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The Words of Moses

Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Both ancient and modern readers of the Book of Deuteronomy have discerned a change in style from the other four books of the Torah. The book starts with:

These are the words of Moses which he spoke to the Children of Israel on the other side of the Jordan. (Deut. 1:1)

After this introduction the text switches to a monologue delivered by Moses in the first person. This is clearly a departure from the other books of the Torah, where appears the more familiar:

And God spoke to Moses saying: 'Speak to the children of Israel...'

While modern secular scholars have quite comfortably suggested a different "source" or author for this book, traditional Jewish opinion, both ancient and modern, insists that the entire Torah is the word of God. Even the suggestion that the Torah possesses alien teachings would place one outside the pale of traditional thought.

The Talmud states that if a person denies the Divinity of even one word in the Torah, he is guilty of heresy (Sanhedrin 99a). This opinion has been codified by Maimonides (Mishna Torah, Teshuva 3:8) and reflects normative Jewish law.

Therefore, for the believing Jew, the flippant suggestion that the authorship of Deuteronomy is different is simply not an option.

There is, however, another passage in the Talmud which is somewhat difficult to understand, given these limitations.

While discussing details of public reading of the Torah, the Talmud states that in reading the Book of Leviticus -- the portion dealing with rebuke, Parshat Bechukatai -- the reader should not stop in the middle of the description of the calamities. In reading a similar passage in Deuteronomy, on the other hand, it is permissible to stop in the middle, and divide the reading into two, according to the Talmud.

Abaye said: "This was only taught regarding the rebuke in Torat Kohanim, "Laws of the Priests," (Leviticus) but in the rebuke in Mishna Torah, "Repetition of the Torah," (Deuteronomy) you can stop. These (Leviticus) were written in the plural, by Moses by the mouth of the Almighty, while those (Deuteronomy) were written in the singular, by Moses, by himself." (Megila 31b)


This teaching seems to present tremendous difficulties. How can the Talmud suggest that even a portion of the Torah was "authored" by anyone other than God, even Moses?

At first glance our two Talmudic sources seem contradictory.

Needless to say, this passage has sent Talmudic commentators scurrying in various directions in order to resolve the inconsistency. The Zohar deals with this issue in a number of places:

Come and see, the verse says Moses spoke and the Lord responded in a loud voice. It was taught: What does it mean "with a voice"? With the voice of Moses, for Moses achieved a level beyond all the prophets ... the voice was the Shechina (the Divine Presence).

Rav Shimon said: "We were taught that the rebuke in Leviticus was [written by] Moses in the name of the Divinity; and in Mishna Torah, it was [written by] Moses by himself. Do you think that Moses said even one small letter by himself? No, it was written with precision. It doesn't say that Moses said it by himself, rather that it came out of Moses' mouth, this was the voice which 'possessed' Moses. (Zohar V'etchanan 265a)

In this passage the Zohar poses the same question. How can we even consider that part of the Torah is not directly from God? The answer which the Zohar offers is remarkably elegant: Of course the entire Torah is Divine, but not all the Torah was communicated in the same manner.

The Zohar thus introduces a concept which has become known as "the Shechina speaking from the throat of Moses."

This phrase, which apparently does not have a source in Talmudic or Rabbinic literature, became quite popular, and can be found in the great works of the 18th thru 20th centuries. (The list reads like a virtual "Who's Who" -- from the Ba'al haTanya to Rav Chaim of Volozhin, from Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv to the Meshech Chochma, from Rav Tzadok of Lublin to the Chazon Ish.)

The idea is clearly stated in the Zohar: At times Moses, who rose to such a profound level of prophecy, literally had the Shechina speak from his throat. Therefore, the Zohar teaches that Moses did not "author" this section of the Torah; it was authored by God as was the rest of the Torah.

The "problematic" passage in the Talmud never said that Moses made it up, rather it was Moses speaking from his own mouth. But if in his mouth was the Shechina, God's presence, the contradiction is reconciled.

However, this still does not seem to help us with the larger issue, namely the "style" of the rest of Deuteronomy.


In a second passage the Zohar opens the door for more discussion:

In the book of Aggada of the study hall, it states: "Even though the entire Torah is the word of God, some is from the words of Moses as well." Which part? For example, the rebuke in Mishna Torah (Deuteronomy). Afterwards [these words] were included in the Divine [words], as the verse indicates "Moses spoke and the Lord responded aloud." (Zohar Vayikra 7a)

Here we see that the section of rebuke is merely an example of a recurring phenomenon; the Zohar implies that there are other sections which were "produced" in a similar manner.

In another section of the Zohar we find:

That which is called Mishna Torah, Moses said it [all] from his own mouth. (Zohar Vetchanan 261a)

Here we see that the Zohar is willing to make a much broader assertion: The entire Book of Deuteronomy was communicated via the mouth of Moses, with the Shechina in his throat -- in a type of Divine ventriloquism.

The implication is that the stylistic differences in Deuteronomy are of Divine origin. Most of the Torah comes from God, as dictated to Moses, while Deuteronomy is spoken by God via the mouth of Moses.

Why, then, did the Talmud only mention the section of the rebuke? Because that was the section under discussion, and therefore, when describing the difference between the sections, the Talmud introduces this principle which, according to the Zohar, applies equally for the entire Book of Deuteronomy.


As stated at the outset, the question of the authorship of Deuteronomy occupied many of the early Sages and many answers have been offered. The Abarbanel, in his introduction to Deuteronomy, expands a teaching of the Nachmanides, in the following manner:

The Book of Deuteronomy is referred to as "Mishna Torah", which means the repetition of the Torah or of the law (Deuteronomy). In this book, many laws are restated.

On what basis did Moses repeat these laws? The Abarbanel answers very simply that the Oral Torah is what Moses taught at this opportunity.

We know that God's communication with Moses was much more in-depth than what is indicated in the written text of the Torah. At Sinai, all of Judaism was taught by God to Moses. Not all that God taught Moses at that juncture became part of the written Torah. Certain ideas remained unwritten, or verbal.

According to Maimonides, Moses wrote down many of these teachings, but kept them private, for his own use and as a teaching tool. These notes were not meant to be passed on, at least not in the written form. (Rambam, Introduction to the Mishna Torah)

We may draw the following conclusion: The essential difference between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah was not that one was written and the other not written. Rather, one was meant to be passed on in written form, and the other was meant to be passed on verbally.

Furthermore, the text of the Written Torah is sacrosanct, while in the Oral Torah, it is the ideas which are holy. (Rashi in Gittin 60b has a different understanding of this concept, which has enjoyed much more popularity than the Rambam's concept, outlined above.)


Let us return to the Abarbanel.

Moses, now in the last days of his life, will soon take leave of his beloved nation. Therefore he teaches them the laws of the Torah yet again. What does he use as the basis for his lectures? The answer is simple -- the Oral Torah which was taught to him by God at Sinai. According to this approach, the Book of Deuteronomy, is in actuality the oldest source of Oral Torah extant.

At the conclusion of Moses' lecture, God asks him to write down his words. At that point they become part of the Written Torah as well. Therefore, the Book of Deuteronomy has both the status of the Oral Torah, and of the Written Torah. The words are arguably the words of Moses, based on the teachings which he heard from God.

Again, we must recall that the holiness of the Oral Torah is the concepts. Therefore Moses would have been expected to teach these ideas using his own words. Only after they are written, based on word by word, letter by letter dictation by God, do they achieve the status of Written Torah as well.

This means that the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers were dictated by God to Moses, based on the formulation of God. Deuteronomy is also based on the teachings which he heard at Sinai, but the words are Moses'.

But then God proceeds to dictate to Moses the very words which Moses used, and God's dictation makes the book part of the Written Torah as well.

Perhaps this teaching of the Abarbanel -- which is based on the Nachmanides and is echoed by many authorities including the Vilna Gaon and Malbim -- is actually referred to in the Zohar cited above, and which continues:

In the book of Aggada of the study hall, it states: "Even though the entire Torah is the Word of God, some is the words of Moses as well. Which part? For example, the rebuke in Mishna Torah (Deuteronomy). Afterwards they were included in the Divine. (Zohar Vayikra 7a)

Here the Zohar states that the section in question is both by Moses and God, first stated by Moses, then repeated by God.

In other words, the idea of the "Shechina speaking from the mouth of Moses" may be understood as follows: The words which Moses used indeed came from God. They are based on what Moses heard at Sinai, when Moses stood in proximity to the Shechina. They are the words of the Oral Torah, oral in the sense that they are received through the mouth of Moses!

Later, when these words are written -- based on clear unequivocal instructions by God -- these words become part and parcel of the Written Torah, having the same authority as any other words in the Five Books.

The Book of Deuteronomy is quite special, as it comes from the mouth of God to the mouth of Moses, to the quill of Moses based on the word of God.

These are the words of Moses which he spoke to the children of Israel on the other side of the Jordan. (Deut. 1:1)

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