Torah on the Rocks

  • Rav Zvi Shimon

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT KI TAVO

 

Torah on the Rocks

By Rav Zvi Shimon

 

 

            The opening of this week's Torah reading, 'Ki Tavo'- "when you enter the land" reveals its emphasis on events that are to take place in the future, after the people enter the promised land.  One of these events is the puzzling commandment to engrave the Torah on stones to be erected on Mount Eval:

 

"Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying: Observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.  On the day that you cross the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall erect large stones and coat them with plaster.  You shall inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah when you cross over, so that you may enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you.  Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones about which I charge you this day, on Mount Eval, and coat them with plaster.  There you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones. Do not wield an iron tool over them.  You must build the altar of the Lord your God of unhewn stones.  You shall offer on it burnt offerings to the Lord your God, and you shall sacrifice there offerings of well-being and eat them, rejoicing before the Lord your God.  And on the stones, you shall inscribe all the words of this Torah most distinctly" (Deuteronomy 27:1-8).

 

I The Content

 

            To comprehend this intriguing commandment, we must first understand WHAT was to be written on the stones.  What is meant by "you shall inscribe all the words of this Torah" (27:8)?  Are we to understand that all the five books of Moses were inscribed on stone?!  Many of the commentators considered this unlikely and, therefore, offered alternative interpretations.

 

            The Abrabanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) suggests that only the ten commandments were inscribed on stone.  Just as they had been originally inscribed at Mount Sinai (see Exodus 34:28), so too were they inscribed upon entry into the land of Israel.  Thus, only a small, albeit central, part of the Torah was actually engraved in stone.  We will analyze the significance of this later.

 

            The Rasag (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942) also finds it difficult to accept that the whole Torah was inscribed in stone.  He suggests that it was not the text of the Torah which was written but rather a list of all the 613 commandments in the Torah.  Thus, the stone was similar to the books of commandments ('Sifrei Mitzvot') written in the Middle Ages listing the commandments.  Although the stones did not include the text of the Torah, they included the summary of all the commandments, declaring the obligations of the people of Israel.

 

            The Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, Provence, 1288-1344) offers a different possibility:

 

"I believe that he wrote the blessing and the curse which they read there, as is written in the Torah and as is implied in the verse [describing the fulfillment of this commandment]: "And afterwards he [Joshua] read all the word of the TORAH, THE BLESSING AND THE CURSE, according      to all that is written in the book of the Torah" (Joshua 8:34).

 

            The word 'Torah' does not relate to the five books of Moses, nor to any commandments.  It refers to the curse and blessing which appear in the continuation of our chapter (see Deuteronomy 27:11 ff.).  This is stated explicitly in the verse in the book of Joshua in which 'Torah' relates to the "blessing and the curse."  This curse serves as the underpinning of the covenant between God and the people of Israel.  It is to be written on stone and erected on Mount Eval as a reminder and a warning to the people of the dreadful repercussions of not fulfilling their covenantal obligations.

 

            In contrast to all the three aforementioned approaches, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) cites an interpretation which holds that the whole Torah, from the beginning of Genesis till the end of Deuteronomy, was inscribed in stone:

 

"We find in the book of Tagin (Authored, according to             tradition, by Joshua who recorded the proper usage of the tagin.  Tagin are special designs resembling crowns placed on the upper left-hand corner of seven of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet when writing a Torah scroll) that the entire Torah was written on them [the stones] with its crownlets and its embellishments (different marks found on top of the Hebrew letters in scripture), and from there all the crownlets in the entire Torah were copied.  It is likely that either these stones were huge, or it was a miraculous event [for, otherwise, it would have been impossible to inscribe so much on a few stone tablets]."

 

            The Ramban stresses that this interpretation is possible only if the stones were extremely large or alternatively, the writing of the Torah on them was accomplished through a miracle.  However, Rabbi Hoffman (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Germany, 1843-1921) brings archaeological support showing that the writing of the whole Torah on stone is not such a far-fetched idea, and might not have required a miracle.  The Code of Hammurabi, (a code of law from the 18th century BCE authored by Hammurabi, king of Babylon) composed of 232 articles, an introduction and a conclusion, was inscribed on one large basalt rock.  Therefore, in our particular case in which the number of stones is not specified, it is entirely plausible to interpret that the whole Torah was inscribed on stone.  According to the source cited by the Ramban, this "Torah rock" served as a prototype, an authoritative version of the Torah.  In the biblical period, when texts were proliferated through manual copying, this was of great importance.  The Torah text requires utmost precision.  Every letter, and even every decoration of the letters is of great import.  In order to prevent the corruption of the text and to ensure the preservation of the original version of the Torah, Scripture commands the establishment of an authoritative text to be visible and accessible to all.  This is the function of the commandment to inscribe the Torah on stone and establish it in the heart of the country, on Mount Eval in Shekhem.

