Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon 5758/1998

Who Wrote Deuteronomy?

Dr. Shaul Regev

Interdisciplinary Department of Jewish Studies

The Gemara (Megilla 31b) says: "[In reading] the curses that are in Deuteronomy one may pause [it may be broken up into several aliyot]. Why? Those [that are in Leviticus, which must be read in one aliya] are said in the plural, Moses relaying them from mouth of the Almighty; and these [in Deuteronomy] are in the singular, said by Moses himself." Variations on this theme can be found elsewhere, including an expanded statement of this idea in the Zohar: "What we call Mishneh Torah (Deuteronomy), was said by Moses himself" (Zohar, Vol. 3, Va-et'hanan, p. 261a). Both these sources are of the opinion that Moses said things on his own initiative, not from the Almighty, and that these things were written in the Pentateuch.

The Talmudic source above also makes a value judgment based on the distinction: the text that came from the Almighty must be read without interruption, whereas that which came from Moses himself is of lesser importance and may be interrupted. (The views of the Sages on this matter are summarized in A. J. Heschel, Torah min ha-Shamayim ba-Aspaklaria shel ha-Dorot, Part II).

The question whether all five books of the Pentateuch, including Deuteronomy, are from the word of the Almighty, or whether there are things that Moses said on his own accord, has come up time and again throughout the generations, as we can see in the works of various medieval commentators. Some boldly addressed this question outright, while others dealt with it obliquely, and hinted at ways of solving the difficulty. We shall deal with the question openly and clearly as presented in the commentary of Don Isaac Abarbanel in the late Middle Ages and by other exegetes of his time and later.

Abarbanel's preface to Deuteronomy was the first of his commentaries on the Bible, begun while he was still in Portugal and completed in Italy, twenty years later, after the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. There he says that the question of authorship was part of his motivation for writing the commentary. This is a fundamental question, of great importance for understanding the entire book. Due to the importance of this question and the theological and religious problems that it raises, he decided to put the question to other eminent Rabbis of his time, as follows:

My question is whether Mishneh Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel, that is the book of Deuteronomy, was from G-d in Heaven, and whether Moses relayed the things in it from the mouth of the Almighty, as in the rest of the Pentateuch, from "In the beginning" [the first words of Genesis] through "before all Israel" [the last words of Deuteronomy], all being equally the words of the Eternal G-d without change or substitution? Or whether this book of Deuteronomy was said by Moses, composed by himself, as his own understanding of the Divine intention in explaining the commandments?

Abarbanel further develops the question, presenting reservations about each approach: the view that holds everything to be the words of G-d, versus the view that Moses said what is in Deuteronomy on his own. Although Abarbanel posed this question to "the Sages of his time," we do not know to whom precisely he sent his query, except for Rabbi Joseph Hayyun, Abarbanel's teacher. R. Joseph Hayyun's response is cited anonymously in Abarbanel's preface and is introduced by the words, "An answer to this question has been given by one of the great Rabbis of our times." A manuscript of his response, however, is also extant and was published recently (cf. A. Gross, Rabbi Joseph Hayyun, Ramat Gan, 1993, Appendix 7). We shall look into the approach taken by medieval Rabbis, especially from the 16th century on, in an attempt to clarify this question.

In his preface, Abarbanel also refers to Nahmanides' remarks in the latter's commentary on Deuteronomy 1:1, dividing Deuteronomy into two sections: one comprised of the commandments that had not been mentioned in previous books and that Moses was commanded at this point to teach the children of Israel. This section Nahmanides says came from the mouth of the Almighty. The other section is comprised of the admonishments (tokheha), and the explication of the commandments that had already been given to the people which Moses wished to re-explain and re-clarify. This section Moses "himself saw fit to deliver, and was not commanded by G-d in this respect." Abarbanel takes issue with Nahmanides on this point, although limitations of space prevent us from going into this debate at length.

Abarbanel distinguishes between receiving the word of G-d and formulating it. In his opinion, Moses received everything prophetically, as he received all the other books of the Pentateuch. Just as all prophecy is received as an abstract transmission that the prophet must translate into words, here, too, Moses translated prophecy into words. The formulation that appears personally worded by Moses to Israel stems, in Abarbanel's opinion, from the nature of what was being conveyed. Some of the admonishment appears in the first person, and some of the commandments appear in the third person, just as in other books of the Pentateuch certain verses are in the first person, not the third. For example, the words of Pharaoh, of Balaam, and of Moses with respect to the Golden Calf. In other words, Moses received a general instruction to say these things, and was given complete freedom in terms of their formulation.

One could say that G-d commanded Moses in general that after setting forth the commandments he make a covenant with Israel consisting of blessings and curses, although He did not command him the blessings and curses in detail... The rest of the Torah, however, was said by Moses in the same words that he heard and received from the Almighty, nothing having been added or detracted... But this does not apply to the curses, for Moses edited [or arranged] these things.

