Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ha’azinu

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

 

 

“Your laws are songs for me” (Ps. 119:54)

 

 Rabbi Aviad Stollman

 

Center for Basic Jewish Studies

 

At the end of the previous week’s reading it says (Deut. 31:19-30):

Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel  That day, Moses wrote down this poem and taught it to the Israelites… When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Teaching to the very end, … Take this book of Teaching … and let it remain there as a witness against you…  Then Moses recited the words of this poem to the very end, in the hearing of the whole congregation of Israel.

At first glance, especially in view of the verse near the end of this week’s reading – “Moses came, together with Hosea son of Nun, and recited all the words of this poem in the hearing of the people” (Deut. 32:44) – it appears that the “poem” mentioned at the end of the previous week’s reading refers to Ha’azinu.  That is the interpretation given by the great exegetes, Rashi, Rashbam and Nahmanides, in their commentaries on Deuteronomy 31:19.  

However it can also be interpreted otherwise, taking “this poem” to be the entire Torah or Teaching.  This is hinted at by three parallel constructions that occur in close juxtaposition:  write down this poem” // “put down in writing the words of this Teaching”;   this poem may be My witness” // “book of Teachingas a witness”;   put down in writing the words of this Teaching to the very end” // “the words of this poem to the very end,” which show that “poem” and “Teaching” are synonymous.   This was set forth explicitly by Ralbag:   “It becomes clear after this that the poem is the words of the Torah in their entirety…   It includes all the words of the Torah, including the poem.”  Ralbag added an interesting justification for his interpretation:   “For it is far-stretched that the Torah should be so strict about teaching this poem to all Israel and writing it down, more than it is strict about all the other essential things in the Torah.”

Maimonides went in another direction in his Mishneh Torah, [1] when he set forth the rule of the amora Rabba in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 21a):  “It is a positive commandment enjoined on each and every Jewish male to write himself a Torah scroll, for it is said, ‘Therefore, write down this poem.’”   To Rabba’s statement, Maimonides added an original explanation:  “In other words, write the Torah which contains this poem, since one does not write the Torah in isolated segments.”  On the face of it, Maimonides’ explanation is problematic; for could the principal intention of the Holy One, blessed be He, have been that we write down this poem, and simply because of a technicality we must write an entire Torah scroll?!  Moreover, perhaps the commandment was to write the poem by itself, just as one writes tefillin and mezuzot. [2]   We might argue that Maimonides was doing more here than simply stating the halakhah based on our verse. He was also trying to interpret Scripture, and according to his approach Moses himself understood that the commandment “write down this poemrefers to writing an entire Torah scroll, not simply Ha’azinu, “since one does not write the Torah in isolated segments.” Nevertheless, why was the commandment to write a Torah scroll not given in an unambiguous formulation? [3]

Following the Netziv in his Torah commentary Ha’amek Davar, we suggest that perhaps Maimonides considered that the obligation to write a Torah scroll was actually deduced from the obligation to write the poem, in order to teach us about the significance of the poetic nature of the Torah.  After citing the Talmud in Nedarim 38a, which also hints that the word “poem” in the readings of Va-Yelekh and Ha’azinu refers to the entire Torah, Rabbi Berlin noted in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah:  “One must understand how it is that the entire Torah is called a “poem,” for it was not written in poetic language.  Perforce it has the nature and attributes of poetry, namely it speaks metaphorically and figuratively.”  According to the Netziv, the poetic nature of the Torah, “in which the narrative is not explicitly set forth,” calls for “commentary and explication of the fine points of language, and this is not what we call homiletic interpretation (derash), rather it is expositing the plain sense of the text (peshat).”  The Torah, replete with allusions, requires close and deep reading, and, as in poetry, not everything that at first glance appears to be the true and straightforward meaning of the words is always indeed the case.

