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This essay is reprinted from R. Menachem Liebtag's Tanach Study Center with permission. The original essay can be seen here.

Parshat Devarim

What is Sefer Devarim?

Most everyone would answer that it is a review or repeat of Chumash, just as its 'second name' - "Mishneh Torah" - implies.

Is this really so?

Imagine that you are a teacher who assigns the class to summarize the first four books of Chumash. How would you grade a student who handed in Sefer Devarim as his assignment? [We'll give him 25 points for an accurate summary of each Sefer.]

Sefer Breishit - Sefer Devarim makes almost no mention of any of its stories: not the Creation, the Flood, the Avot, or the brothers. (25 points off)
Sefer Shmot - We find only a few details of the Exodus & no details of the Mishkan. We do however find the story of Ma'amad Har Sinai & Chet Ha'egel. (- 10 points )
Sefer Vayikra - Devarim makes almost no mention of any of its mitzvot. (- 20 points )
Sefer Bamidbar - Although some of its stories are mentioned, e.g. the meraglim and defeating Sichon & Og, none of its mitzvot are recorded. (- 10 points at least)

Even the most lenient teacher could not give a grade higher than a 50 and would have to fail the student who handed in Sefer Devarim as a summary of the first four books of Chumash!

Furthermore, Sefer Devarim contains many mitzvot which have never been mentioned earlier in Chumash!

Clearly, Sefer Devarim is not a review of Chumash!

But what then is Sefer Devarim? Why do Chazal refer to it as Mishneh Torah?

As we will see in this week's shiur, the answer to this question is quite shocking, quite simple, and very fundamental towards understanding all of Chumash.

Introduction - A Book of Speeches
In our study of Chumash thus far, we have found the theme of each sefer by identifying its primary components and following its ongoing narrative. For example:

Breishit - God's creation of the universe and His choice of Avraham Avinu and his offspring to become His special nation.
Shmot - The Exodus of Am Yisrael from Egypt; their journey to Har Sinai; Matan Torah; Chet Ha'egel, and building the Mishkan.
Vayikra - Torat Kohanim, the laws relating to offering korbanot in the Mishkan, and various other laws that help make Am Yisrael a holy nation.
Bamidbar - Bnei Yisrael's journey from Har Sinai (with the Mishkan at its center) towards the Promised Land; and why they didn't enter the Land.

In contrast to these four books where the story (and/or mitzvot) are presented in third person, the style of Sefer Devarim is very different for it is written almost entirely in first person. The reason for this is quite simple: Sefer Devarim consists of a collection of speeches delivered by Moshe Rabeinu before his death.

Therefore, to understand Sefer Devarim, we must first determine the purpose of these speeches and how they relate to one another. To do so should be quite simple, as we need only to identify each speech and then read what it's about.

To do so is bit complicated, for to identify each speech we must read through the entire Sefer and note the changes from third person (i.e. the regular 'narrator mode' of Chumash) to first person (i.e. the direct quote of Moshe Rabeinu).

If you have ample time (and a Tanach Koren handy), I highly recommend that you try this on your own. If you are short on time, you can 'cheat' by reading at least 1:1-7, 4:40-5:2, 26:16-27:2, 28:69-29:2, & 30:19-32:1, noting the transition from third person to first person, and hence where and how each speech begins.

For example, let's examine the opening psukim of Sefer Devarim (1:1-7). Note how the first five psukim are written in third person (serving as an introduction):

"These are the devarim (words/ speeches) which Moshe spoke to all of Israel... In the fortieth year on the first day of the eleventh month... in Arvot Moav, Moshe began to explain this Torah saying..." (1:1-5).
While the next pasuk (1:6), is written in first person, for quotes the very first sentence of Moshe Rabeinu's actual speech:
"God, our Lord, spoke to us at Chorev saying..." (1:6).

Now, note how this speech continues from 1:6 all the way until 4:40 (i.e. the next four chapters). This entire section is written in first person, and hence constitutes Moshe's opening speech.

In a similar manner, note how the first pasuk of chapter five introduces Moshe's next speech. Here again, the opening pasuk introduces the discourse in third person, and the address itself is written in first person. Here, however, the change from third to first person takes place already in the opening sentence:

"And Moshe called together all of Israel and said to them (third person):
Listen to the laws and rules that I tell you today... (first person)" (see 5:1).

Where does this second speech end? If you have a half an hour, you could look for its ending by yourself; otherwise, you'll have to take our word that it continues all the way until the end of chapter 26!

Unfortunately, this observation is rarely noticed, however (as we will soon see) the recognition of this point is key towards understanding Sefer Devarim.

At the conclusion of this 'long speech' we find two more short speeches with very defined topics. In chapters 27-28 Moshe warns Bnei Yisrael what will happen should they keep or not keep the laws of the Torah, better known as the Tochacha. In chapters 29-30 Moshe explains to Bnei Yisrael that even should they sin, the door of repentance ["teshuva"] remains open. From chapter 31 until the end of the sefer (chapter 34), Sefer Devarim 'returns' to the regular narrative style of Chumash (i.e. third person/ narrator style), and describes Moshe's final farewell to his people.

The following table summarizes the division of Sefer Devarim into its four speeches:

Speech 1 Chaps. 1-4 Introductory speech
Speech 2 Chaps. 5-26 Main speech
Speech 3 Chaps. 27-28 Tochacha & Covenant
Speech 4 Chaps. 29-30 Teshuva

The Main Speech
As this table indicates, Speech #2 is by far the longest dissertation, and thus constitutes the main speech of Sefer Devarim. Therefore, to understand what the sefer is all about, we must first determine the purpose of this 'keynote address' (i.e. chapters 5-26). Afterward, we will show how Speech #1 actually introduces this main speech, while the final two speeches form its conclusion.

Let's begin by following the flow of the opening chapter of this main speech. [I recommend that you read 5:1 - 6:9 before continuing.]

As in any well-written speech, its opening sentence should point to its primary objective:

"Listen Israel to the chukim & mishpatim which I am teaching you today, learn them and keep them..." (5:1).

Moshe's opening statement already informs us that this speech will contain the chukim & mishpatim that Bnei Yisrael must observe upon entry into the land. Whereas Moshe is about to die and Bnei Yisrael are about to enter the Land, this is Moshe's last opportunity to instruct Bnei Yisrael regarding their obligations when they enter the land.

However, instead of getting 'right down to business' and specifying the details of these chukim & mishpatim, Moshe Rabeinu prefaces these mitzvot with the story of how and when these mitzvot were first given:

"Hashem made a covenant with us at Chorev. Not [only] with our forefathers did God made this covenant, but [also] with us, we the living, who are here today..." (5:2-3).

This opening statement is critical for the effectiveness of Moshe's entire presentation. Moshe must remind Bnei Yisrael that their obligation evolves from the covenant the nation accepted at Har Sinai, even though most of the members of this new generation were not present at that time!

This is why Moshe continues his introductory remarks with the story of Bnei Yisrael's acceptance of that covenant - i.e. the story of Ma'amad Har Sinai. First, he reminds them that the first Ten Commandments were actually heard directly from God ( see 5:4- 5). He then reviews those Ten commandments ( see 5:6-19), the essence of that covenant.

When This Speech Was First Given
The key to understanding the nature of this main speech lies in the subsequent story, which most effectively explains what the rest of the speech is all about.

In that story ( 5:20-31), Moshe Rabeinu tells of Bnei Yisrael's fear at Ma'amad Har Sinai and their opting to hear the remaining mitzvot from Moshe instead of directly from God. Those mitzvot - the remaining mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael received via Moshe (after they received the Ten Commandments) - are precisely what Moshe reviews in this main speech of Sefer Devarim.

In case you didn't follow, let's review our analysis by following the psukim inside. We pick up the story when Bnei Yisrael become frightened at Ma'amad Har Sinai and beg Moshe to act as their intermediary:

"When you heard the voice out of the darkness, while the mountain was ablaze with fire, you came up to me... and said... Let us not die, for this fearsome fire will consume us... you go closer and hear all that God says, and then you tell us everything that God commands, and we will willingly do it..." (5:20-26).

Keep in mind that from this pasuk we can infer that had Bnei Yisrael not become fearful, they would have heard additional mitzvot directly from God, immediately after these first Ten Commandments.

Note how God grants their request that Moshe should act as their intermediary (see 5:25-26), and then He informs Moshe of the new plan:

"Go, say to them, 'Return to your tents.' But you remain here with Me, and I will give you the mitzvah, chukim & mishpatim... for them to observe in the land that I am giving them to possess..." (5:27-30).

