The Date of Moshe's Death
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
dedicate this shiur to the Armies of
The Date of Moshe's Death
By Michael Hattin
Devarim is always read on the Shabbat preceding the ninth of Av, the
national day of mourning that commemorates a number of tragic episodes in Jewish
history, chief among them the destruction of the First and
tragedy struck at the oasis of Kadesh Barne'a at
thus emerges that our Parasha has more to do with the ninth of Av
than perhaps a cursory reading may suggest, for not only does Moshe remember the
disastrous lack of trust that led to Israel's downfall but also God's patient
mercies that nurtured their eventual renewal. Finally, recalls Moshe, the faithless
generation passed on, and their children, raised upon the deprivation and the
promise that was the "great and awesome wilderness" (1:19), were bidden by God
to commence their second march towards the land. The petty Transjordanian kingdoms of
At that time, I commanded Yehoshua saying: your own eyes have seen all that God your Lord did to these two kings, just so shall God do to all of the kingdoms that you will encounter there. Do not fear them, for God your Lord will fight on your behalf! (3:21-22).
similar fashion, when the ancient Rabbis came to consider the meaning of the
ninth of Av, they too refused to entirely devote the day to disheartening
and dismal thoughts. In the midst
of their mourning over destroyed
MOSHE'S FINAL ADDRESSES
are the words that Moshe spoke to all of
these introductory words, the book of Devarim begins, indicating that its
contents are Moshe's final addresses to his people. Drawing upon all of his oratory and
pedagogic skills, Moshe engages his beloved
ASCERTAINING THE DURATION OF MOSHE'S ADDRESSES
the Torah clearly indicates the exact date upon which Moshe begins to address
the people "and so it was in the fortieth year, on the FIRST DAY OF THE
ELEVENTH MONTH, that Moshe spoke to the people of
The people emerged from the Yarden on the TENTH DAY OF THE FIRST MONTH, and they encamped at Gilgal, just east of Yericho (4:19).
Therefore, from Moshe's opening exhortation until the entry into the land, approximately two and a half months elapsed (the "first day of the eleventh month" until the "tenth day of the first month"), but we still do not know the exact duration of Moshe's addresses. There are, however, two more chronological markers that can assist us in ascertaining the matter. First of all, we know that after Moshe's demise recorded at the very end of Sefer Devarim, the people remained encamped at the plains of Moav to mourn their illustrious leader for a period of thirty days:
the servant of God died there, in the
Moshe's words to the people could therefore not have extended for much more than a month, for thirty days out of the seventy days outlined above were consumed in mourning for the dead lawgiver. In addition, we also know that the people did not cross the Yarden IMMEDIATELY after the period of mourning was completed, but tarried at the plains of Moav for at least three days:
It came to pass after the death of Moshe the servant of God, that God said to Yehoshua son of Nun, Moshe's loyal disciple: Moshe My servant has died. Now, arise and traverse this Yarden, you and this entire people, to the land that I am giving to them, to Bnei Yisrael. Every place wherein you will tread I will give to you, just as I said to Moshe. From the wilderness and this Levanon until the great river Perat (Euphrates), all of the land of the Chittites up to the Great Sea where the sun sets (the Mediterranean) shall be your borders Yehoshua commanded the officers of the people saying: pass through the midst of the camp and command the people saying: 'prepare provisions for yourselves, because IN THREE DAYS' TIME you will traverse this Yarden, to come and to possess the land that God your Lord give to you as a possession (Yehoshua 1:1-4, 10-11).
THE DATE OF MOSHE'S DEATH
If we now assemble the various pieces and work backwards the traversing of the Yarden on the tenth of Nissan ("the first month"), the three days of preparations preceding the passage, and the thirty days of mourning over Moshe's death it emerges that Moshe must have died on the seventh day of Adar (the "twelfth month," unrecorded in the text). If so, then Moshe's final words to the people of Israel would have extended for just about five weeks, from the first day of Shevat (the "eleventh month"), until the seventh of Adar. That the seventh of Adar is in fact the date of Moshe's death is a well-founded Rabbinic tradition, mentioned in Talmud Bavli, Tractate Kiddushin 38b:
On the seventh of Adar Moshe died and on the seventh of Adar he had been born. From whence is it known that he died on the seventh of Adar? For it states that "Moshe the servant of God died there" (Devarim 34:5), and it further states that "the people of Israel cried over Moshe at the plains of Moav for thirty days" (Devarim 34:8), and it further states that "it came to pass after the death of Moshe the servant of God, that God said to Yehoshua son of Nun, Moshe's loyal disciple: Moshe My servant has died. Now, arise and traverse this Yarden Yehoshua commanded the officers of the people saying: pass through the midst of the camp and command the people saying: 'prepare provisions for yourselves, because in three days time you will traverse this Yarden, to come and to possess the land that God your Lord give to you as a possession'" (Yehoshua 1:1-11). Finally, it states that "The people emerged from the Yarden on the tenth day of the first month" (Yehoshua 4:19) subtract the thirty-three days outlined above, and you must conclude that Moshe died on the seventh day of Adar
CONSIDERING THE TRADITION OF THE RABBIS
There is, of course, one underlying assumption to this tradition, and that is that all of the events associated with the documented date of the crossing of the Yarden happened with extreme immediacy. Could we not suppose, for a moment, that while the people traversed the river on the tenth of Nissan and were told to prepare three days beforehand, perhaps there was a lapse of time between those preparations and the conclusion of the mourning rites over Moshe? In other words, might Moshe not have died during the latter part of the month of Shevat (allowing three or so weeks for him to transmit the book of Devarim), so that the thirty days of mourning ended towards the end of Adar while Yehoshua's command was not issued until about two weeks later? While this possibility is raised by Rabbi David Kimchi (13th century, Provence) in his commentary to Yehoshua 3:2, he rejects it and instead adopts the Rabbinic tradition,
for it does not seem reasonable that the people of Israel would be waiting idly for a number of days after Moshe's death. Rather, immediately after the mourning was concluded, God commanded Yehoshua to traverse the Yarden and on that very day Yehoshua told the people to prepare for three days' time
With their chronology, the Rabbis not only demonstrated their careful reading of the text scanning it for any pertinent details that might assist in the construction of a plausible scheme but also highlighted a critical theme. While it may have been possible to entertain the notion that Israel tarried after the death of Moshe and the conclusion of his mourning rites, and God granted them respite, the Rabbis were determined to connect all of the events with breathless urgency. Moshe's mourning rites had scarcely been concluded when the people were told to prepare for their next trial, as if to say that while the great lawgiver's demise was cause for sincere consternation, the land of Canaan still beckoned and had to be possessed. The personal and national necessity of engaging life's pressing challenges may not be derailed, even for a moment, by tragedy, and not even by the death of the most illustrious figure in all of Biblical history! God wastes no time in commanding Yehoshua to prepare for the passage, even while the final tears shed over his mentor's demise are still hot and wet upon his cheeks and even while Israel still anxiously reels! Death may destroy and consume our dreams, but we must somehow find the strength to persevere, this being God's firm decree.
The essential life-affirming nature of His interaction with the world is thus confirmed, even while we justifiably mourn and experience intense sadness over loss. It therefore emerges that the Rabbis' careful structuring of the mourning rites associated with Tish'a BeAv the feelings of intense loss tempered by optimism for a brighter future are also paralleled and perhaps inspired by the dynamics of this chronology, indicating that our elemental world-view must be sanguine, expectant and positive. Is it any wonder that we have survived this long, even as this month of Av brings the people of Israel new and difficult challenges?
May we speedily merit the complete redemption and the ultimate restoration of the people of Israel upon their land.