The Torah of Moses

Although modern traditionalist Judaism uniformly affirms the divinity of the Torah, classical sources disagree on what role Moses had in the actual production of the Torah.

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The Bible uses the phrase "the Torah of Moses" over a dozen times, frequently in contexts where it is clear that the later Biblical book is referring to the five books of the Torah. An exploration of various classical sources dealing with the Moses' role in writing down the Torah results in partial agreement about what the relevant questions are. There is, however, much less agreement among the sources on what the answers might be.

"VeZot haTorah—This is the Torah that Moses set before the people Israel--by the mouth of God, through the hand of Moses." These phrases, merged from Deuteronomy 4:44 and Numbers 9:23, are recited by traditional Jews each time the Torah is raised to be returned to the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). To emphasize the significance of the statement, one frequently sees Jews point at the Torah. "This is it," traditionalist Jews proclaim, "admittedly a copy written by a scribe, but word for word and letter for letter identical with the one transcribed by Moses as God dictated it."

rembrandt's moses painting But how and when did this happen? The Talmud asks a very basic question about Moses' role, starting with a quote from Deuteronomy:

"'So Moses, God's servant, died there' (Deuteronomy 34:5). But is it possible that Moses wrote 'So Moses died' while he was still alive?!' Rather, Moses wrote up to this point, and from here on, Joshua the son of Nun wrote—these are the words of R. Judah…[R. Shimon raises an alternative:] Up to this point, God spoke and Moses repeated and wrote; after this point, God spoke and Moses wrote in tears" (Menachot 30a).

Based on this text, Moses wrote all of the Torah, with the exception, perhaps, of the final eight verses.

Did God give all of the Torah at one time, on Mount Sinai, and did Moses write it down on Mt. Sinai? Traditional understandings vary. A famous dispute in the Talmud states that R. Yochanan held that the Torah was given scroll by scroll, while his study partner, Resh Lakish, held that the Torah was given in its entirety. And according to R. Levi, a variety of passages from Leviticus and Numbers were written up prior to the rest of the Torah, on the day when the Tabernacle was erected, because the various laws were needed for its proper functioning (Gittin 60a-b). Interestingly, according to Rashi, Resh Lakish is not implying that the entire Torah was given all at once on Mt. Sinai, but rather, as each passage was told to Moses, Moses wrote it down, and in line with the passage from Menachot quoted above, at the end of the 40 years of travel through the desert, Moses compiled them and sewed them all together (s.v. megillah megillah nitnah).

What, then, was given at Sinai? Traditionally, Jews have believed that God spoke the Ten Commandments clearly so that all of Israel could hear or that even just the first two commandments were recited before the people. According to the Galician Hasidic master Menahem Mendel of Rymanov (d. 1815), all God actually said was the first letter of the first word, Aleph, which actually makes no sound alone at all (as reported by his student Naphtali Zevi Ropshitzer, Zera Kodesh, on Shavuot). What the people heard, however, is not the same as what was revealed to Moses.

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.