Sunday 1 July 2018


Or haChaim on Devarim


If like me, you were brought up believing that Moshe faithfully wrote down every single word of the Torah as dictated to him by G-d (except possibly for the last few verses which describe Moshe’s death - which were either written by Joshua, or by Moshe himself with a ‘spirit of prophecy’ so as to be able to write about his death) - then you may find it fascinating to see what some of our commentators have to say on this issue.

To be clear: This article is not an attempt to definitively state who wrote what and when they wrote it. Rather, the objective is simply to share some interesting - if not surprising - views expressed by some of the Meforshim (Torah commentators) on the authorship of the last book of the Torah, Devarim.


The Book of Deuteronomy, or Devarim, stands out as being very different from the other books of the Torah. In it, for the first time, Moshe is referred to as eved Hashem (servant of G-d)[1] and ish Elokim (man of G-d)[2]

The Jewish people are now referred to as Yeshurun[3].

The place previously known as Kadesh becomes Kadesh Barnea, and a different location is given for Aharon’s death. In Devarim it is Moserah[4], whereas in Bamidbar it is given as Hor haHar[5].

Even the recounting of some stories such as the incident of the spies, the giving of the Torah, and some mitzvot, appear to be dealt with differently in Devarim than in previous books.

Moshe now speaks for the first time in the first person: He says “G-d told me” as opposed to the previous expressions of “G-d spoke to Moshe”.

These and many other examples, allow secular Biblical critics to have a field day.

In this article, however, we will focus on what some Torah commentators (who chronologically preceded the relatively modern discipline of Biblical criticism) had to say on these matters, and we will see how they dealt with some really tough questions.


R. Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508) wrote his first commentary, not on Genesis, but rather on Devarim. He began writing this commentary while still living in Portugal before the Jews were expelled and he only completed it some twenty years later in Italy. In his introduction to his commentary on Devarim, he writes that this very question of authorship of the Book of Devarim was what motivated him to write his commentary in the first instance.

He was so bothered by this question that he wrote to the leading rabbis of his time for clarification.

He asked:

My question is whether the Mishneh Torah that Moses placed before the children of Israel, that is the book of Deuteronomy, was from G-d in Heaven, and whether Moses relayed the things in it from the mouth of the Almighty, as in the rest of the Pentateuch...all being equally the words of the Eternal G-d without change or substitution?

Or whether this book of Deuteronomy was said by Moses, composed by himself, as his own understanding of the Divine intention in explaining the commandments?”

Abarbanel apparently had great difficulty in accepting that Moshe could have written his own words in the Torah as that would compromise the Divine nature of the Torah.

However, he does ultimately admit that Moshe authored the section dealing with blessings and curses in Devarim:

One could say that G-d ...did not command him the blessings and curses in detail...

The rest of the Torah, however, was said by Moses in the same words that he heard and received from the Almighty, nothing having been added or detracted... But this does not apply to the curses, for Moses edited [or arranged] these things."


There is a Talmudic statement expressing the view that the curses found in Devarim[6] were from Moshe and not from G-d:

Abaye states that two different Torah Readers may split up the reading[7] of the curses in Devarim, because “these (curses in Deuteronomy) are stated in the singular, and Moses said them of his own (like the rest of the book of Deuteronomy. They are therefore less harsh and may be interrupted).[8]

The curses in Vayikra (Leviticus), however, are to be treated more stringently and may not be read by two different readers, as they were “stated in the plural, and Moses pronounced them from the mouth of the Almighty.”

Clearly, the simple meaning of this passage of Talmud is that Moshe wrote (at least) the curses section of Devarim by himself as opposed to “from the mouth of the Almighty”.


According to R. Yitzchak Caro[9] (1458-1535), who was the uncle and teacher of R. Yosef Caro, the Talmudic sages contradicted themselves: The Talmud in Sanhedrin[10] states “Anyone who says that this verse Moshe said himself, as if speaking for himself, has no share in the world to come.”

Yet, as can be seen from the Talmud in Megillah quoted above, the rebuke section (at least) was said by Moshe “of his own”.

To resolve the contradiction, he had to distinguish between the first four books of the Torah and the book of Devarim. The first four books, he says, were dictated - while the fifth book was said by Moshe himself and only afterwards did G-d command Moshe to write it all down!

R Yitzchak Caro, therefore, presents a curious compromise which allows for both Moshe’s innovation somehow coupled with Divine decree.


R. Meir Ibn Gabbai (1480- 1540)[11], similarly (but more mystically) suggests in his Avodat haKodesh that the entire Torah was written through Moshe’s prophecy and was later confirmed by G-d. This way everything contained within the Torah is ultimately of Divine origin.  

In his view, the sections which were to have been said by Moshe “of his own”, were not Moshe’s independent writings, but rather the result of a very high level of his unique ‘luminescent clairvoyance’. 

The other prophets were ‘called upon’ but Moshe was able to ‘initiate’ this divine prophecy ‘by himself’ - so while he may have indeed written certain sections, they were nevertheless considered to be on the level of the Divine. 


R. Moshe ben Yosef di Trani (1505-1585), also known as Mabit, offers another approach to resolve the difficulty: He believes that the entire book of Devarim was from Moshe. However, that does not at all detract from its sanctity - as the defacement of any letter written anywhere in the Torah renders the entire Torah unfit for use. 

Thus, although authored by Moshe, it (paradoxically) is just as holy as the rest of the Torah which was in its entirety (including Devarim) was “in existence for two thousand years before creation.”[12] 

In this paradoxical view, Moshe wrote Devarim, but it was considered to be spiritually antiquated as if written before the creation. 

