Vayelech 5780. When was the Torah Written?


When and how was the Torah written? This is a critical question which is worth exploring as we approach the close of our annual reading of Torah. We shall present some traditional approaches:

The final lines of our parsha present Moses writing a scroll and giving it to the Kohanim, the priests:

“When Moses had put down in writing the words of this Teaching [Torah] to the very end, Moses charged the Levites who carried the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord, saying: Take this book of Teaching [Sefer Torah] and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, and let it remain there as a witness” (Deut 31:24-26)

Rabbinic teaching has it that this is the moment at which the Torah – the Five Books of Moses – were committed to writing. Moses’ authoritative scroll was entrusted to the Levites and it was kept in the Holy of Holies as a testament, or a “witness”.

But when and how was this Torah committed to writing? The great Amoraim, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish (3rd Cent, Eretz Yisrael) debated this topic:

"Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Bena’a the Torah was given scroll by scroll, as it is said, “Then I said, ‘See, I will bring a scroll of a book, recounting what befell me’ ” (Psalms 40:8).

Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish said: the Torah was given complete, as it is said “Take this Sefer Torah [and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God]” (Deut. 31:26)." (Talmud Gittin 60a)

Rabbi Yohanan thinks that the Torah was a collection of scrolls, transmitted by God to Moshe throughout the duration of the forty years in the wilderness. Some were written at Sinai, others at other junctures during the forty years, others – Deuteronomy – before Moses’ death. At the end of the forty years, in our parsha, the scrolls are all sewn together to compile the Sefer Torah that we know.

Reish Lakish disagrees. He sees Torah as a single integrated unit; not a composite compilation of scrolls. For him, Moses committed the entire Torah to writing NOW, just before his death, and from the talmudic language here - "the Torah was GIVEN complete" - we would surmise that the text of the Torah was dictated to Moses only now, in the fortieth year of the wilderness. Prior to this, the Torah as we know it had not been recorded in textual form.

This goes against popular thinking. We are traditionally taught that Shavuot is “Zman Matan Torateinu” and that the Torah as we know it was transmitted, revealed, at Sinai. But actually, on the basis of our parsha, no traditional commentator really thinks that the text of the Humash in its entirety was transmitted at Sinai. After all, were the Torah text to have been revealed at Sinai, Moses would almost certainly have avoided sending the spies, he would have had Korach arrested before his revolt, and he would have most certainly left his staff at home when he was asked to speak to the rock!

So what was given at Sinai, and how did the Torah come to be written? Nachmanides, writes the following in his introduction to Bereshit/Genesis:


Moses our teacher wrote this book of Genesis together with the whole Torah from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He.


It is likely that he wrote it [Genesis] on Mount Sinai, for there it was said to him, "Come up to Me unto the mount, and be there; and I will give thee the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the commandment which I have written, to teach them." (Shemot/Ex 24:12)

'The tablets of stone’ include the tablets and the writing that are the Ten Commandments.

‘The commandment’ includes the number of all the commandments, positive and negative.

If so, the expression ‘and the Torah’ includes the stories from the beginning of Genesis which is called Torah - teaching - because it teaches people the ways of faith.


Upon descending from the mount, Moses wrote the Torah from the beginning of Genesis to the end of the account of the Tabernacle [Ex. ch.31]. He wrote the conclusion of the Torah at the end of the fortieth year of wandering in the desert when he said, "Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Eternal your God."


This perspective accords with the opinion of the talmudic sage who says that the Torah was written scroll by scroll, in sections.


However, according to the sage who says that the Torah was given in its entirety, everything was written in the fortieth year when Moses was commanded, "Now write this song for you and teach it unto the children of Israel; put it in their mouths"(Deut 31:19), and, as he was further instructed, "Take this book of the law, and put it in the side of the ark of the covenant of the Eternal your God." (Deut. 31:26)

So, for Ramban, as regards the pedigree of revelation, the Torah is Divine dictation. Each word was transmitted by God to Moses.

Regarding the timing, Nachmanides suggests that the Torah was transmitted at two specific junctures. An initial segment at Sinai; and then the final section before Moses’ death.

At Sinai, Israel received:

1. The Two Tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments,

2. The Oral Law – the basis guidelines of all mitzvot, but without a textual document,

3. The text of the Humash from Bereshit until Ex. Ch.31.

The rest of Humash (the Five Books of Moses) was written in the 40th year. Ramban suggests that the Torah is transmitted and recorded in two installments.

However, he says that if you adopt Reish Lakish’s "complete" approach, the entire Torah would then be committed to writing close to Moses’ death. The implication then is that the written text of the Torah was not communicated at Sinai, but instead at the close of the wilderness years.

Let's discuss:

  • Do we prefer to suggest that the Torah was transmitted “scroll by scroll,” in installments, or that it was transmitted all at once, in a single integrated unit?

  • What are the advantages of each approach?

We might suggest that the “installment” approach indicates that the Torah is more timely, responsive to events in the Israelite Camp, and that revelation is a gradual, incremental, process.

The approach that sees Torah as revealed in one fell swoop, in its entirety, views Torah is a supernal document revealed "complete", instantaneously. This direction implies that every segment of Torah is integrally inter-connected, and that no section may be separated or disconnected from the other.

  • One interesting ramification is that for the opinion that sees Torah as communicated exclusively in the 40th Year of the wilderness, the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. What I mean is that Judaism was observed an practiced during the forty years of the wilderness without a text. Only in the fortieth year was the textual rendition of the Torah transmitted. That is a fascinating theory. What might it imply?

Shabbat Shalom!

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