The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
The Uniqueness of Deuteronomy
Rabbi Yaakov Charlap
Department of Talmud
This week we begin reading the last book in the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy, which has a style unlike any of the others. This is clear right from the opening of the book: "These are the words which Moses spoke to all of Israel..."(Deut. 1:1). Most of the book records the speeches of Moses, speaking to his people in the first person, in which he reiterates the events of forty years in the desert, teaches them both the general principles and details of the Torah, repeats some of what had already been taught (Deuteronomy is called Mishneh Torah - the repetition of the Torah), while presenting "new commandments" as well . He also addresses them at the Covenant treaty made at the Plains of Moab. Various commentators, both early and late, have dealt with this very different nature of Deuteronomy, each from his own specific point of view.
In a well-known comment, Rabbenu Moshe ben Nachman (Nachmanides or Ramban) characterized the unique style of the book while at the same time strenuously proclaiming that the difference in style--first-person instead of third-person narration-- does not express any basic change from the other Biblical books:
The source for Nachmanides' explanation can be found in Tractate Sanhedrin (99a):
According to this Talmudic source, one who maintains that Moses composed the Book of Deuteronomy on his own, denies the Divine origin of the Torah. Similarly in Baba Batra (15a) there appears a dispute as to who wrote the last eight verses of Deuteronomy from "So Moses the servant of the Lord died there" (Deut. 34:5) - whether Moses wrote them or Joshua. The opinion of Rabbi Shimon is: "Could it possibly be that the Scroll of the Law would be missing even one letter... rather, say that up until this point G-d spoke and Moses wrote and from this point G-d spoke and Moses wrote while in tears(or literally, "wrote with tears"). According to this view, all five books of the Torah, including the last eight verses of Deuteronomy, were spoken by G-d and recorded by Moses as "a scribe copying".
It would seem that this is also the opinion of Maimonides who wrote (in Hilchot Tefillah 13,6): "The eight verses which complete the Torah may be read in the synagogue in the presence of less than ten men. Even though it is all Torah and Moses taught it in the name of G-d, since it is obvious that they came after the death of Moses they are thereby different and therefore may be read even by one individual by himself.
Obviously he believes that all of Deuteronomy, including the last eight verses, were spoken by Moses in G-d's name. Maimonides restates this position in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, Perek Chelek. In his eighth principle he states:
In contrast, some opinions emphasize the substantial difference between Deuteronomy and the other four books. The sources for this opinion can be found in the text of the Bavli, Tractate Megillah (31b) on the mishnah (ibid., 3,6):
Rashi comments there: "Moses spoke them in the name of G-d and became a messenger to say," thus said the Holy One blessed be He", for they are worded (in first person singular): and I will give ... and I will place ... and I will send, referring to the One who has the power to act; but in Mishneh Torah it is written: The Lord will strike you... The Lord will afflict you, Moses spoke these words on his own initiative - if you transgress His commandments He will punish you".
Midrash Tanhuma also leads us to believe that Deuteronomy was spoken by Moses on his own initiative (Tanhuma, Deut, 2):
This query put to Moses - "yesterday you said I am not a man of words" - was specifically in reference to Deuteronomy and not to the four previous books which were also given through Moses. Clearly, the Midrash sees a difference between Moses' involvement in the book of Deuteronomy and his role in other books: the others were spoken by Moses as prophecy; not so the book of Deuteronomy in which he spoke independently .
Rabbi Eliezer ben Rabbi Natan of Mainz (Ra'avan) saw Moses as the author of all Deuteronomy, not just the curses. He bases his opinion on the words of Rav Yosef in Tractate Yevamot (4a): "Even he who does not base interpretations on the proximity of Biblical texts [semicht parshiot] anywhere else, does so in interpreting Deuteronomy". Ra'avan explains that the reason for this is that Deuteronomy is unlike the other four books, in which "there is no chronological order" (ein mukdam umeuhar). If there is no order, one cannot learn from proximity. But Deuteronomy, which is the words of Moses, was ordered in the normal manner, so it is possible and necessary to interpret (by using the proximity of texts):
A similar opinion is held by the Ohr Hachaim. He explains (in his commentary to Deut.1:1) that the first verse of Deuteronomy: "There are the words which Moses spoke ..." comes to emphasize that these alone are the words which Moses spoke on his own initiative as opposed to the other four books in which Moses did not utter as much as one letter on his own, for the words which came from the mouth of G-d came in their precise form without any change, even so small as the addition or subtraction of one letter. Obviously he differentiates between the nature of the first four books of the Torah and that of the fifth one .