[This would be in keeping with the Medrashic notion that "G-d looked into the Torah and created the world." (Medrash Rabbah, Bereishit 1:1)]


R. Chaim Ibn Attar (1696-1743), also known as the Or haChaim after his Torah commentary by that name, deals with the question of Devarim as follows: The entire Book of Devarim was written by Moshe, but that only serves to emphasise that all the other four books were completely from G-d, even if they sometimes appeared to contain human narratives.

This shows that while Devarim is holy, the other books are even more holy.

His argument is from the opening words to Devarim: “These are the words which Moshe spoke” – it was only these words of Devarim which Moshe spoke of his own accord which were to serve as an admonishment for the people, “but not even a single letter of all that is contained in the preceding four books of the Torah came from Moshe himself, for those are things which came from the mouth of the Almighty...without any change, even of a single letter.


Amazingly, the Zohar states:

What we refer to as the Mishneh Torah (Devarim), was said by Moshe himself.”[13]


According to R. Moshe ben Nachman (1194-1270)[14], the Book of Devarim must be divided into two distinct segments:

The first section, dealing with new laws that had not been given before, is to be regarded as having emanated entirely from G-d.

The other section which deals with rebuke and elucidation of previous commandments is to be regarded as emanating from Moshe’s own initiative.


Reading the various views we have encountered, one notices how the commentators were grappling with the very difficult matter of reconciling the notion of Moshe having possibly written all or parts of the Book of Devarim, with the apparently counteracting dogma that the Torah was completely Divine.

Although each suggests something different, the common denominator was that they all accepted the initial premise - that all, or parts, of Devarim were authored by Moshe.

They all came up with different ways to reconcile the two opposing notions, some very mystical and others more pragmatic.

Either way, it shows the excruciating honesty of the Meforshim who openly acknowledged that the question of the authorship of Devarim was indeed a legitimate question – and one they weren’t afraid to ask.

An interesting question for further study would be how to reconcile the emergence of an extremely elevated status of  Moshe almost to the level of the Divine - as is evident from some of these sources -  with a system that is not supposed to deify its leaders.

R. Nataf  offers this interpretation: 

"The fact that a human book can be included in the Torah is a tribute not only to Moshe but to mankind more generally...

Hence, had Devarim been like the four books preceding it, it is hard to imagine that there would have been any more volumes of the Bible...other men may have been too afraid or intimidated to even endeavor to understand...the lofty...words of G-d.

Moshe shows us that G-d wants humans to be involved in Torah...

In the same way as the Torah was not complete without Moshe's book, the expansive corpus of Torah will not be complete without its last student's 'book'." [15]


Who Wrote Deuteronomy, by Dr Shaul Regev.
Redeeming Relevance: In the Book of Deuteronomy, by Rabbi Francis Nataf.

[1] Devarim 34:5.
[2] Devarim 33:1.
[3] Devarim 23:15.
[4] Devarim 10:6.
[5] Bamidbar 20:22. (The reason for the name Hor hahar was that the mountain was shaped like an apple on top of another apple - i.e.; a mountain on top of another mountain. See Rashi:  Har al gabei har – ke’tapuach katan al gabei tapuach gadol.) Ramban offers a possible compromise as to the reason for the different place names.
[6] Devarim 28.
[7] Or, the same reader can pause and allow for another Aliya.
[8] Megillah 31b. Translation from Sefaria. This translation suggests that not only were the curses said by Moshe himself, without Divine intervention - but the entire Book of Devarim was likewise written independently by Moshe!
[9] In his Toledot Yitzchak commentary.
[10] Sanhedrin 99a.
[11] A Spanish Kabbalist who based his system predominantly on the Zohar.  His main work was Avodat haKodesh, on which he spent eight years developing his mystical system which is regarded as a forerunner to the Cordovera and Lurianic schools of Kabbalah. He also studied Rambam in great detail in order to better refute his rationalism.
[12] Beit Elokim, Sha’ar haYesodot, ch 33.
[13] Zohar, Parshat Va’etchanan 22, p. 261.
[14] See his commentary to Devarim 1:1.
[15] Redeeming Relevance, In the Book of Deuteronomy, by Rabbi Francis Nataf, p. 15.


  1. Do you know what Rav David Zvi Hoffmann says about this? I don't have his book but it would be very interesting since he was fighting Wellhausen all his life. Even in the Rabbinerseminar the students had to know biblical criticism and the answer to it.

  2. Also this might be interesting:
    ‎ וּבְהוֹצִיאָם אֶת־הַכֶּסֶף הַמּוּבָא בֵּית יְהוָה מָצָא חִלְקִיָּהוּ הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־סֵפֶר תּוֹרַת־יְהוָה בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה׃
    (2 Chr. 34:14)
    And Rashi comments: את ספר תורת ה' ביד משה - משנה תורה

  3. I speak under correction but I believe R. Soloveitchik allowed his students to study biblical criticism, saying that as long as they were studying Gemara they need not fear the exposure to it.
    What I found interesting about these sources was the fact that they predated the modern discipline of biblical criticism.

  4. This has little to do with actual critical theory, as the critics believe that Deuteronomy was written in the late first temple period.

  5. Is there really a dispute? While the words come from G-d, He "commanded it to be written," so that Moses wrote it in his own words. The earlier part of the Torah was dictated word for word and written as "G-d spoke to Moses" Wasn't this Abarbanel's final conclusion?