The Abarbanel’s Understanding of the Chumash’s Final Book

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley





The book that we begin to read this Shabbat, Sefer Devarim, has perplexed its readers from the earliest times.  At a cursory glance, it appears to be a simple recollection of Moshe Rabbeinu’s final speeches to the Jewish People before their entry into the Land of Israel.  However, a deeper perusal reveals that this is more than a final valedictory address.  There is a retelling of the history of the wanderings in the desert, a summary of the commandments that surprisingly adds dozens of new mitzvot to those already been taught, and a renewal of the covenant between the people and Hashem.  At the end, Moshe blesses the people for a final time and ascends Mount Nevo to pass on.  As such, it contains the elements that we would expect to hear from Moshe.  However, it is precisely the fact that these speeches emanate from Moshe that creates the challenge for us in fully understanding this book.


We can understand this issue by asking two basic questions.  First, what is the relationship between Sefer Devarim and the rest of the Chumash? Rabbinic literature labels Sefer DevarimMishnah Torah” – the repetition of the Torah.  If this book is only a repetition of what has been taught previously, then why was it included?[1] Moreover, how can we explain the appearance of the new commandments that have no parallel in the earlier books?  Second, and more important than the questions regarding content that we have mentioned, is the question of authorship.  The beginning of the book states, “These are the words of Moshe.” Clearly, this can’t be true for the entire book; there are sections that refer to Moshe in the third person, and in the legal chapters, the very nature of the material as Divine commandments preclude any thought that they are Moshe’s inventions.  Those sections that did come from Moshe’s initiative raise a theological question – how can they be considered as Divine revelation?  And if they are Divine, than how can they be called “the words of Moshe”? 


In his introduction to our book, the Abarbanel phrased the issue before us as follows:


My question is whether the Mishnah Torah that Moshe placed before the children of Israel, that is, the book of Devarim, was from Hashem in Heaven, and whether Moshe relayed the things in it from the mouth of the Almighty, as in the rest of the Pentateuch, from “In the beginning” [the first words of Bereishit] through "before all Israel" [the last words of Devarim], all being equally the words of the Eternal Hashem without change or substitution? Or whether this book of Devarim was said by Moshe, composed by himself, as his own understanding of the Divine intention in explaining the commandments?


To appreciate the nature of the Abarbanel’s answer to his query, we will first investigate the complex nature of Sefer Devarim as it is discussed in rabbinic literature.  On the one hand, the texts are adamant that our book enjoys the same status and kedusha of the other four books:


Another [baraita] taught: “Because he has spurned the word of the Lord” (Bamidbar 15:31) - this refers to one who says that the Torah is not from Heaven, and even if he says that the entire Torah is from Heaven, except for this particular verse which was not spoken by the Holy One, blessed be He, but by Moshe on his own [authority], this is [considered] “He has spurned the word of the Lord.” (Sanhedrin 99b)


Following this, the Ramban vigorously proclaims that the difference in style that characterizes our book – the use of first-person instead of third-person narration - does not express any basic change from other sections of the Chumash:


The matter of Devarim, which is written in first-person narration, is not a difficulty...  for the book opens, "These are the words which Moshe addressed to all Israel" [in regular third-person narration], and the continuation of the book relates matters as if quoting Moshe....  [Moshe is like] a scribe copying from an ancient work...  but it is true and clear ...  that from Bereishit until “displayed before all Israel” (Devarim 34:12, the last verse of the Torah) came from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He, to the ears of Moshe (Ramban, Introduction to the Torah).


Contrasting this, however, we find several sources that allude to the unique character of Sefer Devarim:


One does not pause [to call up another reader] in [the reading of] the curses, but one person reads them all.  Abaye said: This applies only to the curses in Torat Kohanim [Vayikra], but in Mishnah Torah [Devarim], one may pause.  Why is this so? The former are in plural form and Moshe spoke them in the name of Hashem, and the latter are in singular and Moshe spoke them on his own.  (Megillah 31b)


Rashi comments on this gemara:


"Moshe spoke them in the name of Hashem” and became a messenger to say, “thus said the Holy One, blessed be He", for they are worded [in first person singular]: and I will give ...  and I will place ...  and I will send, referring to the One who has the power to act; but in Mishnah Torah it is written: The Lord will strike you...  The Lord will afflict you.  Moshe spoke these words on his own initiative – “If you transgress His commandments He will punish you."


Similarly, the midrash, discussing whether a person described as afflicted with a speech impediment could possibly deliver a discourse of this length, also alludes to the idea that this work originated with Moshe Rabbeinu:


These are the words which Moshe spoke: ... The people of Israel said, yesterday you said “I am not a man of words” and now you speak so much! R. Yitzchak said: If you have a speech difficulty, learn Torah and you will be cured.  (Midrash Tanhuma, Devarim 2)


That this question was not asked on other books implies that it was understood that the others were spoken by Moshe as prophecy, while Sefer Devarim was spoken independently. 


Finally, there is an interesting discussion in the Talmud regarding the principle of interpretation through “semichat parshiyot” – learning from the placement of adjoining sections in the Torah.  In Yevamot (4a), R. Yosef states that, “Even he who does not base interpretations on the proximity of Biblical texts [semichat parshiyot] anywhere else, does so in interpreting Devarim.” One of the earliest Tosafists, R. Eliezer ben R. Natan of Mainz (Ra'avan), explains that unlike the other books, where there is “mukdam u-me’uchar ba-Torah” (chronological order), there is no chronological order in Sefer Devarim (ein mukdam u-me’uchar ba-Torah).  This is because he saw Moshe as the author of the entire book:


Because the entire Torah was spoken by Hashem and has no chronological order, but Moshe arranged Mishnah Torah chapter after chapter specifically so it could be interpreted (Ra'avan, Responsa 34).


Given the apparently contradictory statements among the Talmudic rabbis, how are we to explain the nature of our book? The mystical tradition created a new concept to explain it – “the Shekhina speaks from Moshe’s throat:”


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


R. Shimon said: "We were taught that the rebuke in Vayikra was [written by] Moshe in the name of the Divinity, and in Mishnah Torah, it was [written by] Moshe by himself.  Do you think that Moshe said even one small letter by himself? No, it was written with precision.  It doesn't say that Moshe said it by himself; rather, it came out of Moshe's mouth - this was the voice that “possessed” Moshe.  (Zohar, Va-etchanan 265a)


Accordingly, the only difference between our book and the rest of the Chumash is the manner in which it was delivered, not the essential Divine nature of the text. 


We can now begin to appreciate the Abarbanel’s unique understanding of Sefer Devarim.  In his introduction, he states as follows:


Sefer Devarim is referred to as "Mishnah Torah," which means the repetition of the Torah or of the law (Devarim).  In this book, many laws are restated. 


What did Moshe repeat? This is where the Abrabanel makes a fascinating and original suggestion.  What Moshe taught at this juncture were the understandings and interpretations that he received at Har Sinai.  In other words, the Oral Torah (Torah She-Be’al Peh).  This means that Sefer Devarim is, in fact, the oldest extant source of the Torah She-Be’al Peh.  However, Moshe spoke these words on his own initiative.   


At the conclusion of Moshe's lecture, Hashem asks him to write down his words.  At that point, they became part of the Written Torah as well.  Therefore, the Book of Devarim has both the status of the Oral Torah and of the Written Torah.  The words are arguably the words of Moshe, based on the teachings that he heard from Hashem.  However, Hashem told him which sections of his discourse were to be written down.  Once they were written, word by word, letter by letter, dictated by Hashem, they achieve the status of the Written Torah as well.  As such, while the first four books of the Chumash were dictated by Hashem to Moshe based on the formulation of Hashem, Sefer Devarim, while based on the teachings which he heard at Sinai, consists of Moshe’s own wording; once rewritten under Divine dictation, it became part of the Written Torah as well.


In conclusion, Abarbanel says, "The general rule that follows from all that I have said is that this sacred book, taken as a whole and in its component parts, comes from the mouth of the Almighty, Hashem having commanded it to be written word for word, like the rest of the Chumash." If we read the Abarbanel's remark closely, we can note that he did not say that Hashem dictated the book, but that He "commanded it to be written” – the original wording was Moshe’s, but sealed with the Divine imprimatur.


[1] Traditionally, the Torah has been viewed as “omni-significant” – each word comes to add to what has been taught previously, without any unnecessary repetitions.  This term was first used by Professor James Kugel in his The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History (New Haven and London, 1981), pp. 103-4; for fuller development of this idea as it applies to Biblical exegesis, see R. Yaakov Elman’s articles, “‘It Is No Empty Thing:’ Nachmaanides and the Search for Omni-significance,” The Torah U-Madda Journal 4 (1993), pp. 1-83,” and “The Rebirth of Omni-significant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” available online at