In conclusion, Abarbanel says, "The general rule that follows from all that I have said is that this sacred book, taken as a whole and in its component parts, comes from the mouth of the Almighty, G-d having commanded it to be written word for word, like the rest of the Pentateuch." Paying close attention to Abarbanel's remark, we note that he did not say that G-d dictated the book, but that He "commanded it to be written," so that Moses was still given freedom to phrase things himself.

Rabbi Joseph Hayyun (lived in Portugal in the 15th century), who addressed this question in response to Abarbanel's query, divides Deuteronomy into three parts. The first includes the words of admonishment at the beginning of the book. The second is comprised of the commandments in the main body of the book. He calls this the section of new insight, because it introduces commandments not previously mentioned. The third part comprises the explanatory section in which Moses clarifies commandments mentioned in earlier books.

The first and third parts he views as being from Moses himself, whereas the second one is relayed from the mouth of the Almighty. Further on Rabbi Joseph Hayyun explains the expression, "from Moses himself," (Moshe me-atzmo amaran) as referring to the style and not the content. Moses, as emissary, spoke as if from himself, as if he had the freedom to formulate the words, whereas "from the mouth of the Almighty" (mipi ha-gevura) means that the entire formulation was received from the Almighty. Accordingly Hayyun interprets the remarks of the Sages on the difference between the curses in Leviticus, which were said from the mouth of G-d, and the curses in Deuteronomy, which Moses said himself:

The former and the latter, that is the curses in Leviticus and in Deuteronomy, are both words of the Eternal G-d. The difference between them is that the former were said in the language chosen by the Holy One, blessed be He, speaking for Himself [in first-person], ... but the latter were said in the language of Moses, speaking on behalf of G-d [therefore, in third-person].

An interesting approach can be found in Toledot Yitzhak, Rabbi Isaac Caro's commentary on the Pentateuch. He begins by citing the Sages, who maintained that all the words of admonishment in Deuteronomy were from the mouth of Moses himself. Then he raises two reservations: First, that the Sages actually contradicted themselves, for it says in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a), "Anyone who says: This verse Moses himself said, as if speaking from himself, has no part in the world to come." How, then could they have said that Moses said the words of admonishment on his own? Secondly, there are other verses scattered throughout the Torah which appear to have been said by the speaker and not from the mouth of G-d, such as Moses' response to G-d at the burning bush when he was chosen for his mission, "Send through whomever You will send," and other examples.

In answer to these reservations, Rabbi Isaac Caro says one should distinguish between what is said in the first four books of the Pentateuch as opposed to the book of Deuteronomy. The other books, that is the narrative of events that took place, were essentially dictated to Moses by G-d. Therefore even if a certain verse gives a direct quote, for example of what Moses said or of the response by the kings of Edom and Sihon on the question of passing through their lands, Moses was told to write things that way; thus it can still be said that Moses transmitted the text from the mouth of G-d, not from himself. The fifth book of the Pentateuch, however, and the admonishment in it, was said by Moses himself; afterwards came the divine command to write it all down in the Torah.

Rabbi Elija Mizrahi, in his supercommentary on Rashi's commentary on the Torah, distinguishes between the words of admonishment and the commandments in Deuteronomy. Moses received the commandments in that book just as he received the other commandments, except that he repeated some of them in Deuteronomy though they were already mentioned in order to clarify them, and cited others for the first time in Deuteronomy that he had not seen fit to mention earlier. Now, before entering the promised land, he included all that had been omitted. But the admonishments he said himself with G-d's approval. He was given permission to admonish the people of Israel, and he chose the appropriate time for doing so, namely before he was to die and the people were about to enter the land of Israel. However, he himself has trouble with this idea:

If we are to understand the phrase, "These are the words" (Deut.1:1) as referring to the admonishment [at the beginning of Deuteronomy], one wonders how the Torah continues to say, "that Moses addressed the Israelites in accordance with the instructions that the Lord had given him for them," for were not the words of admonishment from none other than himself? ... Or are we to say, even though the admonishment was from himself, that he did not admonish them except by G-d's leave? Thus, "in accordance with the instructions that the Lord had given him" means that he was given permission to admonish them. Or perhaps, He commanded him to admonish them as he did [i.e. the formulation was also that of G-d], only He did not say explicitly when Moses was to do this. (Mizrahi commentary on Deuteronomy 1:1)

A similar approach was taken by Rabbi Meir ibn Gabbai in Avodat ha-Kodesh. In his opinion, the entire Pentateuch was given through prophecy and is from the mouth of Moses, but for each and every thing that he said he received confirmation from G-d, in order that the Torah not contain anything that is not divine. Regarding the admonishments in Deuteronomy, "which Moses said on his own", ibn Gabbai adds that the intention was that Moses impart a personal touch from his own elevated level, i.e., that he pronounce these words from his special prophetic status, that of luminescent clairvoyance, the highest level of prophecy. In other words, unlike the other prophets, whose prophecy does not bear a personal stamp--for they are called to fulfill a specific mission which is not a product of their own initiative and their words of admonishment stem from the Divine and is not their own initiative--with Moses there is a personal dimension, his own unique stamp, namely the ability to initiate prophecy and the admonishment that comes via this prophecy. This initiative, in ibn Gabbai's opinion, is expressed in the words "Moses by himself."

