A Precariously Fragile Torah
The End of Moses’ Speech in Deuteronomy
The book of Deuteronomy is presented as Moses’ paraphrastic reprise of the laws and narratives of the past forty years, delivered just prior to his death at the ripe old age of 120, on the edge of the Promised Land. It includes Moses’ plea, full of pathos, to be able to see his epic mission to its completion across the Jordan River, and God’s sharp denial of this petition (3:23-25).
Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses worries and warns the people that without his charismatic prophetic leadership, upon settling in the Land and enjoying its bounty (and mixing with its non-Israelite inhabitants), they will grow complacent, forgetting their history and abandoning the commands to their great covenantal peril. Deuteronomy is Moses’ last chance to inoculate them, rhetorically speaking, against this anticipated outcome.
Moses’ Deuteronomic oration ends in chapter 32:
דברים לב:מה וַיְכַל מֹשֶׁה לְדַבֵּר אֶת כָּל הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל:
Deut 32:45 And when Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel (NJPS),
Moses’ conclusion contains the standard Deuteronomic refrain that the Israelites must observe his teaching (torah) and make sure to pass it on to their children if they want to survive long on the Promised Land.
לב:מוa וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם לְכָל הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם
32:46a he said to them: Take to heart [lit.: set your heart toward] all the words with which I have warned you this day.
לב:מוb אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת:
32:46b Enjoin them upon your children, that they may observe faithfully all the words of this Teaching (Torah).
The Rabbis in Sifre Deuteronomy (§335) note Moses’ two part command about “his words” in v. 46, “take them to heart” and “enjoin them upon your children,” offering a midrashic reading for each phrase.
V. 46a – Take These Words to Heart
ויאמר אליהם שימו לבבכם לכל הדברים אשר אנכי מעיד בכם היום
“He said to them: ‘Set your heart toward all the words with which I have warned you this day’” –
צריך אדם שיהיה עיניו ולבו ואזניו מכוונים לדברי תורה.
A person needs to direct his eyes and his heart and his ears toward words of Torah.
וכן הוא אומר, בן אדם שים לבך וראה בעיניך ובאזניך שמע את כל אשר אני מדבר אתך [לכל־חקות בית־ה’ ולכל־תורתו] ושמת לבך למבוא הבית.
And so it says (Ezek 44:5): “O mortal, set your heart (i.e., mark well), look with your eyes and listen with your ears to all that I tell you [regarding all the laws of the Temple of the Lord and all the instructions concerning it], and set your heart toward the entering into the Temple” (Ezek 44:5).
While the idiom “to set one’s heart (=mind) toward” would seem to denote mental engagement with or concentration on divine or Mosaic instruction, the midrash expands the meaning, based on the parallel use of the same idiom in Ezek 44:5, that Moses is exhorting the people to actively and intensely engage “words of Torah,” not just mentally, but visually and aurally as well, in effect, with the totality of one’s sensing self.
The parallel expressions of Moses’s call to the people to pay close mental and multi-sense attention to his “words of Torah” and God’s call to Ezekiel to pay close attention to the envisioned heavenly Temple do not constitute an analogy between equals:
והרי דברים קל וחומר, ומה בית המקדש שנראה בעינים ונמדד ביד צריך אדם שיהו עיניו ולבו ואזניו מכוונים, דברי תורה שהם כהררים התלויים בשערה על אחת כמה וכמה.
We may argue a fortiori ad minore (qal vaḥomer): If in the case of the Temple, which could be seen with the eyes and measured with the hand, a person needed to direct his eyes and his heart and his ears [toward it], then how much more should this be with words of Torah, which are like mountains suspended by a hair.
With this qal vaḥomer argument, the midrash says that if such multi-sense engagement is divinely demanded with respect to the seemingly solid, stable, and tangible Temple, how much more should it be required of the precariously fragile, unstable, and intangible “words of Torah.”
