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  • James Kennard

Ki Tavo: Written in Stone

The parasha of Ki Tavo includes a detailed description of the first act that the Jewish people are to perform upon entering the land of Israel. As we read (Devarim 27:2-3,8):


(ב) וְהָיָה בַּיּוֹם אֲשֶׁר תַּעַבְרוּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וַהֲקֵמֹתָ לְךָ אֲבָנִים גְּדֹלוֹת וְשַׂדְתָּ אֹתָם בַּשִּׂיד. (ג) וְכָתַבְתָּ עֲלֵיהֶן אֶת כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת . . .   (ח) וְכָתַבְתָּ עַל הָאֲבָנִים אֶת כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב.


(2) It shall be on the day when

you shall pass over the Jordan to the land which Hashem your God gives you, that you shall set yourself up great stones, and plaster them with plaster: (3) and you shall write on them all the words of this law . . . (8) You shall write on the stones all the words of this law very clearly.


The commentators differ regarding what precisely was written on these stones, and what purpose were they to serve. 


An obvious practical question arises. If “כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת” means all the words of the Torah, from Bereishit to Devarim, then could they have actually fitted on stones? The Ramban (13th century Israel) resolves this question simply, by saying that the stones must have been very large, or the words of the Torah fitted on them in a miraculous way. 


But there are authentic opinions that it was not “the whole Torah” engraved on the stones. The Ibn Ezra (12th century Spain) quotes approvingly Rav Saadiah Gaon (10th century Iraq) as saying that it was just “a number of mitzvot” (27:1).


The Ktav VeKabalah (19th century Germany) offers another solution to the practical problem. Just as we are commanded to write “on the doorposts of your houses”, the mitzvah of mezuza is fulfilled by writing the first two paragraphs of the Shema on parchment, which is then affixed to the doorpost, rather than by writing on the doorpost itself. Similarly in our case, “writing on the stones” could be achieved by writing the entire Torah on parchment which is then attached to the stones. 


But the interpretation of Rashi (11th century France), based on the Gemara (Sotah 35b) expands (and does not address) the logistical question of how engraving the entire Torah on stone could be accomplished. He explains “בַּאֵר הֵיטֵב” (verse 8) as more than just “very clearly” but meaning that the Torah was written in each language of the 70 nations of the world. 


The Mizrachi (16th century Turkey) suggests that Rashi is informed by the Gematria of היטב, which, when considering each letter accumulatively (i.e. the total of ה, הי, היט, היטב) is seventy. (See Rashi on Devarim 1:5).


But why should the Torah be written in the language of other nations? Since most of the mitzvot in the Torah only apply to the Jewish people, what need is there for multiple translations?


Rashi himself, in his commentary on the Talmudic source for his interpretation, says: “so that anyone who wants can come and learn it, so that there should be no excuse for the nations to say ‘we had no way to learn (Torah)’”. 


Whereas Rashi sees the idea of the 70 translations as castigation of the nations that had the opportunity to learn and refused it, Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (19th century Germany) claims that these translations of the Torah demonstrate its universalism. The translations serve not as admonition, but invitation.


"Thus, באר היטב then means that the words of the Torah are to be expounded, so that they may be understood. From this our Sages derive that this copy of the Torah included a translation, so that all the other nations would be able to understand it also. Far from the particularism ascribed to it by outsiders, Israel was to understand from the very outset that its mission was to help bring about the spiritual and moral salvation of all mankind. With the Torah’s entry into the Land of Israel, the future salvation of all the peoples had begun. Moreover, our Sages say (Sotah 35b) that this translation included also the reason for the expulsion of Canaanite nations: לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְלַמְּדוּ אֶתְכֶם לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּכֹל תּוֹעֲבֹתָם אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם וַחֲטָאתֶם לַה׳ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. - that they not teach you to do after all their abominations, which they have done to their gods; so would you sin against Hashem your God. - (above, 20:18).


"This reason was brought to the attention of these nations, and it was repeated and explained in this copy of the Torah, so that all the nations of Canaan would know and understand that they would be expelled only if they would persist in their polytheistic views and ways of life, but if they would return to the universal human laws, nothing would impede them from remaining in the Land."


If Rav Hirsch’s universal dream were to have been fulfilled, there is an interesting comparison with the moment when the seventy languages were created - when mankind endeavoured to fight with Hashem by building the Tower of Babel. The same seventy languages now serve as an opportunity to return to following Hashem. And, maybe one day those languages will bring about the realisation of the prophetic vision of:



כִּי אָז אֶהְפֹּךְ אֶל עַמִּים שָׂפָה בְרוּרָה לִקְרֹא כֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יְהֹוָה לְעׇבְדוֹ שְׁכֶם אֶחָד.

For then will I turn to the peoples A pure language, That they may all call upon the name of the Lord, To serve Him with one consent. (Zephaniah 3:9)


The Ktav VeKabalah brings an idea in the name of his son, which would address both issues discussed above. He suggests that the word  כל in כׇּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה can mean כלל - “including”-  rather than “all”. Therefore a section of the Torah, that includes all of its key ideas, is to be inscribed on the stones. That section would be the Shema, which expresses the unity of Hashem and our obligation to love and fear Him. This would explain why it is written on the stones for other nations to see - because monotheism is their obligation as well as ours. 


The Abarbanel (15th century Portugal) has a different perspective on the message of this requirement to engrave the Torah on the stones. He says that it is common for nations to erect monuments to their military victories, at the site of their conquests. The Jewish people are no different, and they will undoubtedly want to mark their crossing of the Jordan and the entry into Israel in a similar way. But whereas other conquering armies leve monuments to their prowess and might, Hashem wants the Jews to take a different path. Their stones will not tell tales of heroism and victory to future generations, but of their fidelity to mitzvot and of the glory of Hashem. In this way the stones proclaim that the Jews have not become the masters of their new land; mastery belongs, and will always belong, to Hashem alone. 



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