Rabbi Moses ben Joseph Trani (Mabit; 16th-century Safed) discusses the authorship of Deuteronomy in the context of a discussion on the principles of faith. In his opinion, Deuteronomy, unlike other books of the Pentateuch, comes from the mouth of Moses, and the question at issue concerns the sanctity of the book.

It might seem that the essence of the Torah and its sanctity lies in none other than the commandments and admonishments, not in the narratives and other things in the Torah, nor in Deuteronomy, which was spoken from the mouth of Moses. (Bet Elokim, Sha'ar Ha-Yesodot, ch. 33).

Contrary to this assumption, in his opinion the fact that Deuteronomy was from Moses himself does not detract from the sanctity of the book. As proof he argues that a scribal error, or defacement of a letter or a word in a Torah scroll is treated the same way whether the error is in a commandment or a narrative, nor is any distinction drawn between different books; rather, no matter where the error, the scroll is declared equally unfit for use. Rabbi Trani resolves the difficulty by relating to the contents, not the form. Even if the formulation is "from Moses," the contents are nevertheless divine and part of the Torah as a whole.

For even if the book it appears to have been said by Moses, according to the wording of it, the truth is that everything was the word of the Eternal G-d, for the entire Torah that had been in existence for two thousand years before Creation included the book of Deuteronomy." (Bet Elokim, ibid.)

Rabbi Shabtai ha-Cohen (16th-century Safed), in his commentary to the Shulkhan Arukh, Siftei Cohen, also draws a distinction between the first four books, from the mouth of the Almighty, and Deuteronomy, from Moses himself. Therefore, in his opinion, this book does not begin with a conjunctive vav ["And"], in contrast to the other books that begin with a conjunctive vav, to indicate that all the books are connected one to another, whereas Deuteronomy is set apart and different from them.

Rabbi Moses Alshekh takes a different approach. In his opinion, only the first four verses of Deuteronomy were from Moses himself; Moses said these verses that allude to the places were the people sinned in order to reprove them for these events. [The Midrash and Rashi explain the place-names in these verses as reminders of sins which the Israelites committed during their sojourn from Egypt]. The rest of the book contains the words of G-d, an explication of the Torah as transmitted to Moses.

Even the initial verses of reproach, according to Alshekh, came from Moses himself only in terms of the restrained style, namely an oblique allusion; thus Moses himself was not the initiator of words of admonishment. Moses was commanded by G-d to admonish Israel, but he did not want to be cruel and reprove them outright, as understood from the divine command; therefore he confined his words to a mere hint, assuming they would understand the message, thus fulfilling his duty to admonish them. According to this approach, saying that the words were "from Moses himself" means that Moses himself formulated them in his own special way, conveying with the utmost brevity the admonishment that he had been commanded to reprove the children of Israel.

Rabbi Hayyim ibn Atar gives a concise analysis of the authorship issue in Or Hayyim, his commentary on the Torah, but adds a new twist. In his opinion, the entire book came from Moses himself; the book of Deuteronomy, however, having been authored by Moses, comes to exclude any of the other books from being authored by Moses at all. "These are the words that Moses addressed(Deut.1:1)"-- these words and no others. All the other books of the Pentateuch, every verse therein, even those that appear to be the words of a human being in quotation, as we saw above in the view of R. Isaac Caro, all are the words of G-d, save for Deuteronomy, which are the words of Moses.

"These are the words"--"these" to exclude those that preceded. "That Moses addressed" indicates that they were his own words, for the entire book is an admonishment, a warning and teaching from Moses to those who transgress the word of G-d. Even where he recapitulates and explains earlier words of G-d, he was not commanded to do so but did this of his own accord... Therefore he said, "These are the words." That is, these alone are the words that Moses addressed from himself, but not even a single letter of all that is contained in the preceding four books of the Pentateuch came from Moses himself, for those are the things that came from the mouth of the Almighty, in their form without any change, even of a single letter

Rabbi Elijah ha-Cohen ha-Itamari (17th-century Izmir), in Megaleh Tzefunot, goes off in a completely different direction. In his opinion, the word "These" that begins Deuteronomy alludes to specific things, namely the Oral Law, since the gematria or numerical value of the letters spelling "these" [elleh] is 36, which is the same as the number of tractates in the Talmud. Thus the Torah is hinting that Moses gave Israel not only the written Law, but also the Oral Law. The latter was received by Moses in the form of general rules, and he interpreted these rules to the best of his understanding. Therefore, it says here "that Moses addressed," "as if they were his very own words, because he interpreted the Law according to his understanding, following the rules given him to interpret the Oral Law." Here, too, we find that Moses received the general content from the Almighty but the personal formulation came from Moses himself, although now we are speaking not of Deuteronomy but of the Oral Law. The place-names mentioned at the beginning of the admonishment allude to the concept of mahloket (differences of opinion) in the Oral Law, since at each of these places the people tried to undermine the authority and sow dissension among the Israelites.