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The Authorship of Deuteronomy

  • Rav Michael Hattin







Jeffrey Paul Friedman

August 15, 1968 – July 29, 2012




יהודה פנחס בן הרב שרגא פייוועל

כ"ב אב תשכ"ח – י' אב תשע"ב





The Authorship of Deuteronomy

by Rav Michael Hattin





This week we commence the reading of Sefer Devarim, the final book of the Torah.  In the parshiyot of this book, Moshe addresses the Nation of Israel as it stands poised to enter the Promised Land, and as he himself prepares to take his leave from them in order to ascend Mount Nevo to die.  The words of this Book are confident but guarded, its expressions hopeful but cautious.  Recognizing his imminent demise, Moshe recounts to the people their triumphs and failures, their moments of trust in God's guidance as well as their many reversals.  He reviews the numerous instructions and laws that they have received from God, often elaborating on matters that were only mentioned briefly in the earlier books, sometimes referring concisely to topics already spelled out elsewhere at greater length, and occasionally introducing new laws for the first time.  Not for naught is this Book known as 'Mishneh Torah,' or 'Repetition of the Torah,' for in the main it constitutes an eloquent retrospect of the people's vicissitudes since the Exodus, as well as a review of the ordinances that God has enjoined upon them.


The Three Divisions of the Book


We may in fact conveniently divide the Book of Devarim into three main sections, each one reflecting a different aspect of its content and each one highlighting a distinct didactic motive.  The first relatively small section of the Book, constituting Moshe's introductory remarks, comprises the initial four chapters.  In this section, Moshe recalls the journey from Sinai, the sending of the Spies, the wilderness experience, and the recent conquest and settlement of the Amorite territories.  He goes on to describe his personal disappointment at being denied entry to the land, but then warns the people that their own success at settling its fertile slopes will be contingent upon remaining loyal to God's teaching.  His words are primarily expressed in tones of admonishment, and an undercurrent of apprehensiveness can be detected in his measured breaths.  The section concludes with Moshe's partial fulfillment of the Torah injunction to designate Cities of Refuge (see Bemidbar 35:9-34), as he selects three cities from the lands east of the Jordan, leaving to his successor the task of designating the corresponding three western cities.


The next section of the Book, comprising its largest component, is Moshe's lengthy explanation of the Torah.  It begins in Chapter 5 with a recollection of the Revelation at Sinai and a restatement of the Decalogue, and goes on to describe the many mitzvot that the people have received.  The various collections of ritual, civil and holiness laws are explicated, and seamlessly woven together with Moshe's tender but forthright locutions of counsel and forewarning.  Underlying the whole section is Moshe's attempt to impress upon the people that soon indeed they will face very tangible and difficult challenges as they cross the Jordan to enter the land, that their success will depend upon fortitude, perseverance, and unswerving loyalty to God's instruction.  This central portion of the Book concludes with Chapter 27, verse 8: "Write upon the stones all the words of this Torah, clearly and completely."


The final segment of the Book, from Chapter 27:9 until its conclusion, is perhaps its most exalted and inspiring.  The subject matter is the formal sealing of the covenant with God, but the language is lyrical and poetic.  The section contains many expressions of parting, many intimations of Moshe's end, as if he and the people can bid each other farewell with only the greatest reluctance.  Moshe first details the terms of the Covenant, the so-called 'Blessings' and the 'Curses' (27:9-29:8), and then convenes the people to ceremoniously accept it (29:9-28).  The Covenant is sealed and Moshe prepares to take his final leave.  He offers his parting oration (30:1-20) and is called upon by God to finally hand over the leadership of the people to Yehoshua's able but trembling hands (31:1-30).  His last remarks conclude with a striking song that spells out Israel's history and destiny with unsettling accuracy (32:1-52), and he then blesses the people and ascends to Nevo's summit (33:1-34:12).


Sefer Devarim as the 'Repetition of the Torah'


Remarkably, these three distinct sections of Sefer Devarim are introduced with deliberate expressions that emphasize this Book's unique status as the 'Repetition of the Torah.'  As the commentaries point out, the first section that commences the Book opens with the expression 'Eleh hadevarim' or 'These are the words,' where 'Eleh' recalls the first word of the Book of Exodus – 'VeEleh Shemot.'  The second segment of review and explanation begins with 'Vayikra Moshe' or 'Moshe called,' where 'Vayikra' reminds us of the first word of the Book of Leviticus – 'Vayikra el Moshe.'  Finally, the concluding section of covenantal responsibility is introduced with 'Vayedaber Moshe' – 'Moshe spoke,' where 'Vayedaber' parallels the opening word of the Book of Numbers – 'Vayedaber Hashem.'  In other words, embedded within the very lexical fabric of the Book is the assertion that it comes to complete the meaning and message of the other Books, to conclude the mitzvot given to the Nation of Israel.


Significantly though, it is Moshe who is cast here as the giver of the laws, for the above textual formulations not only link the Book of Devarim with the other Books, but also consistently substitute his presence with that of God!  Thus, whereas in Leviticus, God called Moshe and communicated to him His numerous laws, here Moshe calls the people to review the laws with them.  In Numbers, God addressed Moshe as the people prepared to journey to the land, but here it is Moshe who addresses the people on the eve of their entry. In Exodus, the history of the people in Egypt was spelled out as Moshe's own birth was detachedly described, but here Moshe himself recalls the history of Israel.  This unusual feature is accentuated by the fact that the Book of Devarim is the only one of the books of the Torah narrated in first person, by Moshe himself. All of this has led to much speculation on the part of the commentaries concerning the Book's status as the revealed word of God, for its Mosaic authorship would seem to compromise its Divine authority.


