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Place the Torah in their Mouths

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Adapted by Rav Dov Karoll


Now therefore write this poem for you, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this poem may be a witness for Me against the people of Israel.  (Devarim 31:19)

There are three separate foci in this verse, indicated by three different expressions.  The first is indicated by the verb "kitvu," "write," which is a defined action.  The second is indicated by the verb "lammedah," "teach," which is also a defined action or program.  The third is the expression "simah be-fihem," "place it [fluently] in their mouths," which is much vaguer and is not readily definable.  What is entailed by this "placement in the mouth?"

One implication of placing Torah in the mouths of the Jewish people is the element of talmud Torah, the study of Torah.  The Sifrei (34:7), as well as the gemara in Kiddushin (30a) cited by Rashi (Devarim 6:7, s.v. ve-shinnantam), explains, based on the word "ve-shinnantam," that the words of Torah should be sharp in your mouth, such that if someone asks you about them, you will not stumble to respond, but will rather be able to answer immediately.  Thus, one element of the present command would be to teach Torah so that the people are fluent in it - so that it is known and understood by them.

While the simple meaning of our verse is a reference to the recording of the poem of Ha'azinu which follows in the Torah, it is understood halakhically as referring to the mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah. (It is interesting that in one place the Rambam [Hilkhot Sefer Torah 7:1] explains that this verse teaches us that we need to write down Ha'azinu; since you are not allowed to write only one parasha in isolation, you therefore need to write the whole Torah. In his formulation at the beginning of the halakha, however, he writes that there is a fundamental obligation to write the whole Torah.)  The formulation of this mitzva, "Kitvu lakhem," "Write for yourselves," presumably applies to each and every individual, which is the implication of the word "lakhem" regarding other mitzvot, such as the counting of the omer and the taking of the lulav and etrog.  Thus, our verse teaches us that every individual is to write down the Torah and understand it.

According to the Rosh, the bond between the two concepts of writing the Torah and teaching it is a strong one.  He claims (Halakhot Ketannot La-Rosh, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 1) that the mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah is meant to enable one to learn, as the study of Torah was at one time facilitated by the use of a Sefer Torah.  However, in our day, when the study of Torah takes place primarily from books, the mitzva is fulfilled through the procurement of books.  In practice, this ruling of the Rosh is relied upon widely.

However, "placing in their mouths" may also have another meaning.  In Parashat Bo, the first time the mitzva of tefillin is commanded, the verse states:

And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand and for a memorial between your eyes, so that God's Torah may be in your mouth. (Shemot 13:9)

Although one midrash (Midrash Tehillim [Buber ed.] 1:17) states that by learning Torah it is considered as if you have worn tefillin, it is difficult to claim that the wearing of tefillin is considered to be Torah study, narrowly defined.  Rather, through the wearing of tefillin one becomes involved in the service of God, and by fulfilling the mitzva properly one can gain an existential, experiential connection to Him.  Correspondingly, one can also claim that there is an existential element to "placing the Torah in their mouths."

While the Rambam (positive command 18) and others count the writing of a Sefer Torah as a mitzva, others, such as R. Sa'adya Ga'on and the Ba'al Halakhot Gedolot (Behag) do not count it.  Rav Yerucham Fishel Perlow, in his commentary on the Sefer Ha-Mitzvot of R. Sa'adya Gaon, points out that the Behag counts the mitzva of setting up stones upon the original arrival in Eretz Yisrael instead of the writing of a Sefer Torah.

In Parashat Ki Tavo (Devarim 27:1-8), the Torah commands that as soon as the Jewish People cross the Jordan River into the Land of Israel, they are to write the whole Torah on stones.  The notion of writing a Sefer Torah is similar to this commandment, but in the case of the stones, the focus is clearly communal; the entire Jewish People records the Torah on these stones as a community.

There is a peculiarity in the Torah's description of this mitzva. The Torah introduces this mitzva with the phrase, "And it shall be on the day when you shall pass over the Jordan" (27:2).  Why did they need to write the Torah down on the very first day they came into Israel?  Were there not other tasks that demanded their attention, such as setting up camp, finding food, or getting ready for the wars they would have to fight?

To understand this, we need to better appreciate the transition that took place at this moment in Jewish history.  When the people of Israel crossed over into the Land of Israel, they made the transition from being under God's direct supervision, as they were in the desert, where God provided for all their needs, to the more natural existence of building a society in the Land of Israel.  In relating this mitzva, Moshe emphasized that not a single day was to pass during which the people of Israel were to think that they are just a normal nation!  They were not to sleep even one night in the Land of Israel thinking that they were just like all other nations, operating by natural principles.  Immediately upon crossing the Jordan, they needed to set down in stone the entire Torah, making it perfectly clear under what conditions, and toward what end, they were entering.  The writing of the Torah on the stones was to be the tone-setting event for the existence of the Jewish People in the Land, their subjugation to the word of God their overriding and overwhelming principle.

In light of this understanding of the writing of the Torah on the stones, let us take another look at the mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah to gain a new appreciation of this mitzva as well.  The verse with which we began opens with the phrase "Ve-atta," meaning "immediately," "now," write down the Torah and teach it to the people so that they understand it.  As Moshe's life was coming to an end, there was a sense of immediacy in the writing down and teaching of the Torah - do so right away. 

If we look ahead a few verses, we see that Moshe indeed acted upon this command from God:  "Moshe therefore wrote this poem the same day, and taught it to the people of Israel" (31:22).  Thus, on that very day, Moshe Rabbeinu fulfilled the first two elements of the mitzva by writing down the Torah (or several Sifrei Torah, according to the Midrash Tehillim [90:3]) and by teaching it to the Jewish People.  But the Torah does not mention his fulfillment of the command to "place it in their mouths"!  Could it be that Moshe Rabbeinu was lax in the fulfillment of this third, crucial, element of God's mitzva?

Certainly not – Heaven forbid!  Moshe Rabbeinu had been teaching them continuously - the entire Sefer Devarim is, in fact, a series of lessons delivered over the last weeks of Moshe's life.  And on that last day, he gave tremendous lectures.  However, "placing the Torah in their mouths" did not come easily, even for Moshe Rabbeinu, in teaching the Jewish People.  In part, this was due to a lack of time; he did not finish recording the Torah until the very last day of his life.

But there is another lesson beyond that: even the greatest of teachers, the teacher par excellence of the entire Jewish People, cannot force every Jew to internalize the deep messages of the Torah.  This takes tremendous effort along with a great deal of time and commitment.  The Torah tells us that no one person can fully accomplish this goal of inculcating Torah fully into all those who surround him.

But this does not mean that we do not have an obligation to make our best attempt at doing so.  First, every person needs to work on himself or herself to inculcate Torah on a personal level such that it becomes "placed in his or her mouth."  And beyond that, while "it is not incumbent upon you to complete the labor, yet you" – not even a single one of you – "are not free to refrain therefrom" (Pirkei Avot 2:16).  Every person needs to strive to help others absorb Torah and Torah values so that they can become, to the full extent possible, "placed in their mouths."

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat, Parashat Vayelekh-Shuva, 5762 [2001].)