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.

The Midrash assumes that during the forty days and nights which Moses spent on Mount Sinai, God revealed the entire Bible, as well as the Mishnah, the Talmud, and the Aggadah (Exodus Rabbah 47:1 on Exodus 34:27). Many of the Bible commentators, however, seem to describe a more nuanced process, both with respect to the revelation and to the ultimate writing of the text of the Torah. According to the thirteenth century Spanish rabbi Ramban, (also known as Nachmanides):

"When Moses came down from the mountain, he wrote from the beginning of the Torah until the end of the story of the Tabernacle, and the conclusion of the Torah he wrote at the end of the fortieth year…this is according to the one who says the Torah was given scroll by scroll. But according to the one who says it was given complete, the entire thing was written in the 40th year" (Ramban, preface to his Torah commentary).

This accords well with what what the 12th century commentator Rashbam had written about the revelation of the book of Leviticus. According to Rashbam, Leviticus was not given on Mount Sinai but in the wilderness of Sinai, in the portable Tent of Meeting (commentary on Numbers 1:1).

Rabbi Meir Simchah haKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926) minimizes the difference between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish:

"For the one who says it was given scroll by scroll, … each statement was written on its own, and Moses wrote it on parchment with ink and gave it the children of Israel and taught them the Torah. But for the one who says that the Torah was given complete… as soon as it was said to Moses from God's mouth, it was said to the children of Israel, … and after forty years, it was written, and even though it was written a long time after it was spoken by God, faithful are its words for there was no change or diminishment or addition based on Moses' own intellect" (Meshekh Hokhmah, Exodus 20:2).

According to this early modern commentator, both of the Talmudic rabbis understand a gradual revelation, but according to Rabbi Yochanan, each statement was immediately transcribed and taught, whereas Resh Lakish would say that each statement was published immediately through oral teaching and then written all at once. According to some commentators, however, the transcribed materials were not "sources" from which the Torah was compiled. Exodus 24:7--"And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it aloud to the people"--implies that scrolls and written materials existed prior to a complete writing of the Torah. Rashba (R. Solomon Adret, 13th century Spain) explains this in terms of an educational purpose:

"Moses did not write each passage at the time it was said to him, but rather, he ordered them orally until the end of the Torah. But passages which were necessary at the time, he would write down so that the people could see them and learn them from a written text" (Hiddushei haRashba on Gittin 60a).

Nevertheless, Rashba seems clear that Moses did not use the written text of the scroll of the covenant in composing the Torah later on.

What should we make, however, of the book of Deuteronomy?

"Moses wanted to clarify the Torah for them, and it is stated thus ['Moses undertook'] to make it known that he saw it necessary to do so on his own, and that God did not command him in this…" (Ramban, Deuteronomy 1:1).

Ramban divides Deuteronomy into two parts: the commandments that had not been mentioned previously were, at this point, proclaimed by God. The commandments that were repeated from earlier in the Torah and the curses in Deuteronomy 28 were Moses' own words, spoken at his own initiative. Nachmanide's approach is puzzling; the Talmud itself states, "One who says: This verse Moses himself said, as if speaking from himself, has no part in the world to come" (Sanhedrin 99a). Nevertheless, many commentators agree; R. Hayyim ibn Attar even goes farther: "These are the words" (Deuteronomy 1:1) means that all of Deuteronomy is from Moses, but that none of the previous four books are. They are entirely from God" (Or haHayyim, Deuteronomy 1:1).

What do these classical sources reveal? There are, apparently, a wide variety of opinions of how the Torah was written. Working through the Torah consecutively we have the following opinions:

Genesis: Perhaps it was entirely written at the end of the 40 years or perhaps Moses wrote it immediately upon descending from Sinai. Some laws, like the commandment about Jews not eating the sciatic nerve (Genesis 32:33), may have been given to the patriarchs prior to Sinai, or the law may have been given at Sinai but Moses inserted the law in its place in order to connect the law with its source (see Talmud Hullin 101b).

Exodus: Perhaps it was entirely written at the end of the 40 years, or perhaps the portion through the laws of the Tabernacle were written by Moses immediately upon descending from Sinai. Some of these materials, like the book of the covenant were written as texts before they were written into the Torah itself.

Leviticus and Numbers: Leviticus might have only been revealed in the Tent of Meeting after the revelation at Mt. Sinai. All of this material might have been written at the end of the 40 years.  Perhaps Moses wrote certain passages concerning the Tabernacle immediately upon descending from Sinai. Perhaps other passages were spoken by God and they were written down immediately, or they were remembered orally until the Torah's composition.

Deuteronomy: Perhaps Moses wrote all of it as God dictated, writing the last eight verses in tears, or perhaps Joshua wrote those last eight verses. Perhaps the new material is from God, but the repeated material and the curses are from Moses, or perhaps the whole book is from Moses.

Traditional sources definitely help define the issues in understanding the question of how God's Torah was written down and when, but the variety of approaches leaves answers somewhat less clear.

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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.