The Date of Moshe's Death

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


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This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.
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PARASHAT DEVARIM

 

We dedicate this shiur to the Armies of Israel, our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons in the Israel Defense Forces, as well as our civilian neighbors to the north and south. Yeshivat Har Etzion in particular, as well as the entire Alon Shevut and Gush Etzion community, continue to welcome "refugees" into our midst, into our dormitories, our cafeterias, as well as our private homes, and will continue to do so, until they can return safely to their homes. May Hakadosh Barukh Hu have mercy upon His people and upon His land.

 

The Date of Moshe's Death

By Michael Hattin

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Parashat 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 Second Temples at Jerusalem.  While the Parasha itself does not contain any explicit mention of this day of fasting, its overarching themes of ruin and restoration, failure and repair, are entirely analogous to those of the season.  In its initial sections, Moshe poignantly recalls the journey from Mount Sinai towards the land, as Israel confidently left the location of God's revelation to embrace their promising destiny that beckoned just a short distance away across the expanse of the arid wilderness. 

 

But tragedy struck at the oasis of Kadesh Barne'a at Canaan's southern gate, for there the people clamored to send forth scouts in order to spy out the land.  As Moshe recalls the events, it was the people of Israel who rallied for the dispatch of the mission, as if God's earlier assurances to them of His assistance in possessing the bountiful land were somehow less than reliable.  The spies' return with a frightening report of a country populated with menacing giants dwelling in cities fortified up to the heavens threw the Israelites into a sudden panic, and their own unwillingness to journey forward was soon confirmed by God's harsh decree.  According to tradition (see Mishna Ta'anit 4:6), that ancient night of turmoil was none other than the night of the ninth of Av, a day set aside from time immemorial for national failure and defeat!

 

It 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 Edom, Moav and Bnei 'Amon were courteously skirted and then the people of Israel were confronted by the mighty Emorite kings, Sichon and 'Og.  This time, however, Israel miraculously prevailed, buoyed by God's pledge and confident of their own power.  As the Parasha concludes, Moshe remembers how in the aftermath of that triumph, he exhorted his successor Yehoshua and the people to maintain their fortitude in the face of the Canaanites whom they would soon have to engage in battle:

 

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).

 

In 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 Jerusalem and exiled Israel they detected a brighter future, a time when the state would be restored and the Temple would be rebuilt.  Thus, relying upon a bleak Scriptural reference from the Megilla of Eicha that spoke of vengeful God appointing a set time to destroy Israel's young men (Lamentations 1:15), the Rabbis tore the precise word from its immediate context and declared the day a "holiday" (mo'ed), thus forbidding the recitation of the penitential prayer (Tachanun) that forms part of the daily morning service except on joyous occasions (see Shulchan Arukh 559:4)!  The uninitiated is justifiably dumbstruck, for here is a day devoted to mourning and a liturgy full of lament, but still is proclaimed to be a holiday!  But the more perceptive soul is dumbstruck instead by the Rabbis' genius and by their boundless capacity for optimism, for in this way they declared that for Israel there is always hope, even in the midst of painful travail.

 

 

MOSHE'S FINAL ADDRESSES

 

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel on the other side of the Yarden, in the wilderness, in the plain, opposite Suf, between Paran and between Tofel, and Lavan and Chatzerot and Di Zahav.  Eleven days' journey from Chorev by way of Mount Se'ir, until Kadesh Barne'a.  And so it was in the fortieth year, on the first day of the eleventh month, that Moshe spoke to the people of Israel in accordance with all that God commanded him to convey to them.  This was after he had struck down Sichon the King of the Emorites who dwells at Cheshbon, as well as 'Og King of the Bashan who dwells at 'Ashtarot in Edre'i.  On the other side of the Yarden in the land of Moav, Moshe began to explicate this Torah by saying: "God our Lord spoke to us at Chorev saying 'it is long enough that you have dwelt at this mountain.  Turn and travel forward and come to the mount of the Amorite and to all of his neighbors – those that dwell in the plain, the hills, the lowlands, the dry lands and the coast of the sea – the land of the Canaanite and the Levanon, all the way until the great river the Euphrates'.  Behold, I have given you the land, come and possess the land that God pledged to your ancestors, to Avraham to Yitzchak and to Ya'acov to give it to them, and to their descendents after them…" (Devarim 1:1-8).

 

With 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 Israel with a hopeful vision of their future even as he recalls the ignominious failures of their past.  Encamped with them on the Yarden's eastern side but condemned to never cross its rushing waters, Moshe spends his final months reviewing God's teachings with his flock, explicating what had been obscure and introducing the suddenly relevant, inspiring them to be devoted to Him while impressing upon them the grave dangers of idolatry that lurk just beyond the river's banks.

 

 

ASCERTAINING THE DURATION OF MOSHE'S ADDRESSES

 

While 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 Israel in accordance with all that God commanded him to convey to them" – we do not know when he concludes.  We do, however, know with certainty on which day the people finally cross the River Jordan, for the event is meticulously described in the opening chapters of Sefer Yehoshua.  There it emerges that the traversing of the river took place during the springtime, the winter snows having began to melt and to make their way down from the towering Chermon range into the basin of the Jordan, so that "the Jordan overflowed its banks during all of the season of the (barley) harvest" (Yehoshua 3:15).  In a conscious evocation of the celebration of the Exodus from Egypt, when the people had been commanded to prepare for the event by separating their Passover lambs on the "tenth day of this (first) month" (Shemot 12:3), Israel now traversed the Jordan and entered the land on exactly the same day!  As the concluding section of the above passage from Yehoshua indicates,

 

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:

 

Moshe the servant of God died there, in the land of Moav by God's word.  He buried him in the valley in the land of Moav opposite Beit Pe'or, but no one knows the location of his grave until this very day.  Moshe was one hundred and twenty years old at the time of his death, but his eyes had not dimmed nor had his natural vigor diminished.  The people of Israel cried over Moshe at the plains of Moav for THIRTY DAYS, until the time for mournfully crying over Moshe had been completed… (Devarim 34:5-8).

 

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.

 

Shabbat Shalom