 

            To summarize, we have mentioned four possible interpretations of the content matter to be written on the stones.  According to the Abrabanel, it included only the ten commandments.  The Rasag is of the opinion that a list of the 613 commandments was inscribed on the stones, while the Ralbag suggests that only the blessing and curse, appearing in the continuation of our chapter, were engraved.  Finally, the Ramban raises the possibility that the entire Torah was inscribed in stone.

 

II The Purpose

 

            Let us now attempt to understand the purpose of this commandment.  Why does the Torah command to inscribe in stone "all the words of this Torah?"  The rationale offered by the Torah for this commandment is "so that you may enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you."  The Ramban offers two interpretations of this clause:

 

"[The Torah] states that you should write the whole Torah on stone immediately upon crossing the Jordan FOR WHICH SAKE you enter the land, for it is for the sake of the Torah that you come there ... or its meaning is that you write the whole Torah as a reminder SO that you may enter the land, conquer it and inherit all those nations because you remember the Torah and keep all its commandments."

 

            According to the first interpretation offered by the Ramban, the verse should be translated "You shall inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah when you cross over, FOR WHICH SAKE you are entering the land."  The writing on the stone is not a tool for accomplishing a certain end, but is the end itself.  The whole purpose of Israel's entry into the promised land is so that they spread Torah.

 

            By contrast, according to the second interpretation, the verse should be translated: "You shall inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah when you cross over, SO that you may enter the land."  Torah is not the end but the means by which Israel is to conquer the land.  The only way that Israel will succeed in inheriting the land is if they abide by the laws of the Torah.  Without performance of God's commandments, Israel has no right and no hope of settling the land.  Israel's might lies in their adherence to the Torah and it is the Torah which gives them the strength and the merit to overcome their enemies.

 

            This could help explain the timing of the commandment.  The Torah stresses repeatedly that the commandment should be performed "upon crossing the Jordan."  This, in spite of the fact that the stones are to be erected on Mount Eval in Shekhem, quite a distance from the Jordan River.  The writing of the Torah is intricately connected to the entrance into the land of Israel.  It is the key to the land and must therefore be prepared immediately upon arrival.

 

            The Abrabanel provides a fascinating historical foil to this commandment:

 

"It was an ancient custom amongst all the nations, that any people or king who conquered a land, immediately upon    entering it, would erect large pillars, one on top of the other, to mark their having traversed and conquered the area, and they would inscribe on these pillars that in the year so and so came the mighty King so and so or the mighty nation so and so to conquer this land.  Indeed, throughout Italy and Spain [we may add also throughout the land of Israel], at any location which came under the control of the Roman empire at the apex of their strength, one may find, to this very day, many monuments that the ancients erected ... and the Israelites were warned specifically against erecting such monuments upon             crossing [the river], that they should erect them solely for God's honor, and that they should erect them on Mount Eval and build there an altar and write upon it not only the story of their entrance into the land, but also write all the Torah and the commandments" (Joshua, chapter 8).

 

            The Israelites are not to behave as the Romans or other conquering peoples.  They are not to build monuments to their own self-glorification.  Rather, they are to build monuments for the sake of God Who has given them the land.  It is critical that the nation understand the nature of their conquest into the land.  It is not their own might, but that of God which allows for their inheritance of the promised land.  We should add that this could be the hidden idea behind the requirement that the altar be constructed of unhewn stones on which an iron tool was not wielded (27:5).  It is not through man's wielding of "iron" that he prevails, but through his devotion to God and His law.

 

            So far we have concentrated on the timing of the commandment, "upon crossing the Jordan," and its rationale, "so that you may enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you."  We have emphasized the role of this commandment in setting the appropriate frame of mind for the conquest of the land.  Let us now analyze the other requirements associated with the inscription of the Torah in stone.

 

            Scripture states that the stones should be coated with plaster (27:2) and that the words should be inscribed on the stones "most distinctly"(27:8).  We will begin with the first requirement.  What is the function of the plaster?  The Bekhor Shor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12th century) explains that the plaster is required so that

 

"The rains do not blot it [the writing] out.  It [the plaster] is a durable material which preserves the stones for a long time, till the people are well versed in the Torah."

 

            The purpose of the plaster is to preserve the writing on the stones.  We may infer from this explanation that the function of the stones on Mount Eval was not only to set the ideological framework for the entrance and conquest of the land of Israel; they had a purpose which extended well beyond the conquest of the land and spanned a far lengthier stretch of time.  What is this long term function?  The second requirement, that the words should be inscribed on the stones "most distinctly," can perhaps help answer this question.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) cites the following homiletical interpretation of our Sages:

 

            "most distinctly"- "in seventy languages"

 

            The number seventy is a generic number which, according to Tradition, represents the number of the nations of the earth.  According to our Sages, the Torah was inscribed in all languages.  What is the underlying idea behind this fantastic interpretation?  Our Sages understood that the purpose of the commandment to inscribe the Torah in rock is in order to spread Torah amongst the nations.  This is the ultimate purpose of the nation of Israel, to serve as a "light to the nations," the spiritual center of the world.  The establishment of the nation and Kingdom of Israel facilitates the fulfillment of this function.  The commandment to inscribe the Torah in stone, and according to our Sages, in all the languages, emphasizes that this is the aim of the nation and helps accomplish this end.

