The Last Eight Verses

June 23, 2009

6 min read


V'Zot HaBracha (Deuteronomy 33-34 )

The Torah comes to its completion with the following verses:

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And He buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor; but no man knows his grave till this day. And Moses was 120 years old when he died; his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the people of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; and the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him; and the people of Israel listened to him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses. And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. In all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land. And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great and awesome deeds which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:5 to 34:12)

At the outset of the Book of Deuteronomy we noted the centrality of Divine authorship of the Torah to the Jewish belief system. Furthermore, we saw the importance of Moses' contribution, namely, that the entire Torah is believed to have been dictated by God to Moses. These last eight verses pose a challenge to that position.

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The Talmud offers a number of explanations:

The Master has said: "Joshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Pentateuch. This statement is in agreement with the authority who says that eight verses in the Torah were written by Joshua, as it has been taught: So Moses the servant of the Lord died there. Now is it possible that Moses being dead could have written the words, 'Moses died there'? The truth is, however, that up to this point Moses wrote, from this point Joshua wrote. This is the opinion of Rabbi Judah, or, according to others, of Rabbi Nehemiah." [But] Rabbi Shimon said to him: "Can the scroll of the law be short of one word? ... No; what we must say is that up to this point the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears." (Baba Bathra 15a)

We see that the question of "authorship" is debated in the Talmud. We must recognize that according to both opinions the source of the words of the Torah is certainly God. The point of disagreement is: Was it Moses or Joshua who was the conduit through which the word of God flowed?

In a sense, the opinion of Rabbi Judah indicates that the Book of Joshua begins eight verses earlier, at the end of Deuteronomy. Of course, there is one slight difference -- namely in terms of holiness. The status of the Five Books of Moses -- known as the Torah -- is clearly superior to the other books of the prophets.

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But then we get this puzzling passage:

Which of these two authorities is followed in the rule that ... "the last eight verses of the Torah must be read by one person alone?" It follows Rabbi Judah and not Rabbi Shimon. I may even say, however, that it follows Rabbi Shimon, [who would say that] since they differ [from the rest of the Torah] in one way, they differ in another."

There is a debate regarding the proper understanding of these words, which go to the core of our question. If the last eight verses of the Torah are to be read by one person, when the Torah is read in the synagogue, what sets them apart?

If the last eight verses of the Torah are to be read by one person, what sets them apart?

Rashi in his commentary explains that the Talmud is saying here that these eight verses are read by one person -- i.e. they should not be divided into two separate aliyahs to the Torah. We know that the minimum size of an aliyah is three verses. These eight, though, according to Rashi, should remain as one unit. This opinion of Rashi has been codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Section 428:7. (Of particular note are the comments of the Mishna Brurah, Note 21, which indicate that the opinion that Joshua authored these verses is authoritative.)

The Rama (Orah Chaim, Sec. 669) indicates that the custom of Chattan Torah is derived from this passage. The Rama's understanding that "one" reads it indicates that the one to read is to be a special person in the congregation.

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Maimonides' opinion is of particular interest:

The eight verses at the end of the Torah are permitted to be read with less than ten (without a minyan or proper quorum). Even though the entire Torah is from Moses based on the word of the Almighty, since these verses give the indication that they were written after the death of Moses, their status is changed and it is permissible for one person to read them. (Mishna Torah, Laws of Prayer, 13:6)

Maimonides is unequivocal that the words of the Torah originate from God and were dictated to Moses. Nonetheless, because these verses give the impression of having been written after the demise of Moses, their status is changed inasmuch as they can be read without a minyan.

Similarly, Maimonides writes in his introduction to the Mishna Torah:

The entire Torah was written by our master Moses, before he died, by his own hand.

His position is clear that the entire Torah, including these eight verses, was the product of the hand of Moses.

Rashi, in his comments on the Five Books of Moses, cites both opinions, without stating which he considers normative. But he seems to be bothered by Moses' authoring or writing about his own death in the past tense.

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Perhaps if we were to return to the Talmudic passage, we would gain further insight into this issue.

Rabbi Shimon said to him: "Can the scroll of the law be short of one word? ... No; what we must say is that up to this point the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated and wrote, and from this point God dictated and Moses wrote with tears." (Baba Bathra 15a)

What does it mean when it says "Moses wrote with tears"? The simple understanding would be that Moses wrote these verses while weeping. Moses, the faithful servant of God, takes dictation for the final time, is overcome by emotion and weeps. According to this understanding, it is unclear why the tears of Moses should change the status of these verses.

When the Talmud says that Moses wrote with tears, it means tears literally -- in contradistinction to ink.

The Ritva (and Yad Rama) explains that when the Talmud says that Moses wrote with tears, it means tears literally -- in contradistinction to ink. These comments of the Ritva would indeed explain why different status was given to these verses which were, on the one hand, written by the hand of Moses but, on the other hand, without ink.

[For a discussion on the halakhic status of invisible ink, see Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Halperin, Responsa Maaseh Choshev, Vol. II, Sec. 14; see, in general on this topic, Rabbi Yitzchak Mirsky, Hegyonei Halacha, Vol. II, p. 100-108]

Based on the explanation of the Ritva, we can reinterpret the words of Rashi that, indeed, Joshua wrote these words and, indeed, Moses wrote these words. Moses wrote them with tears based on the word of God; and then Joshua wrote these words with ink. (See the comments of Mahrasha, Baba Bathra 15a)

The Vilna Gaon understands dama, the word which we translate as "tears" to be pronounced in a slightly different manner -- as dema, which would mean "confusion." This implies that these verses were written by Moses, but without Moses understanding the meaning of the words he was writing. (See Kol Eliyahu, v'zot Habracha 133.) The Ketev Vikabalah, basing his opinion on the teaching of the Vilna Gaon, suggests that Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Shimon are not arguing, as we suggested above.

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This teaching of the Vilna Gaon reminds us of the idea popularized by Nachmanides in his introduction to the Torah where he describes the primordial Torah which preexisted creation, and which was written with white fire and black fire. This Torah is said to contain a string of letters which composed the Divine Name. So the Zohar teaches:

For the Torah, as we have been taught, consists entirely of His Holy Name; in fact, every word written therein consists of and contains that Holy Name. Therefore, one must beware of erring in regard to this name and misrepresenting it. He who is false to the Supernal King will not be allowed to enter the King's Palace and will be driven away from the world to come. (Zohar Shemoth, Section 2, Page 87a)

The source of the white and black fire may likewise be found in the Zohar:

Said Rabbi Isaac: "The Torah was manifested in a black fire which was superimposed upon a white fire, signifying that by means of the Torah the 'Right Hand' clasped the 'Left Hand' that the two might be fused, as it is written: from his right hand a fiery law to them. (Deut. 33:2). (Zohar, Shemoth, Section 2, Page 84a)

Based on this teaching, one can understand the giving of the Torah as pieces of divinity being broken off and handed to man. If this is the form in which the Torah existed prior to creation, in a sense there is poetic justice that at the very end of the Torah, the same form is reestablished.

Perhaps this is why even an individual could read these verses, for it indicates the ability of every individual to relate to the words, and the meaning behind the words, of the entire Torah.


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