This pasuk, in its context, is the key to understanding Sefer Devarim. The mitzvot that Moshe Rabeinu prepares to teach in this oration are simply the mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael should have heard directly from God at Ma'amad Har Sinai (but were given via Moshe instead).

To prove this, we need only read the next pasuk, which introduces the mitzvot to be addressed by Moshe in his presentation:

"And this ("v'zot") is the mitzvah, chukim & mishpatim that God has commanded me to teach you to be observed in the land you are about to enter..." (6:1-3).

Recall from 5:28 that God told Moshe that he should remain on Har Sinai to receive the mitzvah, chukim & mishpatim. As we see from the pasuk above (6:1), Moshe's lecture here is simply a delineation of those mitzvot.

The Eleventh Commandment
Based on this introduction (i.e. 6:1-3), we must conclude that the mitzvot presented here - i.e. those beginning with 6:4 - are simply those mitzvot that God gave via Moshe Rabeinu as a continuation of Ma'amad Har Sinai. Take a quick look at 6:4-7 noting that the first mitzvah of this special unit is none other than the first parsha of 'kriyat shma':

"Shma Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad, v'ahavta... v'ha'yu ha'dvarim ha'eyleh..." (see 6:4-7).
[This could explain why this parsha is such an important part of our daily prayers. Iy"h we'll deal with the importance of this parsha next week.]

This first parsha of kriyat shma begins a lengthy list of mitzvot that continues all the way until Parshat Ki-tavo (chapter 26). That is why this speech is better known as "ne'um ha'mitzvot" - the speech of commandments. [Try counting how many mitzvot are indeed found in these twenty two chapters!]

It is also important to note that although the core of Moshe's speech consists of mitzvot initially received at Har Sinai, it is only natural that Moshe Rabeinu will add some of his own comments, relating to events which have transpired in the interim. [See, for example, chapters 8-9.] Nonetheless, the mitzvot themselves are 40 years old. [In next week's shiur we will discuss how these mitzvot are divided into two distinct sections.]

The First Time Or Last Time?
Before we continue, it is important to clarify a common misunderstanding. Moshe's introduction does not imply that now (i.e. in the fortieth year) is the first time that Bnei Yisrael are hearing these mitzvot. Moshe actually conveyed these mitzvot to Bnei Yisrael immediately upon his descent from Har Sinai. [To prove this, see Shmot 34:29-32.] However, for some reason (which we discuss below), these mitzvot were never recorded in Sefer Shmot.

[One could suggest that because the general category of these mitzvot is "la'assot b'aretz" - to keep in the land (see 5:28, 6:1) - they are recorded only forty years later, when Moshe for the last time addresses the new generation, who will actually fulfill these commandments.]
Mishneh Torah
Thus far, we have shown that the main body of Sefer Devarim is not a repeat of Chumash, but rather a series of mitzvot that had been given earlier but not recorded (in Chumash) until the fortieth year. How, then, are we to understand Chazal's name for Sefer Devarim - "Mishneh Torah"? Doesn't this name mean 'a repeat of Chumash'?

True, the word "mishneh" is derived from the "shoresh" (root) - "l'sha-nein" [sh.n.n.] - to repeat. Yet, Sefer Devarim is not a 'repeat' of Chumash; rather, it contains a list of commandments that need to be repeated - every day! In fact, this is precisely what Sefer Devarim tells us in the first mitzvah of the main speech (a pasuk that you all know by heart):

"v'hayu ha'devarim ha'eileh - And these words [referring to the mitzvot of the main speech] that I am teaching you today must be kept in your heart - v'shinantam - and you must repeat them (over and over) to your children and speak about them constantly, when at home, and when you travel, when you get up in the morning, and when you go to sleep..." (6:5-8).

In other words, this set of mitzvot recorded in the central presentation of Sefer Devarim are special, insofar as they must be constantly repeated and taught ("v'shinantam"), as its name - "Mishneh Torah" - implies. In fact, we fulfill this mitzvah each day when we recite the parshiyot of "kriyat shma."

Further proof of this interpretation is found in the sole pasuk in Sefer Devarim that contains the phrase "mishneh torah" (in parshat HaMelech - 17:14-20):

"And when the King is seated on his royal throne, he must write this mishneh ha'torah in a book... and it must be with him and he must read from it every day of his life in order that he learns to fear God..." (17:18-19).

