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On the Authorship of the Torah

There is no document more central to the Jewish faith than the Torah. Throughout the Bible, the Pentateuch is called the Torah of Moshe (Deut 33:4; Joshua 8:31,32;23:6; 2 Kings 14:6; 23:25; Malachi 3:22; Nechemiah 8:1; 1 Chronicles 34:14) but in no place does it describe how it was written by him. What we will attempt to do is evaluate the evidence and present a view consistent with rabbinic teachings.

The Gemara in Gittin 60a records a dispute regarding the writing of the Torah:

R' Yochanan said in the name of R' Bena'ah, "The Torah was given scroll by scroll." R' Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish) said, "The Torah was given sealed."

According to R' Yochanan, the Torah was written section by section and, according to Reish Lakish, the Torah was written at one time, at the end of the forty years in the desert, as Rashi explains.

Who wrote it? The Gemara in Menachot 30a brings the following Baraita:

(Deut. 34:5) "So Moshe, servant of G-d, died there' ( Is it possible that Moshe was alive and wrote "So Moshe died"? Rather, until here Moshe wrote, from here on Yehoshua bin Nun wrote ( these are the words of R' Yehudah, and some say R' Nechemiah. R' Shimon said to him, "Is it possible that a Torah scroll was missing one word and its says (Deut. 31:26) "Take this Torah scroll and place it..."? Rather, until here G-d said and Moshe wrote and said, from here on G-d said and Moshe wrote in tears (or in confusion).

So we see that Moshe wrote the entire Torah, with the possible exception of the last eight verses, after hearing from G-d exactly what to write. According to R' Yochanan, this process took place over a long period of time and according to Reish Lakish it took place at the end of Moshe's life. The Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, says that according to R' Yochanan the process was as follows. When Moshe descended from Mt. Sinai he wrote from the beginning of the Torah until the end of the passages about the Mishkan, i.e. the books of Genesis and Exodus. He wrote the rest of the Torah at the end of the forty years, as evidenced by Deut. 31:26. According to Reish Lakish, the entire Torah was written at that late time.

Scrolls of the Forefathers

However, the process was actually more complicated than this suggests. We find the following in Shemot Rabbah 5:22: "And Moshe said before the Holy One, blessed be He, (Exodus 5:22) 'Why have You done evil to this people...' I opened the book of Genesis and read it and saw the acts of the generation of the flood..." As R' Zev Wolf Einhorn points out in his Perush Maharzu, it seems like Moshe had some sort of book of Genesis well before he descended from Mt. Sinai. Similarly, we find in Yalkut Shimoni on Chukat (247) Moshe informing Aharon of his impending death by reading from the book of Genesis. According to Reish Lakish, that the Torah was written at the end of the forty years, how could Moshe have already had a book of Genesis? The Talmud Yerushalmi in Megillah 3:4 tells us that Moshe instituted that the Torah be read on Shabbat, holidays, Mondays, and Thursdays and in Talmud Bavli, Bava Kamma 82a, it seems like that was done during the stay in the desert. Yet, according to Reish Lakish, there was not yet a written Torah to be read.

The answer is simply that our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov, and even those who preceded them like Adam and Noach, wrote down personal histories and theological works that were kept by their descendants. As prophets, their writings were sacred and treated like holy books. They were studied by their children and handed down from generation to generation. Rashi on Gittin 60a sv. katuv says that first the scroll of Creation was written, then the scroll of Noach, and then the scroll of Avraham. Unlike the Ramban above, that the entire book of Genesis was written at one time, Rashi seems to say that it was written at different times, scroll by scroll. Or, perhaps Rashi is not talking about the book of Genesis at all. Rather, he is telling us that all of these people wrote their own scrolls. Adam wrote a book about his life and what happened during his lifetime. He was a prophet and, naturally, this was an inspired book. G-d directed what Adam wrote. Similarly, Noach and Avraham wrote books about their lives, their thoughts, and the important events they witnessed (see all this in Torah Shelemah vol. 19 pp. 345-346). This should not be surprising at all. Indeed, we find that many other prophets, such as Shmuel and Gad, kept records of their lives and the events of their times (see 1 Chronicles 29:29 and 2 Chronicles 9:29). As we shall see, even Moshe kept such records. The scrolls of the forefathers, the pre-Torah prophets, are mentioned by the Rambam in Hilchot Melachim 1:3. Radak also mentions them in his commentary to Genesis 5:4 and 11:1. See also Meiri's Seder Hakabbalah p. 23.

Throughout the stay in Egypt and the desert, the scrolls of the forefathers were treated as sacred books and studied. These books, which were written under prophetic inspiration, form the basis of the book of Genesis. Granted, they were highly edited so that the book would not be too long. Also, phrases and even verses were added to the texts that perhaps even these prophets could not have written. For example, Ramban explains (Genesis 8:21) "G-d said in His heart" as meaning that this was only revealed to Moshe at the time of the writing of the Torah. See also Ralbag there and Moreh Nevuchim 1:29. Another case is Genesis 32:33, "Therefore the Children of Israel are not to eat the gid hanasheh." According to the Mishna and Gemara in Chullin 101b, as explained by Rashi, this verse was a later insertion by Moshe. See the Radak's commentary to this verse. It is possible that Ibn Ezra, in his "secrecy", believed that many more verses fall into this category and were inserted into pre-existing narrative by G-d to Moshe. Most importantly, G-d had to edit the scrolls in order to perfect the exact wording and phrasing of the Torah so that many meanings can be found in it. While a good writer can insert two or three layers of meaning into a text, only a divine Author can insert dozens of meanings. Despite all this editing, the inspired scrolls of the patriarchs form the basis of the book of Genesis. That is why the midrash says that Moshe had a "book of Genesis". He had a collection of scrolls that told the story of Genesis and served as the basis for what we now call the book of Genesis. These were also what were publicly read on Shabbat, holidays, Mondays, and Thursdays, much like we currently read from the Prophets as a Haftarah. Only after the Torah was written and the scrolls of Genesis divinely summarized and combined with other well-known scrolls to form the Torah did the Pentateuch replace the scrolls for the weekly readings. This can also explain what we find in Bamidbar Rabbah that the tribes had traditions from Ya'akov about what would happen to them. These traditions could have come from written testaments of either Ya'akov or his sons. Indeed, these scrolls could have been the sources of what eventually, after translation and some distortions, became part of the Apocrypha (see Torah Shelemah on Genesis ch. 50 n. 104).

