Friday, October 02, 2009

Who wrote the last 8 psukim of the Torah?

BRIEF INTRODUCTION: Last night I announced on Twitter that I planned to post today about the last 8 psukim, or verses, of  the Torah, and someone protested that this was not a way to bring people closer to God. How strange. The controversy over the last 8 psukim is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud in two separate places, and at least 4 Rishonim advance different ideas about the nature of the disagreement. What holy purpose might possibly be served by refusing to talk about it? I know the modern Torah True Truth is that Moshe wrote the whole Torah, and that the Torah we have today is a letter for letter match with the Torah he wrote, but its perfectly clear that Jewish giants in every era disagreed with this so-called truth. How does it serve the purpose of truth to pretend otherwise? Or, put another way how do lovers of truth justify their aggressive defense of a Torah True Truth that likely isn't true at all?

Deuteronomy 34:5 reads: "And Moses the servant of the LORD died there..." In BT Menochos, and BT Baba Basra an argument is recorded which is cited on Deut 34:5 by Rashi. According to Rabbi Yehuda, Moshe would not have written something false; therefore that verse, and the 7 the follow had to have been written by Joshua. According to Rabbi Meir, the whole Torah (per a proof text he provides) was written by Moshe; therefore these last 8 verses were written by Moshe, but b'dima through tears, or while crying.

As noted by the rishonim, Rabbi Meir's solution doesn't really solve the problem, or address Rabbi Yehuda's complaint. Written "through tears" or not, the words still are not true. Many clever explanations are provided, three of which I'll attempt to reproduce below:

Rama: Moshe wrote the last 8 verses not through his tears, but with his tears. Because that sort of writing isn't permanent, its not really a lie, but because it is a form of writing, it can still be said that Moshe wrote the whole book. After Moshe's death, Yehoshua copied over the tear stains with ink.

Gur Aryeh: Moshe's crying marked the beginning of his death, so the words he wrote weren't false.

Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu): The Torah existed before creation, but in a strange format: All the letters were connected, with no word or line breaks. (heresanexampleofthatsortofwriting) Only after the events happened, did the words form as we have them today. Theoretically, if things had turned out differently, the words would have separated differently. Until the very end, Moshe had the revealed version of the text, but the last 8 verses were given to him in the pre-creation format. He wrote them down, but didn't know what they meant. Only after his death, did Joshua put the letters into their formal form. This, continues, the Vilna Gaon, is what Rabbi Meir meant by b'dima, which puns with midoomeh and can mean "mixed up."

It's important to note that there's another Rishon who openly disagreed with both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda. In his comment to Deut 34:1, Avraham ibn Ezra says plainly that its his belief that the last 12 verses, beginning from "And Moses went up from the plains of Moab", were written by Joshua. Though his position contradicts Chazal, he's not attacked for it by the Ramban, which may suggest the Ramban's agreement.

Ibn Ezra does not give a reason for his position, but I think common sense is on his side: Once Moshe left the camp to ascend Har Nevo no one saw him again and, per Deut 34:6, no one even knew where he went. So, if he wrote it, how could the account of his death have ended up in our hands? Moshe went to Nevo alone.

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A shiur by Rabbi Sholom Rosner that can be found on the YU website is my source for the three interps for Moshe's tears.

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