Question: We are taught that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah even before it was given to the Jewish nation on Mount Sinai. If so, why do our Sages say that Abraham was the originator of Shacharit, Isaac was the originator of Minchah, and Jacob was the originator of Maariv? That seems incongruous given the fact that the Patriarchs kept the entire Torah.
Answer: The Rambam states (Hilchot Tefillah 1:1), “It is a biblical command to pray every day, as it is written (Exodus 23:25), ‘Va’avadetem et Hashem Elokeichem – You shall serve Hashem your G-d.’ Our Sages understood that this avodah, this service, refers to prayer, as the verse (Deuteronomy 11:13) states, ‘U’le’ovdo bechol levavechem – And to serve Him with your entire heart.’ Our Sages asked: What is meant by ‘service of the heart?’ It refers to prayer.”
That our Patriarchs observed the commandments of the Torah even before they were given is derived by Rav (Yoma 28b) from Genesis 26:5: “Eikev asher shama Avraham bekoli vayishmor mishmarti mitzvotzai chukotai vetorotai – Because Abraham obeyed My voice and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs.”
R. Shimi b. Hiyya asked, “Perhaps [this verse] refers only to the seven Noahide laws.” Rav responded, “He also kept the commandment of circumcision.” R. Shimi replied, “Perhaps he kept the seven Noahide laws as well as circumcision.” Rav responded, “If so, why does it state ‘My decrees and My Torahs’?”
Rabba added in the name of R. Ashi, “Abraham kept even eruvei tavshilin [a rabbinic commandment] as it states, ‘My Torahs’” – one “Torah” refers to the Written Law and the other “Torah” refers to the Oral Law.
R. Yosi b. R. Hanina (Berachot 26b) states that the Patriarchs instituted the prayers: Abraham instituted Shacharit, Isaac instituted Minchah, and Jacob instituted Maariv. The Gemara (Berachot 27b) concludes that davening Maariv is optional, not mandatory. (We, however, have accepted Maariv as mandatory for many generations already; see Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 1:6.) Thus, the fact that Abraham and Isaac did not daven Maariv would not be problematic.
Tosafot (Berachot 26b s.v. “Yitzchak tikken…”) notes that R. Safra (Yoma 28b). states that “the prayer of Abraham” – referring to Minchah (see Rashi s.v. “Tzelutei DeAvraham” – starts “when the walls begin to grow dark.” Tosafot explains that Abraham davened Minchah at this time but only after Isaac instituted Minchah.
What did Abraham do before Isaac established Minchah? Evidently he didn’t daven Minchah. If so, how can the Gemara state (Yoma 28b) that Abraham kept the entire Torah, both Written and Oral, down to the minutest detail, including eruvei tavshilin, which has no Biblical basis?
Numerous answers may be given. In fact, the commentary of Tosafot Yeshanim (Yoma 28b s.v. “Tzelutei DeAvraham”) alludes to our difficulty when it suggests an answer to the question of why we refer to Minchah as Abraham’s prayer when it is clearly Isaac’s. It suggests that Abraham recited Minchah even before Isaac instituted it, but it was his private prayer; it was not established for his household until Isaac instituted it.
Another possible answer is that just as Abraham’s observance of circumcision, which he received at age 90, was obviously credited to him for his entire lifetime, so, too, when Isaac instituted Minchah and started to pray Minchah, both received credit for saying it their entire lives.
The last and probably clearest answer is found in the Rambam (Hilchot Tefilla 1:12): “The number of [daily] prayers is not biblical, the texts of these prayers are not Biblical, and prayer has no set time. Therefore, women…are required to pray [daily] as this is a commandment that is not time-dependent. Thus, even a short prayer [which must contain certain elements] suffices.”
The Rambam further states (1:4) that it was not until Ezra and his court – following the destruction of the land and the people’s expulsion – saw that many did not know how to say cogent prayers that they established a set order of 18 benedictions, called the Amida or the Shemoneh Esreh.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob thus probably did not use the text of the prayers that we have now, but they understood how to beseech their Creator in an acceptable manner every day. Thus, also, the number of prayers did not necessarily relate to Abraham in the same way it does to us. But Abraham did indeed keep all the commandments before they were given to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai.