Sunday 27 June 2021




The Portuguese Torah commentator Rabbi Yitzchak Abravanel (1437-1508) was an interesting exegete who was not afraid to pose penetrating questions or even criticise earlier texts.

During the 1460s, Abravanel wrote to R. Yosef Hayyun (d. 1497), the rabbi of Lisbon and presented a challenging question to him:

“My question and request is whether this book of Deuteronomy was given by the Lord from heaven, and its contents are like the rest of the Torah that Moses placed before the Israelites and everything from ‘in the beginning’ through ‘in the sight of all Israel’ are the words of the living God; or whether Moses himself composed Deuteronomy in order to expound what he understood of the divine intent in the elucidation of the precepts?”[1]

In other words, was Deuteronomy essentially the work of Moshe or was the authorship of purely Divine origin?

This article, based extensively on the research by Professor Eran Viezel[2], deals with some of the related issues that arise from this fascinating piece of rabbinic communication.



Abravanel requested clarification on several sefeikot, doubts or questions, that were bothering him:

·      Why does Deuteronomy repeat what is already found in the earlier books of the Torah?

·      Why does Deuteronomy refer to Moshe in the first person, whereas in the preceding books he is referred to in the third person?

·    Why does the Talmud[3] feel it necessary to suggest that Moshe spoke the section of the curses in Deuteronomy 28 on his own initiative, and not by G-d’s command?[4]

·      If Moshe composed some sections, then how does that square with the Talmud[5] referring to one who claims that the Torah is not from Heaven as one who despises the word of G-d?

·      How can a work composed by G-d, include human material?

·   How can Deuteronomy, which is called a ‘repetition of the Torah,’ include new precepts instead of just elaborating on earlier precepts?

The Book of Deuteronomy contains just over one hundred laws, more than seventy of which are completely new.



RASHI (1040-1105):

Abravanel was not the first commentator to deal with such matters. Interestingly, Viezel points out that:

“Rashi paid scant attention to how the Torah was composed and never linked its divine origins with the view that Moses set it down verbatim at God’s dictation.”

Furthermore, in Rashi’s commentary on Chulin, he discusses when the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve was written down, and this indicated that he may have allowed for some degree of literary leeway. Perhaps one could also add Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 17:18, where, in explaining the term describing Deuteronomy, Mishneh Torah, he cites the Aramaic translation of Onkelos who renders it as פתשגן אוריתא, which means a “copy of the Torah[6].  Rashi then expands on this by emphasising פתר משנה לשון שנון ודבור the very human faculty of teaching and speech.

RASHBAM (1085-1158):

Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam, also allows for some flexibility and initiative from Moshe in his literary style.[7] According to some scholars, Rashbam even maintained that some words of the Torah postdate the era of Moshe.[8]

AVRAHAM IBN EZRA (1089-1167):

Avraham Ibn Ezra, while certainly agreeing with the divine origin of the Torah, maintained that Moshe essentially wrote the Torah autonomously. He suggested that the Ten Commandments were the only place in the Torah where:

“the words of God [are presented] without any additions or deletions”[9]

And that only applies to the first representation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. The second account of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5, however, are:

“the Lord’s words…mixed with Moses’ interpretations.”

Ibn Ezra also maintained that some sections were later added to the text of the Torah, and he refers to these as ‘the secret of the twelve’.

YOSEF BECHOR-SHOR (12th century):

The twelfth century Tosafist R. Yosef Bechor-Shor suggested that Moshe made his own contribution to the composition of the Torah, as we can see from his commentary on Genesis 18.  Surprisingly, his view was not considered exceptional among the Tosafists.



Viezel explains that it is unlikely that Abravanel knew about Rashi’s commentary on Chulin, and it has not yet been ascertained if he would have known about the views of Rashbam and Bechor-Shor. However, he certainly was familiar with the opinion of Ibn Ezra as he mentions him in his writing.

With the publication of Maimonides’ (1135-1204) Thirteen Principle of Faith - and particularly the Eighth Principle that states emphatically that the Torah we now have in our hands is exactly the same as the one given by God to Moshe – a new theological period was entered into. This ‘new’ fundamentalist idea of Maimonides was ostensibly in contradistinction to the earlier positions taken by Rashi, Rashbam, Bechor-Shor and others.

Viezel writes:

“…Maimonides’ Eighth Principle effectively inaugurated a new era in the perception of Moses’ role in the composition of the Torah and does not necessarily reflect the traditional view going back to antiquity…”

Abravanel would have found himself in a disadvantaged position. He was well aware of Maimonides but, as mentioned, probably unaware of the opinions of Rashi, Rashbam, Bechor-Shor and others. Thus, he would have regarded Ibn Ezra’s position as exceptional and quite radical. On the other hand, to compound matters, Abravanel would have known of the other commentators who came after Maimonides, such as David Kimchi (Radak), Nachmanides (Ramban), Joseph Kaspi, and Gersonides (Ralbag), who all knew Maimonides’ Eighth Principle and accepted it. This, making Ibn Ezra’s view all the more unusual to him.

Viezel points out, however, that even these last four commentators were not always entirely dogmatic about adhering to the Eighth Principle as they often let slip that they too allow for some literary ‘creativity’ from Moshe. Additionally, all four of these commentators would have been aware of Ibn Ezra’s suggestion that certain sections of the Torah were added after Moshe, but they did not raise any objection to it. Viezel makes this very clear:

“In fact, all four refrained from confronting this issue.”

So, although Abravanel may have found Ibn Ezra’s view somewhat radical, he would still have some room to question the universal application of Maimonides’ Eighth Principle.


But still, Abravanel appears somewhat torn between the fundamentalist approach of Maimonides and the more expansive approach of Ibn Ezra. We see this in Abravanel’s expression of astonishment even at some earlier Talmudic[10] statements that seem at variance with the later Eighth Principle of Maimonides. The Talmud discusses the verse in Joshua 24:25:

 “…and Joshua wrote these words in the book of the Torah of G-d


What words did Joshua write in Moshe’s Torah?

·      R. Yehuda says that it refers to the last eight verses of the Torah[11] which describe Moshe’s passing, and therefore could not have been written by Moshe himself.[12]

·         R. Nechemiah says that it refers to the section of the cities of refuge (Deut. 4:41–43).[13]

Either way, Abravanel[14] regards both these views as “very strange opinions”. Abravanel is clearly not happy, nor apparently conversant, with these types of rabbinic schools of thought, as he takes Maimonides’ Eighth Principle as rather axiomatic and universal.  

Viezel explains Abravanel as different from the other commentators of the Middle Ages. Most of the other commentators adopted a pragmatic approach where understanding depends on accumulating outside information and data. This information can be sifted, selected and even ignored. Abravanel was different. He adopted a more holistic and comprehensive attitude. Contradictions could not be ignored. They had to be dealt with, as the entire picture of Jewish theology together with all its perspectives was necessary for his full understanding of what it entailed. In this sense, he was ahead of his time because “system and uniformity of thought” are indictive of a more modern approach. That is all well and good, but his thinking ahead of his time did not curtail his angst. Hence, he turns to the rabbi of Lisbon, R. Yosef Hayyun (in addition to many other rabbis of his time as well) for guidance.


Hayyun cuts straight to the chase. He responds by an honest admission:

“Neither the ancient nor the modern [commentators] considered the matter deeply enough to reach the intention [of the question] and answer it fully.”

He acknowledges that the thorny matter of whether sections may have been added to the Torah, had not been dealt with properly in the past. These matters could no longer be skirted or ignored. He admits that he was forced to deal with the perplexing question himself by having to:

“…to tie rope to rope and cord to cord so that I could draw precious gems from the depths of the great abyss.”

Hayyun was also torn between accepting the Eighth Principle of Maimonides and allowing for some freedom in the quill of Moshe. He says, however, that the only way to deal with this difficult question - and remain between the lines, as it were - is by adhering to ancient texts, both biblical and Talmudic:

“The verses and talmudic statements will have the power to guide the student…to understand it truly without errors.”

Hayyun is cautiously yet boldly saying that because of the extreme importance of this matter, the solution cannot be entirely novel. It must stay within the rubric of classical Torah thinking. The ‘novelty’ he therefore suggests is that we turn to old ideas that are now forgotten and rework them!

His answer allows for both an innovative and conservative approach simultaneously:



R. Yosef Hayyun emphatically maintains that Deuteronomy is not a new addition. He essentially claims that no new precepts were added and that Torah did not change one iota.[15] However, at the same time, he did say that Deuteronomy is divided into three categories: 1) rebukes, 2) new precepts and 3) elucidation of precepts previously mentioned. This threefold division helps him later to construct his hypothesis.

