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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard

of SCF - Shoresh Charitable Fund


Parashot Nitzavim - Vayelech

Therefore Write Down This Poem

Professor Yitzchak D. Gilat

The Department of Talmud

At the conclusion of Moses' final speech to Israel, God commands Moses: "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" (Deut. 31:19).

There are various interpretations of this verse, centering around two questions. A. What is the meaning of the term "poem" (shirah)? Who is commanded to "write down this poem"?

Rashi explains: "This poem, which begins: "Give ear, O heavens" (32:1) until "And wipe away His people's tears" (32:43), meaning the entire Parashah of Ha'azinu. Nachmanides also writes: "The meaning of the words "this poem" is the poem which I am about to recite for you now, and that refers to parashat Ha'azinu, and it is called a poem because Israel will forever recite it as a poem and a song, and also because it was written as poetry"[1] .

On the other hand , the Ralbag (Rabbi Levi Ben Gershom, a 14th century Biblical interpreter) believes that "the poem is the entire Torah from beginning to end". He adds: "And this was the purpose of the command-ment, that each man should write a complete Torah scroll for himself, including the poem within it, so that nothing shall be missing from all the things that are in the Torah". [2]

As for the commandment "Write" (kitvu), Nachmanides explains: "The plain meaning refers both to Moses and Joshua; He commanded them to write it", meaning that only Moses and Joshua were instructed to write a Torah. However, Ibn Ezra makes the commandment applicable "to everyone who knows how to write", i.e. to every Israelite. This too is the opinion of the Ralbag, who concludes the above citation with the words: "So that every person of Israel will be able to study the Torah when he has the opportunity".

Maimonides, Hilchot Sefer Torah, chap. 7, halachah 1, words the law as follows: "Each and every man of Israel is commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself, as it says ' Therefore write down this poem...' which means write a Torah scroll which contains this poem, since one may not write the Torah in separate parts". Here we learn that the essence of the command-ment is actually to write only the poem (Parashat Ha'azinu). However, since one should not write partial texts from the Torah on a parchment, therefore we were each commanded to write the entire Torah for the sake of the poem which is within it.

The Geonim, the Ba'al Halachot Gedolot (Bahag), Rav Sa'adiah Gaon, and Rabbi Eliezer of Metz (author of the Sefer Yere'im) disagree with the opinion that it is incumbent upon every Jew to write a Torah scroll, and they do not include it among the 613 commandments. However, all the other early authorities (Rishonim) list this commandment as the last of the 613, and this is indeed the law (halachah) based on Maimonides, Tur Yoreh Deah, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah and other later legal compendia.

We do not know the source of Maimonides' interpretation of the law as we explained it above; it is even somewhat puzzling. Perhaps there is a special mitzvah to write the poem separately, just as it is a mitzva to write tefillin and mezuzot separately, and this is not considered writing a partial Torah? Secondly, the whole question of whether or not it is permissible to write partial texts of the Torah is the subject of a dispute between Talmudic scholars in Tractate Gittin 60a. If we follow the opinion of Rabbi Yochanan, who believes that the Torah was given in separate scrolls - and it would appear that his opinion is the accepted one [3] - it would indeed be possible to write Parashat Ha'azinu as a separate text and thereby fulfill the command-ment to "write down this poem"! All these questions and several others were raised against Maimonides' explanation by the latter-day commentators. [4]

However, even if Maimonides' explanation is questionable, the law (halachah) remains as he stated it. Moreover, in support of the Rambam, the Talmudic discussion in Tractate Nedarim 38a maintains that the term "poem" refers to the entire Torah, and the command to write it is directed to every Jew.

Let us examine the content and substance of the commandment to write a Sefer Torah. Is this an independent commandment like those of tzitzit (corner fringes on garments), tefillin (phylacteries) and mezuzah (the inscription on the door- post of a house), which are not in any way dependent on the general commandment to study the Torah, or perhaps, the main point of this commandment is that every Jew should have a Sefer Torah in his home so that he can study from it, in order to learn to fear the Lord?

Each of these two ideas has numerous implications for the extent of the commandment and the manner in which it must be observed. The following are but a few examples:

A. If a man writes a Sefer Torah for himself and later dedicates it to a synagogue or gives it as a gift and removes it from his home - has he observed the commandment of writing a Sefer Torah, or not? If we assume that the main point of the mitzvah is the actual writing of the Sefer Torah, then he has fulfilled his obligation. After all, he wrote a Sefer Torah and we are not concerned with what happens after that. However, if we say that the crucial issue is that every Jew have a Sefer Torah in his home in order to be able to study it, then from the moment he removed from his house he is delinquent in observing a positive commandment, and is obliged to write another Sefer Torah. This was the halachic decision rendered by Rabbi Abraham Chaim Shorr, author of Torat Chaim and one of the great Torah scholars of the 17th century, in his commentary on Sanhedrin 21b. [5]

B. Are women included in the obligation to write a Sefer Torah? If the main point of the commandment is to fulfill the mitzvah of Torah study, since women are exempt from the obligation to study the Torah they would be exempt as well from the commandment to write a Sefer Torah. This is the position expressed by the author of Sefer Hachinuch, 613: "It (the commandment that every one of Israel write a Sefer Torah for himself) applies everywhere and at all times to men, who are obligated to study the Torah... and not to women". However, if writing a Sefer Torah is a separate commandment, independent of the commandment to study the Torah, then women should also be obliged to fulfill it, since it is not one of those commandments which must be observed at a specified time from which women are generally exempt. [6]

C. If, in fact, the main point of the commandment is the actual writing of the Sefer Torah, everyone should have to observe it once during his lifetime. "Diligent people are quick to observe the commandments as soon as possible" (zerizim makdimim le-mitzvot) is a known motif in the Halachah, but even if one delayed observing this commandment and did so only at the end of his life, he has still observed it to the letter of the law.

However, if we assume that the main point of the commandment is so that every Jew will have a Sefer Torah in his home from which he can study at all times, then in that case he must observe the commandment to write a Sefer Torah as soon as he becomes legally responsible for the observance of the commandments (bar mitzvah) and every moment that passes while he is without a Sefer Torah places him in the category of having ignored a positive commandment. Even if he writes a Sefer Torah later on, the benefit which he derives from it is from then on but does not make up for the non-fulfillment of this commandment in the past.[7]

D. Finally, we must examine the following far-reaching conclusion, noted by several Rishonim, based on the link between writing a Sefer Torah and the study of Torah. The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel) in his legal determinations (Piske ha-Rosh), Rabbi Yerucham Ben Rabbi Meshulam in his book Sefer Toldot Adam Vechavah and Rabbenu Ya'akov ben Ha-Rosh, author of the Tur, all of whom lived in the 13th and 14th centuries, wrote as follows:

"... And thus it was in former generations, that each person would write a Sefer Torah and study from it, but now, when we write a Sefer Torah and place it in the synagogue to be read publicly, there is a positive commandment incumbent on every Jew who can afford to do so to write the Five Books of Moses (chumashim), the Mishnah and the Talmud and their interpretations, so that he and his sons can study them, because the purpose of the commandment of writing a Sefer Torah is so that one may study from it, as it is written 'Teach it to the Children of Israel, put it in their mouths' (31:19), and through the Talmud and its commentaries a man can learn the explanation of the commandments and know the laws perfectly, therefore these are the books which a man must write for himself, and not sell them".

The opinion of the Rosh caused many a raised eyebrow among the commentators to the Tur and the Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi David son of Rabbi Shmuel (16th-17th cent.), author of the commentary Turei Zahav on the Shulchan Aruch ( the Taz), asked: How can we abolish the positive commandment of "write down this poem" simply because "things have changed"? (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 270, 4). Furthermore, Rabbi Yosef Karo, in his Bet Yosef on the Tur, tries to modify the words of the Rosh with the interpretation that the Rosh had no intention of abolishing the obligation to write a Sefer Torah; he simply wanted to add another obligation - to write or obtain copies of the Five Chumashim, the Mishnah and the Talmud.

These challenges to the opinion of the Rosh are based on the perception that the commandment to write a Sefer Torah is not an integral part of the mitzvah of Torah study. However, the opinion of the Rosh, which Rabbenu Yerucham attributes the Babylonian Gaonim, is based on the view that the commandment to write a Sefer Torah is the means to the end of increasing the knowledge of Torah and its observance by the People of Israel. If, in ancient times, it was possible to make do solely by copying the text of the Written Torah, today, as in the days of the Rosh, we must see to it that the Oral Law as well (Torah she-be'al peh), in its written form as Mishnah and Talmud, be present in every Jewish home. Only in this way can we be certain that we will properly understand and observe the commandments and laws.

Rabbi Yehoshua Falk Katz, author of the Sm"a , in his books Derishah u-Prishah on the Tur, and Rabbi Shabtai Hacohen (the Shach), both of them commentators on the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th and 17th centuries, support this opinion of the Rosh. They maintain that in our times one observes the commandment of writing a Sefer Torah by purchasing published editions of the Five Books of Moses, the Talmud, Codes of Jewish Law (Poskim) and Responsa (She'elot Utshuvot).

"And everyone who observes this commandment will be blessed, and he and his sons will become wise" (Sefer Hachinuch, 613).

[1] This is also the opinion of the Rashbam and Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiyah son of Rabbi Manoach, a 13th century Torah commentator) on Deuteronomy 31, 19.

[2] See the Ralbag's commentaries on the Torah on Deuteronomy, Parashat Vayelech, 31.19; see also in "Haktav Vehakabalah" by Rabbi Ya'akov Tzvi Mecklenburg to Deuteronomy 31,19, which rejects the proofs brought by Ralbag that the reference is to the entire Torah. However he also concludes, for different reasons, that the entire Torah is called "poem" ("shirah"). Compare to "He'emek Davar" by Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin, on Deuteronomy 31,19, and in his introduction to the Book of Genesis, paragraph 3.

[3] See: "Piskei Harosh" on Gittin , chap. 5, end of par. 20; and "Korban Netanel", Gittin, chap. 5, par. 5.

[4] See: Responsa "Sha'agat Aryeh" by Rabbi Leib son of Rabbi Asher, section 34; Responsa "Chatam Sofer", Yoreh De'ah, par. 254 ("Therefore Maimonides wrote wisely at the beginning of the laws of a Sefer Torah" etc.); Responsa "Tshuvah Me'ahavah" by Rabbi Elazar Flecklish, part one, par. 67, et.al.

[5] The Chid"a in "Darchei Yosef," Yoreh De'ah, 72,11 wrote similarly, however compare: "Pitchei Teshuvah" on Yoreh De'ah 72,3.

[6] See: " Sha'agat Aryeh", par. 35; "Aruch Hashulchan" 72, 5-6; "Avnei Nezer" by Rabbi Abraham of Sokatschov, Yoreh De'ah par. 352; "Da'at Kohen" by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook, Yoreh De'ah. Jerusalem, 1942, par. 68; Rabbi Yosef Kapach in Maimonides' "Sefer Hamitzvot", Jerusalem, 1971, p.67, note 85.

[7] See: Minchat Chinuch by Rabbi Yosef Babad, 613, 10.

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