“Words of Torah” vs. “The Words of Torah”
In Deuteronomy, the expression “words of the torah,” which appears in the latter half of this verse, always refers to (some form of) Deuteronomy itself, but for the rabbis, it meant the entire Pentateuch as well as rabbinic teachings, which the rabbis called “Oral Torah” (תורה שבעל פה).
Moreover, the expression the rabbis use here, “words of torah” (דברי תורה), without the definite article “the,” is not used in this verse. The Deuteronomic expression “the words of torah” (דברי התורה) appears nine times in Deuteronomy, always with the definite article “the” and always modified by the demonstrative pronoun “this” (הזאת)and only five more times in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, always with the definite article “the.”
The more inclusive (rabbinic) expression “words of Torah” (without the definite article or demonstrative pronoun) never appears scripturally or, for that matter, in any pre-rabbinic Jewish text (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). By contrast, the expression appears thirteen times in the Mishnah, fifteen in the Tosefta, and 190 times in the tannaitic midrashim, in the latter predominantly (145/190) in commenting on the book of Deuteronomy. Thus, the Rabbis have adapted Deuteronomy’s message of hearkening to “the torah” (Deuteronomy) to hearkening to torah as defined by the Rabbis.
Mountains Suspended by a Hair
Why do the Rabbis analogize words of Torah to mountains suspended by a hair? The phrase appears in only one other tannaitic (earliest rabbinic) textual context, m. Ḥagigah 1:8 and its related t. Ḥagigah 1:9 and t.ʿErubin 8:23. There it metaphorically denotes a class of laws (e.g., Sabbath laws) with “little Scripture and many laws,” meaning that this class of laws has little in Scripture upon which to “lean” (according to the Tosefta).
Sifre Deuteronomy, however, is using of this metaphor to characterize “words of Torah” in their entirety. Thus, it is unlikely that Sifre Deuteronomy is saying here that all “words of Torah,” i.e. rabbinic law, are fragile by reason of having few scriptural hooks upon which to hang or from which to derive its laws. Rather, Sifre Deuteronomy is speaking of the difficulty of committing such a large corpus of laws and cacophonous legal debate to memory and oral recitation. In other words, the fragility of words of torah is the danger of their being lost.
Such a reading highlights the irony of the qal vaḥomer argument: When the midrash was composed, the physical Temple had long been destroyed, while the unstable and vulnerable “words of Torah” had survived, perhaps thanks to the multi-sense attention lavished upon them by their midrashic tradents over the generations.
V. 46b – Gratitude Toward Children who Keep the Torah
The admission of the fragility of words of torah links this midrash on the second half of the biblical verse, which is even more radically honest, and potentially subversive:
אשר תצום את בניכם לשמר –
“Enjoin them upon your children to keep” –
אמר להם, צריך אני להחזיק לכם טובה שתקיימו את התורה אחרי. אף אתם צריכים להחזיק טובה לבניכם שיקיימו את התורה אחריכם.
He [Moses] said to them: “I would be most grateful if you would maintain the Torah after me. Similarly, you should be grateful to your children if they would maintain the Torah after you.”
The midrash is picking up on an aspect of the verse that might go unnoticed. Moses is speaking to the Israelites who are about to cross over the Jordan River. Ostensibly, he should be warning them about how they must be careful to observe the commandments once they have entered the land and Moses is no longer with them to keep them in line. Instead, Moses enjoins his audience to command their children to observe all of the Torah’s commandments.
Picking up on this, the midrash has Moses compare the Israelites’ role as parents to his role as their leader, asking them to mimic his attitude toward them while relating to their children. Thus, Moses is transferring his role as teacher-in-chief not to future national leaders but to the succession of parents and future parents in the private setting of the family or home.