1) The category of rebukes is taken from the opening verse of the book of Deuteronomy:

These are the words…”.

Rashi calls “words” tochachot or rebuke (perhaps similar to the English expression “having words”).


2) The category of new precepts is seen from verse 3:

 And in the fortieth year…Moses spoke to the people of Israel according to all that the Lord had commanded them.”

This, suggests Hayyun, implies a unique and new revelation forty year after Sinai(!), of laws that were given at Sinai but not yet conveyed to the people. In this sense they were ‘new’ to the people but not new to Moshe who already received them at Sinai. This would have been the third revelation following Sinai and the revelation in the Tent of Meeting.


3) The category of elucidation of precepts previously mentioned is seen from verse 5:

 Moses undertook to expound this law…”

Hayyun emphasizes “exposition, not a new statement”. Thus, the elucidations of the precepts, were spoken by Moses on his own account, not ‘dictated’ by G-d, and for the purposes of explaining the precepts to the new and younger generation who had grown up without the Sinai experience.

Hayyun continues that these three categories which make up the text of Deuteronomy are scattered haphazardly throughout the book:

“…the three categories are mixed together—sometimes the third part [elucidation of the precepts], sometimes the second part [new precepts], and sometimes the first part [rebukes].”

Hayyun suggests that rebuke before the death of a leader or patriarch was typical during the biblical era. Moshe would have spoken these rebukes himself. This ties in with the Talmudic view mentioned earlier that Moshe spoke the curses himself, of his own accord, and was not quoting G-d. Following along similar lines, G-d tells Moshe to make a covenant with the Israelites but does not tell him the details or words of that covenant:

“These are the words of the covenant that the Lord commanded Moses to conclude with the Israelites in the land of Moab” (Deut. 28:69).

The words in this verse refer to the words of Moshe, otherwise it should have said “These are the words of G-d…” as it typically does elsewhere. Here, it was the covenant that was commanded but not the content or the wording.

On Hayyun’s view, then, of the three categories which comprise the textual material of Deuteronomy, only one category is said to have originated with G-d, namely that of the new precepts (i.e., the new covenant, which was not new to Moshe, because he heard them at Sinai, but they were new to the people). The other two categories, comprising rebukes and the elucidation of precepts previously mentioned were contributed by Moshe of his own accord.



Hayyun is not finished. He suggests that this pattern of Moshe oftentimes expressing his literary autonomy within the Torah texts, is not restricted to the book of Deuteronomy. It is found in the other sections of the Torah as well where we see clear evidence of Moshe’s own words.[16]

“There are many… passages in the Torah that Moses absolutely must have said himself”.

Many conversations within the Torah have the hallmark of normative, free and autonomous speech and do not appear to have been dictated by G-d.

On Hayyun’s view, Abravanel’s question was misplaced because it was ‘either or’. Either G-d dictated every word to Moshe, or Moshe was allowed to innovate. His answer, however, was an attempt at a creating a synthesis. There was sometimes a lag between the time the events took place and when they were recorded. Sometimes G-d instructed Moshe exactly what to say and sometimes Moshe spoke for himself, but ultimately, according to Hayyun, G-d conveyed all this – both His words and Moshe’s innovations – back to Moshe, who then duly wrote them down.

Viezel explains Hayyun thusly:

“From this we learn that Moses made an immense contribution to the composition of the Torah. God determined the content and wording, but much of the raw material that He used for this originated with Moses.”

This way, a compromise is struck. G-d is still seen as the great Dictator of the entire Torah, but Moshe paradoxically and simultaneously is given free rein to innovate and compose.

Hayyun’s hypothesised synthesis is a bold, sincere and creative attempt at staying true to tradition while allowing for some degree of innovation from Moshe. It is a compromise between two contradictory extremes, and a flexible dance between the defined lines of perceived traditional boundaries.

However, as we have seen, the definition of traditional boundaries may have been defined somewhat differently by the likes of Rashi, Rashbam, Bechor-Shor and certainly Ibn Ezra.



Abravanel was clearly an independent thinker and while he listened to what others had to say, he made up his own mind. Hayyun, on the other hand, was a mystic.  He influenced others, like R. Joseph ben Chaim Yavetz, for example, when he passed through Portugal, in the ways of mysticism.  Abravanel was more inclined towards the rationalist school. Thus, although Abravanel quoted Midrashim quite extensively, he wrote in his Introduction to the Book of Joshua:

"I shall not refrain from pointing to the weakness inherent in their statements where they are homiletical [i.e., Midrashic] in nature and are [therefore] not accepted…as authoritative."

Abravanel may have accepted Hayyun’s hypothesis in broad terms but it didn’t resonate entirely with him. On one of the points of Hayyun’s hypothesis, Abravanel wrote that it was:

“…a weak exposition that should not be accepted.”[17]

Abravanel also did not agree that Deuteronomy contained any new precepts. If I understand this correctly, Abravanel did not agree with Hayyun that there was this third and final revelation, which endorsed everything Moshe had said on his own, just before Moshe passed away.

Abravanel records in general that he was not satisfied with the answers he got from the various scholars he consulted on this burning matter because:

…their courses, paths, and thoughts were not sweet to me.”




R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, the great grandson of R. Chaim Volozhin, seems to have a similar approach to Hayyun. He maintains that in Deuteronomy, Moshe is the speaker. This is because in Deuteronomy, Moshe says “G-d spoke to me”, whereas in the earlier books it states “G-d spoke to Moshe”. In this sense, Deuteronomy becomes the first version of the Oral Tradition, but when G-d commanded Moshe to write it in the Torah it became part of the Written Torah. This is why Moshe is called Moshe Rabbeinu, because he was a teacher of, more than a just a conduit for, G-d’s message.[18]


Here is an interesting quotation from the Vilna Gaon concerning the Book of Deuteronomy:

“The first four Books were heard directly from the mouth of the Holy One…through the throat of Moses. Not so Deuteronomy. Israel heard the words of this Book the same way they heard the words of the prophets who came after Moses. The Holy One…would speak to the prophet today and on a later day he would go and make the vision known to Israel. Accordingly, at the time the prophet spoke to the people, the word of G-d had already been removed from him. So, too, the Book of Deuteronomy was heard from the mouth of Moses himself.”[19]











[1] Gross, A, 1993, ‘Rabbi Joseph ben Abraham Hayyun: Leader of the Lisbon Jewish Community and His Literary Work’, Bar Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan.

[2] Viezel, E, 2016, ‘Isaac Abravanel’s Question and Joseph Hayyun’s Answer: A New Stage in the Issue of Moses’ Role in the Composition of the Torah’, Religious Studies and Theology 35(1), Equinox Publishing Ltd., Sheffield, 53-72.

[3] b Megilah 31b.

[4] This is the view of Abbaye, who bases himself on the differences between the curses in Leviticus, where G-d speaks in the first person; and those in Deuteronomy which are in the third person.

[5] b Sanhedrin 99a.

[6] Marcus Jastrow has it also as an “abstract”.

[7] See Rashbam on Gen. 1:1, 5, 27; 19:37; 37:2; Num. 24:14; 30:2–3; Deut. 2:5.

[8] See Rashbam on Gen. 35:20, Exod. 16:35, and Numb. 22:1.

[9] See Ibn Ezra on Exod. 20:1.

[10] b Makot 11a.

[11] Deut. 34:5–12.

[12] Unless, of course, as one Talmudic opinion suggests, one steps into the realm of the supernatural.

[13] The Gemara goes on to explain that while it accepts the first view, the second view means that that Joshua wrote about the cities of refuge in the book of Joshua, just as they were written in the Torah.

[14] See his commentary on Joshua 24:25.

[15] Hayyun references Exod. 24:12; b Berachot 5a; Makot 23b; Chagigah 6a; Sifra Behar 1.

[16] For that matter, the same could be said of all the other conversations recorded in the Torah (- although they are not credited with writing of the Torah and one could argue that their words were still dictated to Moshe).

[17] Introduction to Deuteronomy 7.

[18] Stone Edition of The Chumash, ArtScroll Series, 1993, 938 -9.

[19] Ohel Yaakov to 1:1.


  1. Incidentaly I came accross recently that Hayyun's response was entitled Magid Mishne. See Shnaton 25 (2017) 311-341.

    Also much debate whether Hayyun & Abarbanel had a teacher student relationship.

  2. Thank you for that reference.