The three parallel constructions which we pointed out above provide a good example how one may arrive at a variety of understandings for the text, which are not necessarily homiletic interpretations.   These ways of understanding apparently underlay the words of the Sages when they set the halakhah that we are commanded to write a Torah scroll, and they deduced this from the verses that speak of the poem.  Studying the Torah as if it were as opaque as poetry is extremely demanding, as Rabbi Ishmael said to Rabbi Akiva when he was expositing a verse in this week’s reading:  “For this is not a trifling thing for you (mi-kem):  it is your very life” (Deut. 32:47):   “For it is not a trifling thing for you, and if it is trifling –meaning if anything in the Torah seems trivial-- then it is because of you (mi-kem), that you do not know how to interpret it.” [4]   In this context, Rabbi Gedaliah Nadel of blessed memory, an outstanding disciple of the Hazon Ish, claimed:

The Torah is written in a unique style, unparalleled anywhere.  On the one hand, the Torah is written literarily.  It speaks in prose, rhetorical and poetic language, as befits transmitting beautiful and deep ideas.  Anyone listening to the reading of the Torah enjoys its style and feels that there is place for delving into its ideas.  Flowery language is fitting for transmitting ideas, because with flowery language it is not the words but the content that is of primary importance.  The flowery language hints to us that we must delve deeper and deeper.   On the other hand, the Torah is a book of halakhah, and rules of halakhah are by nature precise and call for action...  In the tradition of the Oral Law we accepted that if we read closely what is written, following the rules and ways of the language, we will find the details of the rules of halakhah which we are commanded, which are precise and binding.   In every word and every letter, in every turn of phrase in the Torah, one can find precise rules of halakhah...   On the one hand, in every commandment there is an idea, and according to the idea we can understand the rules of halakhah, but on the other hand, every idea is infinite, it is not confined within the binding limits of the halakhah.  To know the boundaries set by the halakhah precisely, we must apply close and precise analysis to the written text and find in it the binding details. No human author could write thus...   The Torah subtly sets down in writing ideas and details together. [5]

The words of King David, “Your laws are songs for me” (Ps.119:54), appear to faithfully reflect the approach set forth above.   The well-known criticism of the amora Rabba against this verse [6] stemmed from fear lest the laws remain nothing but songs: [7]   “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him:  The words of the Torah, of which it is written, ‘You see it, then it is gone’ (Prov. 23:5), you dare to call songs?!” But he who labors over the Torah, seeking it out like a silver treasure, of him it is written, “Then you will understand the fear of the Lord and attain knowledge of G-d” (Prov.2:5).  Accordingly we suggest that the laws and ordinances of the Holy One, blessed be He, were given to us deliberately in poetic style because the essence of the poetic approach, more so than any other style, made it possible to embed and conceal new and special ways of interpretation, which we can discover only by toiling over the Torah. [8]   Although today we hardly come up with new interpretations of Scripture, [9] writing Torah novellae (Hiddushim) on the Talmud is for us the principal way in which we perform the commandment to “write down this poem,” [10] for it enables us to participate in the literary-interpretive dialogue of the Torah.



[1] Hilkhot Tefillin u-Mezuzah ve-Sefer Torah, 7, 1.

[2] Cf. the discussion of this in Responsa Hatam Sofer, Part II, Yoreh De’ah, par. 254.

[3] Cf. Yad Peshutah, the commentary of my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Nahum Rabinowitz, loc. sit.

[4] Genesis Rabbah, chapter 1 (Theodore-Albeck edition, p. 12) and variants.   Printed editions add, “and you do not labor over the Torah,” following the parallel variants in the Jerusalem Talmud.

[5] Rabbi Y. Shilat,  Mi-Divrei Torato shel ha-Ga’on R. Gedaliah Nadel, z”l, Ma’aleh Edumim 2004, pp. 14-15.

[6]Sotah 35a.

[7] Compare with the explanation given by A. J. Heschel, Torah min ha-Shamayim be-Aspaklariyah shel ha-Dorot, I, London and New York 1962, p. 205.

[8]   As Rashi wrote in his commentary on Psalms1:2:  “At first it is called the Lord’s Torah, and after he has labored over it, it is called his Torah,” following the words of the amora Rabba in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 19a.

[9] Cf. Y. D. Gilat, Perakim be-Hishtalshelut ha-Halakhah, Ramat Gan 1992, pp. 374-393.

[10] Hilkhot Ketanot la-Rosh, Hilkhot Sefer Torah, par. 1:   “In early generations, people used to write themselves Torah scrolls and use them for studying.   But now that Torah scrolls are written and placed in synagogues to be read from publicly, it is a positive commandment enjoined on every Jewish male whose means enable him to do so to write a Pentateuch, Mishnah and Gemara with commentaries, and to study them, he and his sons.  For the commandment of writing a Torah scroll is so that one can study it, as it is written, ‘teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths.’  Through the gemara and its commentaries a person can attain thorough knowledge of the commandments and rules of Jewish practice; therefore these are now the books that we are commanded to write.”