Clearly, the term "Mishneh Torah" does not refer to a repeat of earlier laws, but rather to a set of laws that need to be repeated.

[Similarly, the word "mishnah" (as in Torah sh'baal peh) has the same meaning. The "mishnayot" require "shinun"; they must be repeated over and over again.]
From Har Sinai to Sefer Devarim
If, as we suggested, the main body of Sefer Devarim contains the mitzvot that Moshe Rabeinu originally received on Har Sinai, then what characterizes the mitzvot found in other books of Chumash? Or, more directly, on what basis were the mitzvot distributed among the sefarim?

To answer this question, we simply need to review our conclusions from previous shiurim.

Recall that God's original intention was to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt, bring them to Har Sinai (to receive the Torah), and then immediately bring them to Eretz Canaan, where these mitzvot are to be observed.

At Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael entered into a covenant and heard the Ten Commandments. As we explained, they should have received many more mitzvot after hearing the first Ten Commandments. However, they were overwhelmed by the awesome experience of Ma'amad Har Sinai and thus requested that Moshe act as their intermediary.

It is difficult to ascertain the exact chronological order of the events following their request. However, by combining the parallel accounts of this event in Sefer Shmot (see 20:15-21:1 & 24:1-18) and Sefer Devarim (see chapter 5), we arrive at the following chronology:

On the day of Ma'amad Har Sinai, God gives Moshe a special set of laws, better known as Parshat Mishpatim (really 20:19-23:33), which Moshe later conveys to Bnei Yisrael (see 24:3-4). Moshe writes these mitzvot on a special scroll ["sefer ha'brit" (see 24:4-7)], and on the next morning he organizes a special gathering where Bnei Yisrael publicly declare their acceptance of these laws (and whatever may follow). This covenant is better known as "brit na'aseh v'nishma". [See 24:5-11. We have followed Ramban's pirush; Rashi takes a totally different approach. See Ramban 24:1 for a more detailed presentation of their machloket.]

After this ceremony, God summons Moshe to Har Sinai to receive the luchot & additional laws ["ha'torah v'ha'mitzvah"; see 24:12-13], and so Moshe remains on Har Sinai for 40 days and nights to learn these mitzvot. It is not clear precisely to what "ha'torah v'ha'mitzvah" refers, but we may logically assume that it is during these 40 days when Moshe receives the mitzvot he later records in Sefer Devarim. [Note the use of these key words in the introductory psukim of Sefer Devarim: torah in Devarim 1:5 & 4:44; ha'mitzvah in 5:27 & 6:1.]

[Moshe most likely received many other mitzvot as well during these forty days, possibly even the laws of the Mishkan. (This depends on the famous machloket between Rashi & Ramban - see shiur on Parshat Terumah.)]

As a result of Chet Ha'egel, God's plans change. Consequently, we never find out precisely which mitzvot were given to Moshe during the first forty days and which were transmitted during the last forty days. Either way, Bnei Yisrael do not hear any of these mitzvot until Moshe descends with the second luchot on Yom Kippur (see Shmot 34:29-33). At this point, Moshe teaches Bnei Yisrael all the mitzvot he had received, though they are not recorded at that point in Sefer Shmot (see again Shmot 34:29-33).

During the next six months, Bnei Yisrael build the Mishkan and review the laws they had just learnt. Once the Mishkan is built in Nisan and the Korban Pesach is offered (in Nisan & Iyar), Bnei Yisrael are ready to begin their '11 day journey from Har Sinai to Kadesh Barnea,' the excursion that was to have begun their conquest of the land. Instead, the people fail with the incident of "meraglim," and the rest is history.

With this background, we can now confront the big question: by what system are the mitzvot that Moshe received on Har Sinai divided up among the various seforim of Chumash? We'll approach this question one book at a time:

Sefer Shmot records the Ten Commandments and Parshat Mishpatim since they comprise an integral part of Ma'amad Har Sinai, i.e. the covenantal ceremony in which Bnei Yisrael accept the Torah. Although Sefer Shmot continues with the story of Moshe's ascent to Har Sinai, it does not record the specific mitzvot that he received during those forty days! Instead, the remainder of Sefer Shmot focuses entirely on those mitzvot relating to the atonement for Chet Ha'egel (34:10-29) and the construction of the Mishkan (chapters 25-31, & 35-40/ plus the laws of Shabbat which relate to building the Mishkan).

