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 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).

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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.