 

            The Bekhor Shor offers a simpler explanation of the specification that the words be inscribed "most distinctly."  It is not that the Torah is to be written in different languages but rather that "the letters should be easily seen and read."  The Torah stipulates that the writing be lucid and accessible to all.  The stones are not to serve, as suggested by the Ramban in the beginning of this essay, as an authoritative version of the Torah.  Rather, they are a national "textbook," a source available for anyone who wishes to study God's word.  God commands that, immediately upon entering the land, the people inscribe the Torah so that the whole nation may study His law.

 

            Rabbi Hoffman adds a slightly different tint in explaining the purpose of the Torah stones:

 

"Through the inscription of the Torah on stones and their placement in a location visible to all, the nation publicly testifies that the Torah is the eternal law of the land; it is the law of the kingdom and of every single individual."

 

            The purpose of the stones is not only to abet the education of the people.  They are also a declaration of the supremacy of the Torah as the law of the land.

 

            The Abrabanel draws an interesting parallel between the inscription of the Torah on stone and another commandment in the Torah, that of the 'mezuza.'  The Torah commands, "write them [the words of the Torah] on the 'mezuza' (doorposts) of your houses and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:9).  Certain portions of the Torah are written on the entrance of every Jewish home thereby declaring the home as a house of Torah.  In addition, the words of Torah must be written on the gates of the city.  The Abrabanel suggests that the inscription of the Torah on stones upon entry into the land is an extension of these commandments to the national level.  Torah is to be written at the entrance to every home and city, and in the center of the country, on Mount Eval.  God's law encompasses every family, and city, and the nation as a whole.

 

            The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) suggests an additional dimension to the commandment to inscribe the words of the Torah in stone:

 

"As they [the people] took an oath at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, the Torah was before them and they swore to fulfill [its commands]."

 

            The Rashbam infers from the context of our section that the inscription of the Torah in stone is part of a covenantal oath to be taken upon entry to the land, at Mount Eval and Mount Gerizim.  The section immediately following ours, relates the curses of those who disobey God's word.  Blessings and curses are a central component of the forging of covenants in the Bible.  They are a form of legal contract which oblige and bind both sides.  God promises reward for the keeping of his commandments and punishment for disobedience.

 

            This theme is expanded by the Abrabanel:

 

"After Moses had clarified the commandments which required clarification ... he saw fit to forge a covenant for their realization.  For just as in the book of Leviticus (26:3 ff), following the commandments which       they received at Mount Sinai, God forged a covenant with the people of Israel and enumerated the blessings for those who adhere to the commandments and the curses befalling those who disobey them; so too, Moses, after elucidating the commandments [in the book of Deuteronomy], forged a covenant and enumerated the blessings and curses as he did at Mount Sinai.  At the covenant at Mount Sinai, following the elucidation of the commandments the Torah states: "Moses wrote down all of God's words...and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, along with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel ... and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord" (Exodus, 24:4-5).  Therefore, he commanded them [the people] that, upon entering the land, they should do similarly to what they did following the event [at Mount Sinai], namely to erect the stones."

 

            The Abrabanel points out several similarities between the covenant at Mount Sinai and the covenant at Mount Eval.  First, the focus point of both covenants is the inscription of Torah in stone.  In fact, according to the Abrabanel, the inscriptions were identical!  We'll recall that he is of the opinion that, similarly to the covenant at Mount Sinai, only the ten commandments were inscribed on the stones at Mount Eval.  Second, both covenants are buttressed by blessings and curses ensuing from the observance or the disobedience of the commandments of God.  Third, both covenants are followed by the construction of an altar, the offering of sacrifices, and a joyous celebration.  In addition, both covenants take place on mountains.  The similarities are far too many to be considered coincidental.  How are we to understand this striking similarity?  Why was a second covenant at Mount Eval necessary?  (Take a few moments to reflect upon the question.)

 

            I believe that the need for the second covenant stems from the nation's entrance into the land of Israel.  The two covenants are actually one and the same.  However, it is necessary to repeat the covenant in the land of Israel.  Its repetition signifies the carrying over of the covenant, of the commandments of God, into the land.  The Torah received at Mount Sinai must be implanted in the soil of Israel.  The writing of the Torah on rocks and their erection on Mount Eval expresses the idea of the transfer of the original covenant from the desert to the fertile promised land.  The original covenant took place outside of the land of Israel.  The reason for this is that the Torah is not dependent or confined to Israel.  It is to be observed wherever the nation may find itself.  It precedes the entry into the land and is, in fact, a necessary prerequisite.  However, ultimately and ideally, the covenant relates to a state in which the people dwell on their own soil.  This is the idea behind the covenant at Mount Eval.