The exclusive focus on these laws at the end of Sefer Shmot is well understood. The theme of the second half of Sefer Shmot revolves around the issue of whether or not God's shchina can remain within the camp of Bnei Yisrael. Whereas the Mishkan provides a solution to this dilemma, its taking of center-stage in the latter part of Sefer Shmot is to be expected. [See Ramban's introduction to Sefer Shmot, v'akmal.]

What about the rest of the mitzvot transmitted to Moshe on Har Sinai?

As we will see, some surface in Sefer Vayikra, others in Sefer Bamidbar, and the main group appears in Sefer Devarim!

Even though Sefer Vayikra opens with the laws given from the ohel moed (see 1:1), many of its mitzvot had already been presented on Har Sinai. This is explicit in Parshat Tzav (see 7:37-38); Parshat Behar (see 25:1); and Parshat Bechukotei (see 26:46 & 27:34). Certain parshiyot of mitzvot such as Acharei Mot obviously must also have been given from the Ohel Moed, but there is good reason to suggest that many of its other mitzvot, such as Parshat Kedoshim, were first given on Har Sinai.

So why are certain mitzvot of Har Sinai included in Sefer Vayikra? The answer is quite simple. Sefer Vayikra is a collection of mitzvot dealing with the mishkan, korbanot and the kedusha of Am Yisrael. Sefer Vayikra, better known as Torat Kohanim, simply contains all those parshiyot that contain mitzvot associated with its theme. Some were given to Moshe on Har Sinai, while others were transmitted from the Ohel Moed. [See previous shiurim on Sefer Vayikra for more detail on this topic.]

Sefer Bamidbar, we explained, is primarily the narrative describing Bnei Yisrael's journey from Har Sinai towards Eretz Canaan. For some divine reason, that narrative is 'interrupted' by various parshiyot of mitzvot, which seem to have belonged in Sefer Vayikra. [For example: nazir, sotah, chalah, nsachim, tzizit, tumat meit, korbanot tmidim u'musafim, etc.] These mitzvot were probably first given to Moshe on Har Sinai (or some possibly from the Ohel Moed, as well). Nonetheless, they are included in Sefer Bamidbar because of their thematic connection to its narrative.

Now we can better understand Sefer Devarim. The books of Shmot, Vayikra, and Bamidbar contained only a limited sampling of the mitzvot that God had given to Moshe on Har Sinai, each Sefer recording only those mitzvot related to its theme. Sefer Devarim, as it turns out, is really our primary source of the mitzvot taught to Moshe on Har Sinai. As we explained above, this is exactly what chapter 5 indicates. [Recall that chapter 5 is the introductory chapter of Moshe's main speech, the presentation of the mitzvah, chukim & mishpatim.]

Expectedly, these mitzvot of Har Sinai recorded in Sefer Devarim are presented in an organized fashion and share a common theme. To identify that common theme, let's take a look once again at the introduction to this collection of mitzvot:

"And this ("v'zot") is the mitzvah, chukim & mishpatim that God has commanded me to teach you to be observed in the land which you are about to enter..." (6:1-3; see also 5:28) .

The mitzvot of Moshe's main speech are simply a guide for Bnei Yisrael's conduct as they conquer and settle the land. [As we study the Sefer, this theme will become quite evident.] Therefore, practically speaking, this speech contains the most important mitzvot that Bnei Yisrael must follow as they enter the Land and establish their society. As these laws are so important, they must be studied 'over and over' again [= mishneh torah].

Hence, it is only logical that Moshe decides to teach these mitzvot at a national gathering (as he is about to die and Bnei Yisrael are about to enter the Land). This also explains why these mitzvot will be taught once again on Har Eival, after Bnei Yisrael cross the Jordan (see Devarim chapter 27), and then again thereafter, once every seven years at the hakhel ceremony (see 31:9-13; notice the word torah once again!).

The Narratives in Devarim & Bamidbar
This understanding of the purpose and theme of each sefer helps explain the many discrepancies between the details of various events as recorded in Shmot and Bamidbar, and their parallel accounts in Sefer Devarim. (A classic example is "chet ha'meraglim.") Neither book records all the details of any particular event; instead, each sefer records the events from the unique perspective of its own theme and purpose.

The original essay can be seen at

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Contributor(s): Menachem Liebtag
Last revised: 7/29/02
© Aishdas 2002