Moshe as Faithful Scribe


At the core of the discussion lies a principle that is regarded as fundamental and indeed axiomatic in the traditional sources, namely that the text of the Five Books constitutes a verbatim communication of God's word to Moshe.  As the Ramban (13th century, Spain) explicitly spells out in his introduction to his Torah commentary: "Moshe our teacher composed the Book of Bereishit along with the rest of the Torah as dictated by God…The Book of Bereishit ought to have begun with 'God spoke all of these things to Moshe, saying,' but the matter was instead recorded as a narrative, because Moshe did not compose the Torah in first person…Rather, he recorded the earlier generations and his own lineage, birth and deeds in third person…Therefore, Moshe is not mentioned in the Torah until his birth, and his life is described from the vantage point of the Narrator" (Introduction to commentary of Sefer Bereishit).


In other words, the Torah from its very first verse is a literal and exact record of God's utterance as communicated to Moshe.  Nevertheless, since it begins as an account that describes events and episodes preceding Moshe's birth by many generations, its structural form follows that chronological reality.  The Ramban goes own to indicate the unique literary form of Sefer Devarim: "Do not be dismayed by the fact that in Sefer Devarim, Moshe speaks in first person…for that Book begins by stating that 'These are the words that Moshe spoke to the entire people of Israel,' indicating that it is a first person narrative…"  Summing up, the Ramban eliminates all doubts: "The Torah was composed as a third person narrative because it preceded the creation of the universe (and certainly Moshe's birth!), just as the mystical traditions assert that it existed eternally as black fire written on white fire.  Thus, Moshe was like a scribe who copied from a primeval text, and therefore the matter is recorded in this way.  BUT IT IS TRUE AND CERTAIN THAT THE ENTIRE TORAH BEGINNING WITH 'BEREISHIT' ('In the beginning') AND CONCLUDING WITH 'LEEINEI KOL YISRAEL' ('before the eyes of all Yisrael') WAS COMMUNICATED BY GOD'S MOUTH AND REACHED MOSHE'S EARS…"


In a popular and appealing metaphor, Ramban compares Moshe to a scribe who diligently and accurately copies the contents of a text, adding nothing of his own invention to the transcription.  The theological implications of this doctrine, however, are profound, for they suggest that the text of the Torah is not a human composition that would of necessity be the product of the historical and cultural forces that shaped it.  Such an approach would turn absolute truths into relative half-truths, and would effectively rob the mitzvot of their transcendent and eternal essence.  Rather, the Torah constitutes the revealed word of God, and therefore its message, though sometimes couched in terms connected with time and place, is nevertheless everlasting.  If the authorship of the text is Divine in origin, then its study must be a serious and exacting pursuit, for each word is of paramount significance.  At least in Jewish tradition, the principle of Divine authorship tended to promote a methodology of study that paid precise attention to every textual nuance and fostered many possible readings, rather than encouraging a superficial and dogmatic approach predicated upon fundamentalist literalism.


Moshe's Personality as Expressed in the Text


We must still consider the Mosaic authorship of Sefer Devarim, for if Moshe here records matters in first person narrative, then we must wonder whether in fact his personality and his character cannot but have crept into the text that he records.  Or, to put the matter differently, if Ramban's contention is in fact correct, that Sefer Devarim like the other Books is recorded by Moshe after the manner of a scribe copying from an existing text, then how are we to understand the unusual literary features of this Book that clearly indicate Moshe's authorship?  How are we to accept his impassioned poetic words of admonishment and encouragement, his intimate recollections of the events of the wilderness experience, his concluding songs of soaring emotion that so distinguish this book from the others, as being completely bereft of any imprint of his human personality? 


If he has in fact authored the content of this book, and authored it so well, then we must expect that something of Moshe the man is to be found between its ancient lines.  How then to resolve the serious theological difficulty raised by such an assertion, for it renders the mitzvot of Sefer Devarim and perhaps its message as well less than absolutely pertinent.  In the realm of the Torah's authority there is no room for middle ground, for if the Torah is not absolutely supreme, then it rightfully must invite selective discard or complete dismissal.  The words of men can never be more than man himself, and the words of some men can never bind all men to a 'Higher Law.' 


Concerning this very issue, Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (!5th century, Spain) who flourished during the Golden Age in Spain and suffered expulsion with his people in the summer of 1492, remarks: "In truth, Moshe our teacher stated the words of this book and explained the mitzvot mentioned therein as he prepared to part from the people of Israel.  After he completed his words to Israel, God desired that they be included in the Torah as Moshe stated them.  Perhaps God added elements to those words at the time that they were committed to writing.  Thus, although the words may have been stated by Moshe, the authority to include them in the Torah's text did not derive from him.  Moshe did not decide to commit these words to writing, for how could he compose even a single thing in God's Torah without Divine sanction?  Rather, all of these words of the Book of Devarim were by the mouth of God, together with the rest of the Torah's text, for God agreed with his formulations and favored the words of the 'faithful shepherd' Moshe.  Thus, God restated them to Moshe and ordered them to be written by him, and Moshe therefore composed them by God's authority and not by his own" (Introduction to the Book of Devarim).


Thus, the Abarbanel neatly resolves an otherwise thorny dilemma by explaining that Moshe in fact composed the words of this Book and stated those to the people in the form of an oration.  The exact form that those words eventually took as a written text was solely at the discretion of the Creator Himself.  If in fact Moshe's personality is therefore to be found in this Book, it is only to the degree that God desired it to be expressed and only for the purposes that He saw fit.  Thus, in the end the authority of the Book of Devarim is no different than that of the other Books, for all of them were revealed by the Living God.


Shabbat Shalom