The Commandment to Write a Torah Scroll

  • Rav Michael Hattin







In memory of our beloved father and grandfather
Mr. Berel Weiner (Dov Ber ben Aharon z"l).  
May the learning of these shiurim provide an aliya for his neshama.


Steven Weiner, Lisa Wise, Michael & Joshua



The Commandment to Write a Torah Scroll


By Rav Michael Hattin





As Rosh Hashana fast approaches, and the Book of Devarim winds down, we read the double portion of Nitzavim-Vayelekh.  Having concluded his review of the mitzvot, Moshe now exhorts the people to follow them, and then proceeds to renew the Sinaitic covenant.  Warnings of doom are followed by the promise of redemption, and in language that ranks among the most poetic and moving of the Hebrew Bible, Moshe then goes on to offer the people the precious gift of Teshuva. 


In a marked departure from our conventional understanding of this term, the repentance described in Moshe's address transcends the failures of the individual and instead embraces the mandate of the nation of Israel.  With prophetic insight, Moshe foretells the tribulations that will befall the people of Israel during the dark night of their exile, but also sees the dawn of reconciliation, when Bnei Yisrael shall reflect on their checkered history and commence the process of Return.  This 'return,' initially nothing more than an undefined ethereal awakening stirred by a subconscious awareness of God's patient beckon, will find its subsequent tangible expression in the physical restoration of the people of Israel to their land.  The dynamic process will steadily unfold and intensify, culminating in the complete and irrevocable spiritual rapprochement between God and His people Israel, who will finally achieve security and peace. 


Moshe concludes the section by emphasizing the central role of man in the unfolding of the events, for freedom of choice, the ability to discriminate and to select between 'life and good, and death and evil,' is the exclusive preserve of the human being. 


"This day, I call heaven and earth as witnesses.  I have placed life and death before you, the blessing and the curse.  Choose life, so that you and your descendents shall live.  Love God your Lord, hearken to His words and hold fast to Him, so that you will have life and length of days upon the land that God swore to give to your ancestors Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov" (Devarim 30:19-20).


The Approaching End


Finally, the day of Moshe's demise draws near.  For a final time, he speaks to the people, offering words of encouragement as the sun of his selfless leadership begins to sink.  Yehoshua is formally installed as his successor, and charged by his mentor with mission and purpose.  Moshe completes the writing of the Torah and surrenders the scroll to the care of the Kohanim, to be safeguarded with the Tablets housed in the Ark of the Covenant.  Intensely conscious of the moment's national dimension, Moshe further commands the people to once in seven years fulfill the mitzva of 'Hakhel' or 'Assembly,' at the time of the Sukkot festival.  At that time, the people of Israel are to gather as one at the national shrine and, in a scene reminiscent of the receiving of the Torah at Sinai, are to hear the words of the Torah's instruction. 


"Their children, who do not know, will thus listen and learn to fear and revere God your Lord, as long as you live upon the land that you are crossing the River Jordan to possess" (Devarim 31:13).


At last, God informs Moshe that his end has come.  By His command, Yehoshua is summoned to the Tent of Meeting and there, in Moshe's presence, he is invested with the onerous responsibility of leadership.  God describes to Moshe the people's imminent infidelity, and spells out the harsh consequences of their attachment to idolatry.


"On that day, I will surely hide My face from them, because of the evil that they have done by turning to alien gods" (Devarim 31:18). 


The text continues:


"Now, write for yourselves this Song and teach it to Bnei Yisrael that they might recite it, so that this Song will serve as My witness for Bnei Yisrael.  For when I bring them into the land that I swore to their ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they shall eat and be satisfied and wax fat, they shall then turn to alien gods and serve them.  They will despise Me and violate My covenant.  When many great troubles come upon them in consequence, this Song shall serve as a witness before them, for it shall never be forgotten by their descendents...Moshe wrote this Song on that day and taught it to Bnei Yisrael..." (Devarim 31:19-22).


The 'Song' – a Reference to 'Shirat Ha'azinu'


According to the straightforward rendition of the above verses, the 'Song' is none other than a reference to the 'Song of Ha'azinu,' or 'Hearken.'  This elegy that constitutes next week's parasha (Devarim 32) is a succinct but charged depiction of the history and destiny of Bnei Yisrael, and is in fact written in poetic form.  It begins with a description of God's perfect justice, and goes on to outline His providential care of the Jewish people, notwithstanding their unfaithfulness.  Mirroring themes of our parasha, the Song of Ha'azinu lyrically traces the tragic consequences of abrogation of God's covenant, but concludes with the promise of redemption and national renewal. 