Scrolls of Moshe

These types of scrolls were not only written by the patriarchs. It says in Exodus 24:4,7: "Moshe wrote all the words of G-d... He took the Book of the Covenant (Sefer HaBrit) and read it in earshot of the people." The Rashba on Gittin 60a quotes R' Avraham Av Bet Din, the author of Sefer HaEshkol, as asking how R' Yishmael, who believed that the entire Torah was written at the end of the forty years in the desert, understood these verses. The Rashba answers, "The passages that were needed at that time were written down so people could see and learn from them." In other words, Moshe wrote scrolls containing halachic information that people studied in the desert. Similarly, R' Ya'akov Gesundheit in his Tiferet Ya'akov on Gittin, writes, "The meaning here is that the Torah was given to the Jews with the sanctity of a Torah scroll only in its complete form at the end when it was written and given to them. Then it had the sanctity of a Torah scroll. Anything written before that time was only for memory purposes."

Similarly, the Mechilta of R' Shimon bar Yochai and the Midrash HaGadol on Exodus 19:6 write that on the fifth day of preparation for the giving of the Torah, Moshe wrote down things like he was writing a history book. Also, the Gemara in Bava Batra 14b says that Moshe wrote the Book of Bilam which the Ritva explains is a non-biblical book that has been lost.

So far, we have seen the talmudic and midrashic evidence that the forefathers, including Moshe, wrote books other than the Torah that were maintained and studied. However, there is also much internal evidence that there were other books written. Consider the following verses:

  • (Exodus 17:14) G-d said to Moshe, "Write this as a remembrance in the book and recite it in the ears of Yehoshua, that I shall surely erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens."

  • (Exodus 24:7) He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, "Everything that G-d has said, we will do and we will obey."

  • (Numbers 11:26) Two men remained behind in the camp, the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them; they had been among the recorded (written) ones, but they had not gone out to the Tent, and they prophesied in the camp.

  • (Numbers 21:14) Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord, "Vaheb in the Safah and the rivers of Arnon."

  • (Numbers 33:2) Moshe wrote their goings forth according to their journeys at the bidding of G-d, and these were their journeys according to their goings forth.

Ibn Ezra on Numbers 21:14 says that the Book of the Wars of the Lord "was a book in itself and in it were written the wars of the Lord on behalf of those who fear Him. It probably was from the times of Avraham for many books were lost and are no longer extant, like the words of Natan, Ido, the chronicles of the kings of Israel, the songs of Shlomo, and his proverbs." R' Sa'adia Gaon, Ramban, and Chizkuni explain likewise. On Exodus 17:14, Ibn Ezra suggests that the book mentioned there is the Book of the Wars of the Lord. R' Sa'adia Gaon, as explained by R' Yosef Kaffih in his footnote, suggests that it was another independent scroll.

Another piece of evidence is Genesis 5:1 "This is the book of the descendants of Adam." See Bereshit Rabbah 25:1-4 where this is taken to be a literal book. See Torah Shelemah vol. 1 n. 2, 6. It is possible that this is a section from a book that was written by one of Adam's descendants, perhaps Noach who is the last person in the list and was a known prophet, that G-d chose to include in the Torah. The fact that G-d retained in the text the word "book" is certainly significant and has deservedly received attention. However, it also serves as a clue to the development of the text.

What we have seen is that throughout history our prophets and wise men have written books on their lives, thoughts, and the events of their times. These books were studied and helped for our national identity. Indeed, it is certain that G-d guided the hands of our prophets to write what He wanted so that these books could be easily incorporated into the Torah. However, and this is crucial, the actual Torah was dictated word for word by G-d to Moshe. The other books have been more-or-less lost over time but remain in the form of midrashim.

Given all this, we can now better understand how the book of Deuteronomy was written. Most of it is Moshe speaking to the people. Does this mean that the book was all Moshe's creation? As the Radbaz writes in a responsum (2143), no. The Torah says (Deut. 1:3) that Moshe was telling the people what G-d had commanded him to say. See also the Ramban's introduction to Deuteronomy and Shita Mekubetzet to Berachot 21a. There is one exception to this, however. The Gemara in Megillah 31b says that the curses in Deut. 28:16-68 were said by Moshe on his own. In other words, Moshe (prophetically) chose the words to say to the people and, when G-d dictated the Torah to Moshe, these same words were used. It is not that Moshe wrote this portion of the Torah. Rather, Moshe's words were like the ancient scrolls that were chosen by G-d to be incorporated into the Torah. See Ramban to Leviticus 26:15 and Torah Shelemah vol. 19 p. 334.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 10/17/01
© Aishdas 2001