• Rav Yaakov Beasley






In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner







By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley



What is the purpose of sefer Devarim?  At first glance, the final book of the Chumash appears to be a final cram, as if Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to ensure, one final time, that the people that he lovingly shepherded from slavery through forty years of wanderings in the wilderness would be able to survive in Eretz Yisrael without him.  It is difficult, however, to ascertain a unified structure or theme that runs through the book.  Certain commandments are repeated from previous books, while others are mentioned for the first time.  Some historical events are recounted, while others are forgotten. The technical structure of three separate speeches is evident (from 1:6 until the end of chapter 4; from chapter 5 to 26; and chapters 27 to 30, with an epilogue/codex at the end), the internal transition between the topics appears haphazard.


The Ramban, in his introduction to the book, states that Sefer Devarim’s main purpose is as a utilitarian volume for those about to conquer Eretz Yisrael.  The “new” mitzvot of sefer Devarim were not mentioned until now due to their lack of relevance until the entry into Eretz Yisrael, and the rest of the book is intended to warn the new generation of the pitfalls that lay ahead:


The subject of this book is known, it being a review of the Torah – Mishneh Torah.  In it, Moshe explains to the generation which will enter Eretz Yisrael most of the Torah’s commandments that they will need.  The book does not mention the laws of the kohanim or their actions, or about their ritual purity, because Moshe had already explained these to them …


To the rest of the people, Moshe repeats again and again the commandments that affect them, sometimes to add an explanation, and sometimes to merely caution them with all forms of warnings.  Therefore, we see in this book many warnings with regard to idolatry, along with rebuke, and [Moshe] instilling fear in the people in order to make the people fear punishment and not transgress these laws. 

[Sefer Devarim] also adds a number of commandments not previously mentioned, such as levirate marriage [yibum], slandering a virgin bride, divorce, etc.  These were not written in previous books, which addressed those that left Egypt, for these commandments may not have been in force except in Eretz Yisrael, even though they are dependant on the people, not on the land… Alternatively, they were only mentioned here because they were not common …


While the purpose of the sefer is the subject of commentary, other major questions arise as well.  Who is the source of what is written in sefer Devarim?  Until now, we’ve understood that Hashem gave the Torah, and Moshe was nothing more than the faithful scribe, who did not alter a single letter.  Sefer Devarim is different.  These are Moshe’s speeches, not Hashem’s.  As such, shouldn’t sefer Devarim belong among the sifrei nevi’im, the Prophets, not the Chumash?  According to the nineteenth century Chassidic work Oz Chayyim Ve-Shalom, even entertaining the possibility that Moshe said the words of the Torah on his own is nothing less than blasphemy.  Doesn’t the Talmud state that “anyone who says that the entire Torah is from heaven except for a single verse is referred to by Chazal as ‘dishonoring Hashem’s word’” (Sanhedrin 99b)?  On the other hand, the Talmud itself states in Megillah (31b) that “Moshe said these words [Devarim] on his own.” R. Yehuda holds that we do not expound halakhic implications from adjacent sections (semichut parshiyot) throughout the Torah, yet he does so in Sefer Devarim. The Ra’avan, a medieval commentary, suggests that this is precisely because sefer Devarim was arranged by Moshe, as opposed to the first four books, which were given by Hashem. We can therefore attempt to understand his intentions behind the order of the book.


In attempting to explain this issue, the Abrabanel makes the following suggestion regarding the book’s composition.  Originally, the speeches were Moshe Rabbeinu’s idea and initiative.  He spoke to the people and parted from them.  After the completion of the speeches, Hashem chose to incorporate them within the Torah.  The Abrabanel points out that the incorporation included editing on Hashem’s part, adding reasons or explanations as necessary.  As such, while Moshe’s initiative led to the Torah’s expansion from four books to five, the wording, while preserving the original oral nature of the addresses, is completely Hashem’s.


Why did Moshe choose to make these speeches?  According to the Abrabanel, he saw a need to explain the issues about which the Jewish People began to entertain doubts.  He therefore included warnings about issues that were essential, including the relationship that Hashem would share with the people upon entering Eretz Yisrael, and he revisits those commandments that the people did not fully comprehend.  Throughout his commentary to the book, the Abrabanel vehemently denies that any new laws are found within. Instead, he attempts valiantly, if not always successfully, to demonstrate that every law in sefer Devarim had been previously alluded to, if not mentioned outright, in the previous four books.  In this, he veers from the Ramban’s approach above, who argued that commandments may appear in sefer Devarim for the first time.  Indeed, the Abrabanel is highly critical of the Ramban’s suggestions that laws such as marriage and divorce were uncommon in the desert, or the general premise that Moshe Rabbeinu would remain silent for almost forty years and suddenly, with a month left before their entry into the land, begin educating the people in almost a third of the commandments. 


The Maharal (R. Yehudah Loewy of Prague; sixteenth century), takes the exact opposite approach as the Abrabanel.  In his work Tiferet Yisrael (chapter 43), the Maharal discusses the implications of the Talmudic statement that “Moshe spoke these words by himself.”  The Maharal explains that in any transfer, whether of goods or information, there is a giver and there is a receiver.  When the two are on an equal level, this is unremarkable.  However, in the case of the giving of the Torah, the differential between the giver (Hashem) and the receiver (Moshe) is so overwhelming that it is as if the receiver did not exist.  Instead, throughout the Torah, Hashem places His words in Moshe’s mouth (as in Shemot 19:19 – “Moshe would speak, and Hashem would answer him in a voice”).  However, in sefer Devarim, the aspect of Moshe Rabbeinu as receiver is emphasized.  Moshe speaks on his own initiative and chooses his own wording, and that is what the Talmud means in saying that “Moshe spoke these words by himself.” 


Unlike the Abrabanel, the Maharal understands that the initiative for the final speeches came from Hashem, not Moshe.  As such, the Abrabanel’s questions regarding new commandments disappear; the authority behind the presentation remains Hashem’s.  However, the Torah chooses to focus on Moshe Rabbeinu, who is now given the rein to formulate Hashem’s desires in his own wording. 


Developing the Maharal’s idea further, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, in a sicha from 1964, suggests that sefer Devarim represents the apex of Moshe Rabbeinu’s career.  Until now, Moshe was only Hashem’s faithful messenger. At the end of his life, Moshe Rabbeinu became united with the Shechinah, as it were, capable of speaking on Hashem’s behalf.