The idea that the book of Deuteronomy contains the words of Moses poses a religious problem, since it jars the conception that the entire Torah is the word of God. (see the objection to this opinion cited above in Sanhedrin 99a and also in Maimonides, op. cit.). Indeed, several of the later authorities (aharonim)have dealt with the question.
In the opinion of thMaharal (Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 43), Mishneh Torah is certainly the word of G-d but the giving of the Torah(matan torah) involves, as in every situation of giving, two parties - the giver ands the receiver. The first four books stress the giver, God, while the last book, Deueronomy, stresses the recipient, Israel. Here the message was given to the prophet and he passed it on to the people in his own way, as opposed to the first four books in which everything was said directly by God through the mouth of Moses.
Thus the Maharal explains the text in Bavli, Megillah (op. cit.):
Similarly the Maharal explains the many differences that appear between the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus and the Ten Commandments as they appear in Deuteronomy. The first Commandments, he maintains, reflect the style and spiritual level of Exodus and the second ones reflect the character of Deuteronomy: "Thus the wording is as it should be for the recipients (of the Torah) because there they are the main issue. In other words, Mishneh Torah came to add on, to explain further, which is for the benefit of the recipients...".
This same view was expressed in the name of the Gaon of Vilna in the book Ohel Ya'akov (by Rabbi Ya'akov, the Magid of Dobno) in the introduction to Deuteronomy:
I asked my teacher and Rabbi what is the difference between the Holy Torah and Mishneh Torah, and he said to me that the first four books were heard as God's voice coming up, as it were, from Moses' throat, unlike Deuteronomy in which Israel heard the words of this book just as they heard later prophets who came after Moses. The Holy One blessed be He would speak to the prophet one day and on the next day the prophet went forth to tell his prophecy to Israel; thus, when the prophet spoke to the people the Divine word had already departed from him. In this way Deuteronomy was heard by Israel from the mouth of Moses alone.
Chassidic literature emphasized that while in the first four books the Divine revelation was suited to the level of the generation of the desert, "a generation of knowledge", which lived by the direct beneficence of the Lord, in Deuteronomy the revelation is hidden, transmitted by Moses to the generation about to enter the Land of Israel, whose lives would follow a natural course once they arrived in the Land of Israel. The S'fat Emet expresses this as follows:
It follows that Mishneh Torah represents the natural course of life of the generation of those who entered the Land of Israel and is suited to them in its style and in the manner in which it was transmitted. From that standpoint Deuteronomy, given by the Lord though spoken by Moses, is the passageway from the written Torah - that given directly by G-d - to the oral Torah, which was conceived at Sinai and revealed by the sages of Israel in each generation.
We have seen that Deuteronomy is unique in style, in its manner of transmission, and therefore in its essence and its spiritual plane. Just as we recognize different spiritual planes and levels of holiness in the Torah, the Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim) in the same way within the Five Books of the Torah there is a differentiation between the first four books and the Book of Deuteronomy. There is a spiritual plane of the four books and another of Mishneh Torah. Deuteronomy is unique because it ties between Torah and prophecy, between the Written Torah and the Oral Law.
1. See Nachmanides, Introduction to Deuteronomy.
2. See also Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, Sefer Hamada, Hilchot Teshuvah (chap. 3, halachah 8): "There are three who deny the Torah; (1) he who says that the Torah is not from the Lord, even one verse or one word of it, if he claims that Moses said it on his own, then this man denies the Torah".
3. See also Devarim Rabbah 1.
4. Compare also to the view of Abarbanel in his introduction to Deuteronomy.
5. See: Rabbi Yitzchak Huttner, Pachad Yitzchak, Shavuot, Article 12, on the differences between the two versions of the Ten Commandments, following the opinion of the Maharal.
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