane detail ("Did Sarah not bake bread?" "Did she not laugh?") as too concrete and too plentiful to support a reading of it as a visionary experience. According to his interpretation, the celestial visitors assumed mortal form ("they gave the appearance of eating"), perhaps in order to make their presence less formidable. Either way, though, the account of the angels' eating was to be understood only metaphorically.

The same disagreement between the two great medieval authorities is reprised later in Genesis in regard to the "man" with whom Jacob wrestles, who strikes him lame, and who bestows upon him the name Israel. According to Maimonides, the struggle occurred only in a prophetic vision, while Nahmanides, impressed once again by the wealth of particular detail ("Did Jacob not limp?"), takes it more literally.

Be all this as it may, Jews are not angels and they need guidance in pursuit of a Jewish life.  As the sages taught, "The acts of the fathers are a sign unto the children" (Midrash Tanhuma on Genesis 12:9). As the deeds of the patriarchs and matriarchs continue to unfold throughout the book of Genesis, there will be much to be learned, from the struggles and dangers they pass, about the do's and don'ts of life.

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.



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Inheriting Abraham