Among the classical commentaries, the Ramban (13th century, Spain) adopted this explanation, remarking that:


"'write for yourselves' (in the plural) refers to Moshe and Yehoshua, for both of them were commanded to write it.  This is because God wanted Yehoshua to already function as His prophet while Moshe was yet alive.  Moshe wrote the Song while Yehoshua stood by his side and read it...The expression 'this Song' refers to the Song that I (God) will now tell you, namely Ha'azinu.  The verse refers to it as 'Song' for Bnei Yisrael shall always recite it as a musical composition.  Also, it is composed with the structure of a Song, for the textual divisions parallel the musical breaks" (commentary to 31:19).   


The 'Song' – A Reference to the Entire Torah


In contrast to this reading, the Talmud offers an interpretation that appears to be at odds with the plain sense of the text, for it maintains that 'this Song' refers not to the 'Song of Ha'azinu,' but rather to the entire Torah:


"Rabbah said: even though a person may have inherited a scroll of the Torah from his ancestors, it is nevertheless a commandment for one to write his own, as the verse states: 'Now, write for yourselves this Song.'" (Sanhedrin 21b).  This opinion is further amplified by another Talmudic passage that relates: "Rav Yehoshua bar Abba said in the name of Rav Giddel, who reported in the name of Rav: a person who purchases a Sefer Torah in the marketplace has snared a mitzva for himself, but one who writes his own scroll, it is as if he has received the Torah from Mount Sinai.  Rav Sheshet added: one who corrects even a single letter in a defective scroll, is likened to one who has written the entire scroll" (Menachot 30a).


The foregoing Talmudic excerpts are not mere homilies, for according to Jewish tradition, they in fact serve as the source for the final positive commandment recorded in the Torah, the commandment to write a Torah scroll.  Rambam (12th century, Egypt), in his Book of the Commandments, where he painstakingly records the six hundred and thirteen commandments of the Torah, says:


"The Torah commanded that each person should write a Sefer Torah for himself.  If he writes it by his own hand, it is if he has received it from Mount Sinai.  But if he is unable to write his own, he may purchase one or hire a scribe to compose it for him.  This mitzva is derived from the verse 'Now, write for yourselves this Song.'  Since one is not permitted to write a scroll of the Torah that is composed of only some sections, the term 'Song' must therefore refer to 'the entire Torah that contains this Song' (Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment #18). 


In his Laws of the Sefer Torah from the Mishneh Torah, Rambam records the remainder of the Talmudic ruling: "...although one may have inherited a Torah from his ancestors, it is nonetheless a mitzva to write one's own."  He concludes: "If one writes it by his own hand, it is as if one has received it from Mount Sinai.  If he is not able to write it, others may write it for him.  One who corrects even a single letter of a scroll, it is as if they have written the entire scroll" (Laws of Sefer Torah, 7:1).


Rambam's Reading


Clearly, Rambam was confronted with the difficulty of reconciling the reading of the verse that spoke of writing a 'Song,' with the received Oral Tradition maintaining that 'Song' meant 'the entire Torah.'  Rambam offered an interpretive solution predicated upon a Halakhic principle: since we know from other traditional sources that it is forbidden to write a scroll composed of an anthology of Torah passages, it is inconceivable that the Torah would command us to write a scroll containing ONLY the Song of Ha'azinu.  The meaning of the text must therefore be 'write an entire scroll of the Torah that will of necessity include this Song.'


On the one hand, Rambam succeeds in preserving the plain meaning of 'Song' as a reference to 'Ha'azinu,' for that parasha is certainly poetic, rhythmic, and lyrical.  On the other hand, his interpretation is somewhat forced, for it is based upon assumptions that are not at all stated in the passage.


The Interpretation of the Netziv


In more recent times, the Netziv (Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th century, Lithuania) addressed the same textual issue, but offers a different explanation that is compelling as well as profound.  The problematic word is, as we have seen, 'Song.'  In the third section of the introduction to his commentary to the Torah, the Netziv considers the meaning of 'Song,' and contrasts it with its natural analogue, prose.  Typically, he suggests we tend to distinguish the two according to strict linguistic criteria, by describing prose as factual narrative, and poetry as metrical verse.  This is, of course, true, but there is an interpretive distinction as well. 


