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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Devarim: Explaining the Torah

Parashat Devarim opens the new sefer, which is, in many respects, an elucidation of the mitzvot (some new, some previously listed in other Chumashim) and the overarching need for the Jews to live in Israel in accordance with the Torah. Indeed, almost at the very start of the parasha, we read:

(ה) בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב הוֹאִיל מֹשֶׁה בֵּאֵר אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת לֵאמֹר.

דברים א:ה

Across the Yarden, in the land of Moav, Moshe began to explain this Torah. (Devarim 1:5)

Why did Moshe commence this explanation at this time?

The Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) explains that Moshe was speaking  to the new generation, that arose after the previous one died out during the forty years in the desert. Moshe therefore took it upon himself to tell the children about the deeds (and misdeeds) of their parents’ generation.

Rabbenu B’chaya (14th century Spain) also observes that Moshe was speaking to a new generation, but he had a prophetic rather than a didactic purpose. Nearly forty years before, the previous generation had stood at Sinai and heard the Aseret Ha-dibrot from Hashem Himself. Their children, who had not then been born, had only heard of these mitzvot from their parents, and now Moshe gave this tradition prophetic authority as he repeated the Aseret Ha-dibrot (Devarim 5:6-17) and the other mitzvot.

The Sforno (16th century Italy) says that this moment was significant not in relation to the past, but to the future. Moshe, knowing that he was about to die and that the Jewish people would complete their journey into the land of Israel without him, took this opportunity to strengthen their commitment to Torah and their rejection of idolatry, since he would not be present to guide them as they create their new society.

We have translated בֵּאֵר as “explain” - an interpretation supported by Targum Onkelos (1st century Israel) who uses the Aramaic “פרש” and Ibn Ezra, who rephrases the verse as “משה החל לפרש”.

(The alternative translations of הוֹאִיל are beyond the scope of this shiur).

However Rashi (11th century France) understands Moshe’s “explanation” implied by the word באר in a very particular way: 

באר את התורה - בשבעים לשון פירשה להם:

(Moshe began to) explain the Torah: in seventy languages he explained it to them.

From where does Rashi acquire this interpretation? The Mizrachi (16th century Turkey) explains that Moshe is comparing the word באר in our verse, with the same word as it appears later in Devarim. Regarding the command to the Israelites to set up great stones in Har Eval, after they have crossed the Yarden, the Torah says

וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל הָאֲבָנִים אֶת כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב.

You shall write on the stones all the words of the this Torah, well-explained (“בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב”) (Devarim 27:8)

On the phrase באר היטב in that verse Rashi also says “בשבעים לשון” - “in seventy languages”. Mizrachi states that the Gematria of היטב, when considering each letter accumulatively (i.e. the total of ה, הי, היט, היטב) is seventy. This explains Rashi’s comment in 27:8 and hence, by considering the use of the same word, באר, it also explains Rashi’s interpretation of Moshe’s actions in our verse (1:5).

The Maharal of Prague (16th century)  finds a more straightforward source for Rashi’s comment. The word באר must mean that Moshe explained the Torah in a way that everyone could understand, and this can only be achieved by explaining the Torah in every one of the world’s languages (which then totalled seventy).

The Maskil L’Dovid (18th century Italy), by contrast, believes that Rashi is interpreting הואיל משה באר as telling us that Moshe was explaining the mitzvot in a way that he had not done before. This cannot mean a full elucidation, since that was required at the time that the mitzvot were originally given (as Rashi stated in Shemot 21:1). Therefore it must imply that this explanation was of a type that had never been provided before - i.e. in all languages. 

Another commentator on Rashi, the Be’er B’Sadeh, (19th century Bosnia)explains that at this time in Moshe’s life there was a need for the Torah to be translated. Since the Jewish people had just conquered the lands of Sichon and Og, they were coming into contact with other nations, some of whom wished to learn about the Torah and convert to Judaism. Their introduction to the sacred text had to be in their own vernacular.

The Be’er B’Sadeh’s position may be challenged by considering the Gemara (Sotah 35b) which claims that Moshe explained the Torah by writing it, in seventy languages, on stones, just as the Jewish people did subsequently in Har Eval. Rashi’s deviation from this view, by saying that Moshe translated the Torah verbally rather than in writing (as per the Midrash, Berieshit Rabbah 49:2), suggests that his audience was the people who were listening to him, rather than outsiders who would come to read the stones.

But for those who may wonder if the notion of Moshe translating the entire Torah into seventy languages can be understood literally, the Ktav VeKabalah (19th century Germany) expresses the same doubt. He states that there would have been no need to translate the Torah, since it was intended for the Jews, who understood its original language. But for the Ktav VeKabalah, the word לשון in the Midrash quoted by Rashi does not mean “language” but rather “intention” or “precise meaning” of a word. Thus באר teaches us that Moshe explained the Torah with all its deeper meanings, echoing the Rabbinic idea that there are “שבעים פנים לתורה” - “seventy interpretations of Torah” (with the number seventy not to be taken literally, but indicating a multitude).

The Emek Dvar (19th century Lithuania) also concludes that “seventy languages” is not the p’shat (simple meaning of the text) because the Jewish people themselves would have no need for translation. Rather, “seventy languages” is a metaphorical expression for the “many words” that Moshe used.

The Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael, chapter 43) comments on a statement in the Gemara (Megilla 31b) that “Hashem said the curses in Vayikra (chapter 26) but Moshe said the curses in Devarim (chapter 28)”. As the Maharal says, this observation cannot be understood at face value, as it is impossible to say that Moshe added even a single word to the Torah without it coming from Hashem. But nevertheless there is a difference between Devarim and the first four Chumashim. 

Any item which is passed from one authority to another, will have elements relevant to the giver, and other elements relevant to the recipient. The Torah, given by Hashem to the Jewish people, follows this pattern. Bereishit to Bemidbar is “from the aspect of Hashem” but Devarim is the section of the Torah “from the aspect of the people”. Developing this idea, the Maharal explains that for the first four Chumashim, Moshe’s role was to be no more than a “mouthpiece” for Hashem, articulating his very words. But in Devarim, he served more as a prophet, putting the mitzvot into words that the people could more easily understand and act upon. 

Moshe Rabbeinu, the teacher par excellence, spent his final days teaching his students. Even though much of his great speech that constitutes most of this Chumash often repeats mitzvot that have appeared before, he could not leave his people without the fullest possible understanding, and the ability to fully grasp the Torah and its meaning for themselves.  This is his “explanation” of the Torah. 

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