Moreover, the midrash paraphrases Moses’ speech to the people in a strikingly emotional tone. No longer is Moses the authority figure who commands obedience to “all the words of this teaching (torah),” but a suppliant who implores the people not only to maintain the “words of Torah” after his impending death themselves, but to beseech their children to do the same. Impotent, as it were, any longer to command, Moses must employ moral persuasion in the hope that the people will both maintain the words of Torah and transmit them to the next generation, and for it, implicitly at least, to do the same in turn in perpetuity.
R. Judah HaNasi’s Mosaic Speech
As if to signal, from the advantage of hindsight, that Moses and the successive generations of Israelites succeeded in so fulfilling and transmitting the Torah laws, Sifre Deuteronomy suddenly transports us forward in time approximately 1400 years to the study, as it were, of R. Judah HaNasi (the Patriarch), who as purported editor of the Mishnah, the earliest and most consequential digest of rabbinic Torah law, might be (and is) thought of as a latter-day Moses as lawgiver.
מעשה שבא רבינו מלודקיא ונכנס רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה ורבי אלעזר בן יהודה וישבו לפניו. אמר להם, קרבו לכם אני צריך להחזיק לכם טובה שתקיימו את התורה אחרי. אף אתם צריכים שתחזיקו טובה לבניכם שיקיימו את התורה אחריכם.
It once happened that when our Rabbi [Judah HaNasi] came from Laodicea (in Asia Minor), Rabbi Jose the son of Rabbi Judah [bar Ilai] and Rabbi Eleazar the son of Judah entered and sat before him. He said to them: “Come close! I would be grateful to you if you would maintain the Torah after me. Similarly, you should be grateful to your children if they would maintain the Torah after you.”
R. Judah HaNasi, we may infer, is either toward the end of his life or anticipating it (“after me”). He, we are told, has just returned from Laodicea (probably the one on the Lycus), a heavily hellenized Roman provincial city in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), with a substantial Jewish (and Christian) population. From the story, we do not know what R. Judah HaNasi experienced there, but it would seem to have caused him to worry about the present and/or future state of Judaism in a Hellenized environment.
Inviting his two students to come close, thereby indicating perhaps intimacy, but also urgency, he says to them, in the words of the midrash, exactly what Moses said to the people at the end of his life, some fourteen hundred years earlier. In this context, “children” could mean biological offspring or “students,” intellectual offspring, or both. The pathos here is similar to that of Moses in his waning days.
With all the learning and authority that R. Judah HaNasi commands, he cannot command or coerce his students but only implore them to fulfill and transmit what he has imparted to them to their children/students, and so on. R. Judah HaNasi is clearly portrayed here as a latter-day Moses, perhaps also implying a parallel in status between their respective Torahs (Written and Oral).
Contrasting the Speeches of Moses and R. Judah
The absolute identity of the midrashic words of Moses to those of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, and the similarity of their situations, might lead us to overlook a fundamental difference between them. Moses is publicly addressing the whole Israelite people, while Rabbi Judah HaNasi is privately (and intimately) addressing two of his students. Moving from a great leader publicly enjoining the “corporate” Israel to a later great teacher who does so privately to two individuals (and their children/students) is a significant shift, with Moses’ message becoming more individualized (and intimatized) with time. This is equally true of the unspoken reality, namely that the midrash is delivering the message to its audience of readers, free now as autonomous individuals to be moved or not to compliance by the rhetoric of mitzvah as legacy, but also of free choice.
Both Moses (as midrashically reinvented) and Rabbi Judah HaNasi seek not just immediate observance of the commandments, but long-term maintenance of “words of Torah,” now entrusted by the Rabbis to internalizing textual study among small groups of masters and disciples, rather than to mass acceptance of the laws by the people as a whole.
Note as well the subtle role reversal of master and students (or “patron” and “clients” in Roman social terms). While they come, presumably, with the intent of paying their respects to Rabbi Judah HaNasi (note the hierarchical language of “they entered and sat before him”), it is he who is now revealed to be dependent on their “favor.” The honor that they expect to bestow upon him is now reversed, being no longer an expression of his superior status but of his total dependence upon them to carry forward his teaching.