Thus, prose writing relates events in straightforward terms that in and of themselves contain no allegorical or hidden explications.  Prose writing attempts to convey facts or observations without embellishment.  Poetry, on the other hand, is more allusive, for its rendition of events is concisely couched in emotive language that has as its purpose the communication of numerous messages of import.  Additionally, poetry tends to have more pronounced structural constraints that paradoxically result in a larger number of possible interpretations.  By employing rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, acrostic and other literary devices, clarity of expression is often sacrificed for the sake of artifice, and shades of ambiguity are thereby introduced. 


The final result of these differences is that a poetic rendition conveys subtleties of thought and various layers of meaning that a prose rendition is not able to communicate.  However, only one who is well-versed in poetry can be truly appreciative of these effects.  The uninitiated, in contrast, failing to grasp the power and profundity of the poetic expression, will take the words at their face value and thereby misconstrue and misinterpret them. 


In a similar vein, says the Netziv, the entire Torah is a form of poetry.  Even the narrative passages that appear to be 'prose' in terms of their structural form are actually 'poetry' in disguise.  They therefore contain in their concise and condensed words penetrating insights of singular import.  To return to our text, the command of 'Now, write for yourselves this Song' really is a reference to the entire Torah, just as the Talmud maintains.  As the Netziv explains, all of the Torah from beginning to end, is actually composed as a 'Song,' and it is therefore our precious mission to uncover and to unravel those deeper dimensions of the text.


Text and Context


We have thus far analyzed two attempts to explain the connection between an Oral Tradition and a passage that appears to be at odds with it.  Let us consider the matter from a wider perspective in an attempt to pinpoint the inspiration for the Talmudic assertion that cryptically embedded in a verse of our parasha is the Torah's final command. 


Let us recall that the parasha began with an exhortation, and a renewal of the covenant.  The passage of Teshuva and the hope of redemption followed.  Moshe then appointed Yehoshua, the writing of the Torah was completed and the commandment of 'Assembly' was introduced.  God spoke to Moshe and Yehoshua, foretold the people's abandonment of Him and their consequent downfall, and bid them to write 'this Song.'  It will immediately be noticed that every one of the above incidents revolves around the pivot point of national continuity.


Thus, as the old generation finally expires and the new one rises to take its place, there is a need to renew the Covenant between God and the people of Israel, to impress upon them the eternal relevance of their mission.  Though they may stray mightily from their objective, the national Teshuva that the next passage outlines is a reflection of God's faith that indeed the people of Israel will one day return to Him.  The tenets of the Torah will never be forsaken forever, and the desolate and barren land that once had flowed with milk and honey will someday come back to life.  In other words, though the special task that God had entrusted to His people may appear to be in danger of dissipation, it will never perish completely.  Rather, it will remain alive in the hearts of their descendents as a glowing ember, passively waiting to be fanned by the Divine Spirit into a conflagration of commitment.


The appointment of Yehoshua was about the transfer of leadership, with the new generation now ready to take its rightful place as the bearers of the tradition.  The commandment of Assembly followed, and stressed the initiation of the children into the covenant of the Torah, much as their ancestors had stood at Sinai to hear God's word.  It is at this juncture that God brings Moshe and Yehoshua together, and enjoins upon them the writing of the 'Song.'


Moshe and Yehoshua as Paradigms


What is the significance of the relationship between Moshe and Yehoshua?  More than simply signifying leader and successor or even selfless mentor and devoted student, Moshe and Yehoshua symbolize the idea of TRANSMISSION.  Moshe speaks to God and Yehoshua learns from Moshe, but taken together they create a dynamic that is greater even than the sum of its parts.  That dynamic is the mechanism of transmission, the critical notion that no matter how veritable and transformative a tenet may be, unless it can be faithfully preserved and propagated across the generations, it will die.  The transfer of leadership that seems to preoccupy our parasha can now be restated as the embodiment of this ideal, and the rest of the parasha's episodes are nothing but variations of this theme.


Considering God's directive to Moshe and Yehoshua to record the words of the 'Song,' we now appreciate that this is a commandment about continuation, for the perpetuation of God's word is the vehicle for ensuring the survival of the people of Israel.  Moshe and Yehoshua are the microcosm of that people, for they represent in the most evocative terms the ideal of encountering God and preserving the account of that encounter, so that its effects can live forever in the hearts of sensitive people.  The 'Song' that they are told to record can therefore only mean the entire Torah, for that is the most logical extension of the complementary themes of continuity and transmission of which our parasha so eloquently speaks.


Shabbat Shalom