 

            To summarize, we have seen several explanations for the commandment to inscribe the Torah in stone.  The first explanation, cited by the Ramban, is that the stones served as a prototype, an authoritative version of the Torah.  A second explanation is that the stones were meant to prepare the ideological framework for the entrance and conquest of the land of Israel.  According to the interpretation of our Sages as cited by Rashi, the commandment included the translation of the Torah into seventy languages and its purpose is to spread Torah amongst the nations.  Other suggestions include the education of the people (Bekhor Shor), the establishment of the Torah as the law of the land (Rabbi Hoffman), and finally, the reenactment of the covenant at Mount Sinai (Abrabanel).

 

III The Repetition

 

            We now have a better understanding of the commandment of inscribing the Torah in stone.  However there remains a serious textual difficulty in our section.  Anyone reading the verses cited in the beginning of this article immediately notices repetitions.  (It is advisable to return to the beginning of the article and re-read the section.) The Torah repeats the timing of the commandment, upon crossing the Jordan.  Likewise, the requirement to coat the stones with plaster and to inscribe upon them the words of the Torah are stated twice!  What is the reason for this apparent redundancy?

 

            Rabbeinu Bechayei (Rabbi Bechayei ben Asher, Spain, end of 13th beginning of 14th century) suggests that our section is a 'klal u-prat,' a general scheme followed by a more elaborate description.  The Torah first gives the overview of the commandment, the requirement to write the Torah on stones etc., and then elaborates on all the details including the specific location, Mount Eval, and the requirement of constructing an altar.  Do you find this explanation convincing?

 

            I believe a close analysis of our verses forces us to reject this interpretation.  A 'klal', a general overview, should only include the central attributes of the case at hand.  In our specific example this would include the obligation to write the Torah and to build an altar.  However, the details repeated in the verses include some which are much more particular in nature.  It is hard to understand why such minutiae as coating the stones in plaster should be included in an overview!  In addition, there is very little information added in the elaboration of the overview.  The section simply doesn't give the impression of being organized in the manner suggested by Rabbeinu Bechayei.

 

            I would like to suggest that the repetitions in our verses are indicative of two separate motives for the inscription of Torah in stone.  We may divide our section into two similar yet separate accounts of the commandment:

 

1) "On the day that you cross the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall erect large stones and coat them with plaster.  You shall inscribe upon them all the words of this Torah when you cross over, so that you may enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you."(27:1-3)

 

2) "Upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones about which I charge you this day, on Mount Eval, and coat them with plaster.  There you shall build an altar to the Lord your God, an altar of stones ...  And on the stones, you shall inscribe all the words of this Torah most distinctly" (Deuteronomy 27:4-8).

 

            Both accounts begin in a similar manner, with the specification of the timing of the commandment.  The major differences are that the rationale "that you may enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you" appears only in the first account, while only in the second passage is there a specification of the location where the stones are to be erected, on Mount Eval, and the commandment regarding the construction of the altar.

 

            I would like to suggest that the first account of the commandment relates solely to the immediate function of the inscription in preparing the ideological framework for the entrance and conquest of the land of Israel.  By contrast, the second account concentrates on the long-term function of the commandment.  Hence the exclusive mention of the rationale "that you may enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you" in the first account.  The motive of the commandment in the first account is to insure the nation's entry into the promised land.  This explains the exclusion of the location in which the stones are to be erected.  Mount Eval is deep in the land of Israel, quite a distance from the Jordan River.  The future covenant at Mount Eval is not the topic of the first account.  The first account concentrates exclusively on the act of crossing the Jordan River.  This also explains a minor linguistic difference between the specification of the time of the commandment in the two accounts.  As opposed to the second account in which the timing of the commandment is "upon crossing the Jordan," the first account states "on the DAY that you cross the Jordan."  The first passage specifies the very day of crossing while the second is satisfied with a more general description.  The second account concentrates on the long term function of the Torah stones.  It is interested in the erection of the stones on Mount Eval and the covenant to be forged there.  Hence the mention of the altar pertaining to the covenant at Mount Eval, only in the second account.  There is indeed a dual function to the inscription of the Torah in stone.  It is the means by which Israel may enter the promised land.  It is only by virtue of the Torah that Israel has the right to settle the land.  In addition, it is also the ultimate purpose and destiny of the nation of God.  Israel's function is to serve as the spiritual center of the world.  Torah is the means by which Israel becomes a nation and it is also the ultimate purpose of Israel's existence.