Sifre’s Summary Statement: Torah Is Nothing without Willing Recipients
The full pathos of Moses’ words (and by extension, those of R. Judah HaNasi) is indicated in the concluding sentence of the midrashic commentary:
אילו אין משה גדול הוא ואילולא אחרים קבלו תורתו לא היתה תורתו שוה [כלום]. [אנו] על אחת כמה וכמה. לכך נאמר, אשר תצום את בניכם.
With all of Moses’ greatness, had no one received his Torah, it would not have been worth [a thing]. How much more is this the case [for us]! Therefore it says, “Enjoin them upon your (meaning, our) children to keep.”
Moses’ greatness is contingent upon the reception, fulfillment, and transmission of his words (understood to encompass the totality of rabbinic “words of Torah”) by successive generations, not of prophetic leaders (as in the opening lines of Pirqe ʾAvot), but of teachers and parents able to impress the laws and teachings of his Torah upon their students and children to both observe and transmit. Otherwise, we are told, it is as if Moses’ Torah (and, we might infer, Moses himself) would not have been of any worth or consequence.
The midrash makes one final, gigantic, temporal leap, as it were, this time to the present of the text’s auditors, with another argument of qal vaḥomer(although not fully tagged as such): just as Moses’s worth (with all of his greatness) was entirely contingent on his ability to impress the responsibility of transmission on the minds and hearts of his successors, how much more is that the case “for us” (ʾanu), who, shrink before the greatness of Moses (and by association, before that of R. Judah HaNasi).
Ironically, however, “we,” in effect, are now their equals in bearing the weight of the continuity of the chain of transmission. They are as dependent on “us” to maintain the “words of Torah” as “we” are dependent on them for the “words of Torah”’s canonical authority. The inclusion of “us,” the present day readers, as the latest link in this chain is midrashically effected by the biblical verse’s prescient reference in 46a to “this day,” as if signaling the perpetual present in which every successive day is “this day.”
Putting the Two Midrashic Readings in the Sifre Together
Are the Sifre’s two midrashim on this verse purely standalone readings, put one after the other by a compiler or do the two halves of our midrash constitute a whole, greater than the sum of its parts? This is a common question in interpreting midrashic commentary as a redacted collection of discrete exegetical comments. In this case, it does seem that the parts combine to a greater whole. Both halves are honest yet radical in emphasizing the precariously fragile, unstable nature of “words of torah.”
The first does so by comparing them to “mountains suspended by a hair,” referring to the tenuous task of their retention and transmission through memorization, at any moment liable to being severed from their roots or hairline suspension. The second does so by emphasizing the inter-generational challenge to observing and transmitting “words of Torah” from teacher to student and parent to child, without the ability (already with Moses) of being able to command absolute fidelity.
Not only do the two halves of the midrash share with each other the rhetorical argument of qal vaḥomer, but they both do so with irony, reversing the seemingly obvious designation of “heavy” and “light”: the Temple is no more sturdy than the fragile “words of Torah,” and Moses (and R. Judah HaNasi by association) is no greater than his successors when it comes to obligating the next generation to observe the commandments.
“Our” “words of Torah” are as fragile as were theirs, and “we” are as impotent as were they to command obedience from our children and/or students. In the end, all we can do is implore them to carry forward the charge, based on a rhetoric, no longer of Sinai-based commandment, but of cross-generational fidelity to legacy.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 19, 2017
September 24, 2023
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Steven Fraade is Mark Taper Professor of the History of Judaism at Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. in “Post-Biblical Studies” from the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Oriental Studies. Among his many books are Enosh and His Generation: Pre-Israelite Hero and History in Post-Biblical Interpretation, From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy, and Legal Fictions: Law and Narrative in the Discursive Worlds of Ancient Jewish Sectarians and Sages.
Essays on Related Topics: