Authorship of the Torah: The Position of Ibn Ezra and Yehuda HaChasid
Dear Rabbi, Shalom.
I am a yeshiva student who recently bumped into a very complicated issue in learning relevant to my faith and I wish to ask you for some guidance on how to think about this.
With regard to the verse (Gen. 12:6) “and the Canaanites were then in the land,” the Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) writes: “It would seem that the Canaanites took the land of Canaan from a different group, but if this is not correct, then there is a secret here, and the wise will remain silent.” He writes the same thing regarding other verses as well.
Towards the beginning of his commentary on Deuteronomy, Ibn Ezra expands on the meaning of this secret: “If you understand the secret of the twelve—as well as ‘and Moses wrote’ (Deut. 31:22), ‘and the Canaanites were then in the land’ (Gen. 12:6), ‘on the mountain God will appear’ (Gen. 22:14), ‘here is his iron bed’ (Deut. 3:11) – you will recognize the truth.”
It should be noted that Radak (1160-1235), Hizkuni (13th cent.), and R. Judah the Pious (1140-1217) all interpreted other verses exactly the same way as Ibn Ezra. R. Judah the Pious and (his father) R. Samuel the Pious (12th cent.) even wrote that some of the verses were written by the Men of the Great Assembly, or even that some of the psalms were originally in the Torah and were removed by King David and placed in the book of Psalms!
The Tzafenat Pa’aneach—a commentary on Ibn Ezra by R. Joseph ben Eliezer Bonfils (14th cent.)—explains the Ibn Ezra’s secret: “…the meaning is this: How could [the Torah] use the word “then” in this context, which implies that [the Canaanites were there] then but that they are not there now. But didn’t Moses write the Torah and in his time the Canaanites ruled the land? It makes no sense for Moses to write “then.” Reason dictates that the word “then” could only have been written at a time when the Canaanites were not occupying the land, and we know that the Canaanites were not removed from the land until after Moses’ death during the conquest of Joshua. According to this, Moses did not write this word here, rather Joshua or one of the later prophets wrote it…”
I wanted to ask you, esteemed rabbi, is this a legitimate approach? How does this fit with the famous opinion of Rambam and with the well-known [belief] of the entire people [that Moses wrote every word]? In principle, can the position stated in the Talmud that the last eight verses of the Torah were written by Joshua be extended to other passages not listed explicitly in the Talmud? May one, just on the basis of grammatical analysis of a biblical passage, argue that it must have been written at a different time (like the phrase “then in the land”)?
Thank you very much,
Shalom and Greetings,
The question that you ask is certainly a complicated one insofar as faith is concerned. There are many clues in the Torah which seem to imply that some of the verses in the Torah were written after Moses—there are other verses that you did not even mention.
The consensus position among Jewish sages has been that these verses were written by our master Moses through prophecy. See the view expressed by Ibn Ezra himself on the verse (Gen. 36:31): “And these are the kings who ruled in Edom before a king ruled among the Children of Israel,” [a verse] which seems to demonstrate clearly regarding itself that it must have been written after the Book of Samuel! [Even so, Ibn Ezra insists that this passage was written by Moses.]
However, there have been a few great Jewish sages who have argued that which you quoted above. It is clear that the basis for this is the position of some of the Amoraim in the Talmud with regard to the last eight verses of the Torah, i.e., that they were not written by our master, Moses.
What a Torah scholar must do is emphasize the essential point: That which makes the Torah “Torah” is not dependent upon the question of who wrote it. What makes the Torah “Torah” is the assertion that the Master of the universe uttered it word for word, ‘in a vision and not with riddles’ (Num. 12:8), and that the Torah is the word of the Living God.
Therefore, even if one were to say that small parts of it were not written by our master, Moses, this would not itself be heretical. This claim only becomes heresy at the point where one stops relating to the Torah as being totally of divine origin. Therefore, once people believe that the verses of the Torah stem entirely from a divine origin, there is no prohibition to expand that which our sages said about the final verses of the Torah to other verses, since the essential point that remains consistent throughout is that the Torah stems from the word of the “mouth” of God.
In truth, there were Jewish sages who explained clearly that parts of the Torah were written after the time of Moses, and used this claim to answer many questions people had about details in the Torah. This was done mostly by Rabbi Judah the Pious and his students, who used this claim to answer a great many questions. In fact, the Talmudic Sages already began this trend when they wrote that the last eight verses of the Torah were not written by Moses (b. Baba Batra 15a).
In all matters dealing with core principles of faith, there is a need to be precise about what exactly constitutes the core principle of faith and what has been left open for debate and allows for a multiplicity of approaches.
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July 18, 2013
October 28, 2023
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Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Orot Shaul in Tel Aviv. A graduate of Yeshivat Har Etzion, Rabbi Cherlow was one of the founders of Tzohar, and serves as the chair of their ethics committee. Among his books are אחריך נרוצה, a commentary on the Song of Songs (2003) and יראה ללבב, on prophecy (2007), and In His Image (2014).
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