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Moses’ Commandments: The Secret of R. Nissim of Marseilles





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David Frankel





Moses’ Commandments: The Secret of R. Nissim of Marseilles








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Moses’ Commandments: The Secret of R. Nissim of Marseilles

In the 14th century, R. Nissim of Marseilles suggested that God told Moses only the general command for the Tabernacle and the laws in the Torah, and Moses himself wrote the details and attributed them to God as a way of glorifying God. A close look at many passages in Deuteronomy suggests that this was an early conception of Moses’ role in commanding the mitzvot.


Moses’ Commandments: The Secret of R. Nissim of Marseilles

Moses, Theodor Galle after Jan van der Strae, 1613 (adapted). National Gallery of Art

Part 1: Tabernacle

Rabbi Nissim ben Moshe of Marseilles, a Jewish philosopher from fourteenth-century Provence, wrote Maʿaseh Nissim. Recently published and annotated by Howard Kreisel of Ben Gurion University, this work is a philosophical treatise on theological matters and a commentary on the Torah within the Maimonidean tradition.

R. Nissim was unconventional. Whereas Maimonides was often circumspect and ambiguous in his formulations, R. Nissim was more explicit and radical. He denied God’s personal intrusion into the course of events and provided a naturalistic interpretation of creation and biblical miracles. He also had a particularly novel understanding of God’s role in the writing of the Torah, which he explains as part of his interpretation of the Tabernacle account.

Vayikra Rabbah: Moses Writes God’s Name on the Tabernacle

R. Nissim’s remarks are based on a passage in Leviticus Rabbah to the opening verse of Leviticus, which expounds וַיִּקְרָא אֶל מֹשֶׁה, “And He [God] called to Moses,” with the following analogy:

מה כת’ למעלה מן העיניין, בפרשת משכן, כאשר צוה י”י את משה
It is written above in the section on the Tabernacle: “As the Lord commanded Moses.”
למה הדבר דומה, למלך שהיה מצוה את עבדו ואמ’ לו בנה לי פלטין. על כל דבר ודבר שהיה בונה היה כותב עליו שמו שלמלך… בכתלים… בעמודים… בקורות… לימים נכנס המלך לתוך פלטין, על כל דבר ודבר שהיה מביט היה מוצא את שמו כתוב עליו. אמ’ כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי עבדי ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ, קראו לו שיכנס לפנים.
This is analogous to a king who commanded his servant: “Build me a palace.” On each item the servant built, he would write the name of the king… on the walls… on the pillars… on the ceilings…. When the king finally entered the palace, and everywhere he looked he found his name written, he said, “My servant paid me the highest honor, and I am inside while he is outside?!” [The king] called him to invite him inside.
כך בשעה שאמ’ לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה עשה לי משכן על דבר ודבר שהיה עושה היה כותב עליו כאשר צוה י”י את משה. אמ’ הקדוש ברוך הוא כל הכבוד הזה עשה לי משה ואני מבפנים והוא מבחוץ, קראו לו שיכנס לפנים. לכך נאמ’ ויקרא אל משה.
Similarly, when the Lord said to Moses: Build me a tabernacle — on each item that he built he (Moses) would write: As the Lord had commanded Moses. God said: Moses paid me the highest honor and here I am inside and he is on the outside? Call him to enter before Me inside.” For this reason it is said: And He called to Moses (Leviticus Rabbah 1:7, Margolit ed.).

This midrash explains why God glorified Moses in Leviticus 1:1, calling him from within the Tabernacle, immediately after it was set up. Moses’ merit was not that he constructed the Tabernacle precisely as God prescribed, but that he inscribed the different parts of the Tabernacle with the phrase “as the Lord commanded Moses” as a reminder that every part of it was made for the glory of God alone. Since Moses did this extra, unexpected and unsolicited act of glorifying God, God responds in kind and glorifies Moses by calling him from the Tabernacle immediately after it was erected.

R. Nissim’s Interpretation: Moses Attributed the Details to God

R. Nissim sees the Tabernacle here as an exemplar of mitzvot in general, and finds within the midrash a radical conception (Maʿaseh Nissim, Kreisel ed., 177-178):

העירו בזה ז”ל לסוד גדול <נמשך למה שרמזנו אליו> בזה הפרק. וזה כי הצואה בכלל היתה מהשם יתברך לשכל משה. והשמיע לו הדברים דרך כלל – לכל מוסרי התורה וצוויה ואזהרותיה – לחלק השכלי, ליסד החלק הגופני ולהנהיגו, ושיכוון אל הנאות והמועיל תמיד, וירחיק המזיק לגוף ולנפש. ומשה היה כותב על כל פרט ופרט: “כאשר צוה יי את משה” לכבוד השם, ולהגדיל הדברים בעיני ישראל, למען תהיה יראת השם על פניהם לבלתי יחטאו.
The Sages alluded to a great secret that is related to what we hinted in this chapter – namely,
that the command in general was to the intellect of Moses. God communicated the matters in general – namely, all the commands of the Torah – to the rational faculty in order to govern the corporeal part, directing it always to the salutary, and to abolish what is harmful to the body and to the soul. And Moses would write next to each detail: As the Lord commanded Moses in order to honor God, to increase the significance of these matters in the eyes of the Israelites in order that they fear God and refrain from sin.[1]

R. Nissim suggests that God merely stated “Build Me a tabernacle,” the way a king would commission someone to build a palace, without getting involved in the details. God thus trusted Moses to determine all the details of the Tabernacle, which he in fact did. Moses’ great merit, however, consisted in modestly attributing all these details to God.

The Tabernacle as an Exemplar of Moses’ Role in Torah Legislation

More strikingly, R. Nissim understands the Tabernacle here as representing “all the commands of the Torah.” In other words, God commissioned Moses, in a general sense, to write for Him a Torah for Israel (=build Me a Tabernacle) and it was Moses’ special merit that he presented all the laws of that Torah as if they were individually commanded by God himself rather than written by himself.

R. Nissim explains that Moses did this not only in order to glorify God, but also “to increase the significance of these matters in the eyes of the Israelites in order that they fear God and refrain from sin.” In other words, Moses performed what may be called a “pious fraud.” If the people would have known that the laws of Kashrut or Yom Kippur, for example, were actually devised by Moses’ own divinely grounded rational faculty, they would have been much less scrupulous in their observance, and this would have ultimately resulted in less God-fearing. The Midrash even teaches us, according to R. Nissim, that God was greatly pleased with Moses’ decision to attribute the details of the mitzvot of the Torah to God.[2]

Although this is a novel medieval perspective, in places the book of Deuteronomy imagines exactly the same model.

Part 2: Deuteronomy

Stage 1 – Moses Legislates the Law

In contrast to Exodus-Numbers, several passages in Deuteronomy depict Moses giving the law to Israel absent any indication that this law comes from God. Some verses even explicitly state that Moses legislates the law.

This is the Torah of Moses

דברים ד:מד וְזֹ֖את הַתּוֹרָ֑ה אֲשֶׁר שָׂ֣ם מֹשֶׁ֔ה לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: ד:מה אֵ֚לֶּה הָֽעֵדֹ֔ת וְהַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּצֵאתָ֖ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
Deut 4:44 This is the Teaching that Moses set before the Israelites: 4:45 these are the decrees, laws, and rules that Moses addressed to the people of Israel, after they had left Egypt.

These verses do not call the teaching God’s Torah / law. Today when we cite verse 44 in the synagogue when the Torah is raised after reading from it, we append the words על פי י־הוה ביד משה “by the mouth of YHWH by the hand of Moses” (cf. Numbers 9:23 and elsewhere), even though these words come from a different context. The fact that nothing like “by the mouth of YHWH by the hand of Moses” appears in the actual verse in Deuteronomy is telling.

Moses’ Commandments

דברים יא:יג וְהָיָ֗ה אִם שָׁמֹ֤עַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל מִצְוֹתַ֔י אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת יְ־הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ וּלְעָבְד֔וֹ בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶֽם:
Deut 11:13 If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving YHWH your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul,

This famous passage from the second paragraph of the Shema, located in the midst of Moses’ recapping of events that happened to Israel in the wilderness, refers to Moses enjoining the Israelites to keep his commandments. Moses seems to be the speaking in this verse, since it speaks of loving “YHWH your God” rather than “Me.”[3]

Verse 18, “You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul (וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל־נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם)” indicates that Moses’ words (not God’s words) are to be inscribed on the doorposts (verse 20).

The Laws I (Moses) Have Set Before You

דברים יא:לב וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֵ֥ת כָּל הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם: יב:א אֵ֠לֶּה הַֽחֻקִּ֣ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּשְׁמְר֣וּן לַעֲשׂוֹת֒ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֩ נָתַ֨ן יְ־הֹוָ֜ה אֱלֹהֵ֧י אֲבֹתֶ֛יךָ לְךָ֖ לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ כָּל הַיָּמִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּ֥ם חַיִּ֖ים עַל הָאֲדָמָֽה:
Deut 11:32 Take care to observe all the laws and rules that I have set before you this day. 12:1 These are the laws and rules that you must carefully observe in the land that YHWH, God of your fathers, is giving you to possess, as long as you live on earth.

This passage, very significantly, refers to God as the giver of the land and Moses as the giver of the law, a distinction that hardly seems arbitrary.[4] This distinction between “my laws” and “God’s gift of the land” appears frequently in Deuteronomy.[5]

The Laws which I (Moses) Charge You This Day

דברים כז:א וַיְצַ֤ו מֹשֶׁה֙ וְזִקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶת הָעָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר שָׁמֹר֙ אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם: כז:ב וְהָיָ֗ה בַּיּוֹם֘ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּעַבְר֣וּ אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן֒ אֶל הָאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ וַהֲקֵמֹתָ֤ לְךָ֙ אֲבָנִ֣ים גְּדֹל֔וֹת וְשַׂדְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֖ם בַּשִּֽׂיד: כז:ג וְכָתַבְתָּ֣ עֲלֵיהֶ֗ן אֶֽת כָּל דִּבְרֵ֛י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בְּעָבְרֶ֑ךָ… כז:ד וְהָיָה֘ בְּעָבְרְכֶ֣ם אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן֒ תָּקִ֜ימוּ אֶת הָאֲבָנִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֜י מְצַוֶּ֥ה אֶתְכֶ֛ם הַיּ֖וֹם בְּהַ֣ר עֵיבָ֑ל…כז:ה וּבָנִ֤יתָ שָּׁם֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לַי־הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ…
Deut 27:1 Moses and the elders of Israel charged the people, saying: Observe all the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day. 27:2 As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that YHWH your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster 27:3 and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching… 27:4 upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal… 27:5 There, too, you shall build an altar to YHWH your God…

The command to build an altar, to set up large stones and to write the law on them, is presented throughout this text as Moses’ command; once again, it contrast with the land which is given to Israel by YHWH. Nowhere does this text suggest that Moses is following divine orders., “[A]ll the Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day” (v.1) and the “words of this teaching” (v.3) that were to be written on the stones, were the words of Moses.

This accords perfectly with the fulfillment of Moses command in Joshua:

יהושע ח:ל אָ֣ז יִבְנֶ֤ה יְהוֹשֻׁ֙עַ֙ מִזְבֵּ֔חַ לַֽי־הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּהַ֖ר עֵיבָֽל: ח:לא כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוָּה֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה עֶֽבֶד־יְ־הֹוָ֜ה אֶת בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל כַּכָּתוּב֙ בְּסֵ֙פֶר֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִזְבַּח֙ אֲבָנִ֣ים שְׁלֵמ֔וֹת אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹֽא הֵנִ֥יף עֲלֵיהֶ֖ן בַּרְזֶ֑ל וַיַּעֲל֨וּ עָלָ֤יו עֹלוֹת֙ לַֽי־הֹוָ֔ה וַֽיִּזְבְּח֖וּ שְׁלָמִֽים: ח:לב וַיִּכְתָּב שָׁ֖ם עַל הָאֲבָנִ֑ים אֵ֗ת מִשְׁנֵה֙ תּוֹרַ֣ת מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֔ב לִפְנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽלח:לד וְאַֽחֲרֵי כֵ֗ן קָרָא֙ אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵ֣י הַתּוֹרָ֔ה הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה כְּכָל הַכָּת֖וּב בְּסֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָֽה: ח:לה לֹֽא הָיָ֣ה דָבָ֔ר מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּ֣ה מֹשֶׁ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר לֹֽא קָרָ֜א יְהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ נֶ֣גֶד כָּל קְהַ֤ל יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְהַנָּשִׁ֣ים וְהַטַּ֔ף וְהַגֵּ֖ר הַהֹלֵ֥ךְ בְּקִרְבָּֽם:
Josh 8:30 At that time Joshua built an altar to YHWH, the God of Israel, on Mount Ebal, 8:31 as Moses, the servant of YHWH, had commanded the Israelitesas is written in the Book of the Teaching of Moses—an altar of unhewn stone upon which no iron had been wielded. They offered on it burnt offerings to YHWH, and brought sacrifices of well-being. 8:32 And there, on the stones, he inscribed a copy of the Teaching that Moses had written for the Israelites8:34 After that, he read all the words of the Teaching, the blessing and the curse, just as is written in the Book of the Teaching. 8:35 There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua failed to read in the presence of the entire assembly of Israel…

This text presents the “Teaching/Torah”[6] as Moses’ teaching that includes his laws which he commanded. No mention of God’s involvement appears in this passage.

God Enjoins: Observe the Torah that Moses Commanded

יהושע א:ז רַק֩ חֲזַ֨ק וֶֽאֱמַ֜ץ מְאֹ֗ד לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ כְּכָל הַתּוֹרָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר צִוְּךָ֙ מֹשֶׁ֣ה עַבְדִּ֔י אַל תָּס֥וּר מִמֶּ֖נּוּ יָמִ֣ין וּשְׂמֹ֑אול לְמַ֣עַן תַּשְׂכִּ֔יל בְּכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר תֵּלֵֽךְ: א:ח לֹֽא יָמ֡וּשׁ סֵפֶר֩ הַתּוֹרָ֨ה הַזֶּ֜ה מִפִּ֗יךָ וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה לְמַ֙עַן֙ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּכָל הַכָּת֖וּב בּ֑וֹ כִּי אָ֛ז תַּצְלִ֥יחַ אֶת דְּרָכֶ֖ךָ וְאָ֥ז תַּשְׂכִּֽיל:
Josh 1:7 But you must be very strong and resolute to observe faithfully all the Teaching that My servant Moses enjoined upon you. Do not deviate from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. 1:8 Let not this Book of the Teaching cease from your lips, but recite it day and night, so that you may observe faithfully all that is written in it. Only then will you prosper in your undertakings and only then will you be successful.

God charges Joshua to follow the Teaching that Moses commanded him! He is to carry out all that is written in the book of the law and meditate on it day and night. Nowhere does God imply that the laws of this book are His own commands! Thus, the famous passage of והגית בו יומם ולילה refers to the Torah of Moses; only in the late Psalm 1:2 is it transformed to:

תהלים א:ב כִּ֤י אִ֥ם בְּתוֹרַ֥ת יְ־הֹוָ֗ה חֶ֫פְצ֥וֹ וּֽבְתוֹרָת֥וֹ יֶהְגֶּ֗ה יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה:
Psalm 1:2 rather, the teaching of YHWH is his delight, and he studies that teaching day and night.[7]

Why I (Moses) Command You

In a number of passages in Deuteronomy, Moses refers to himself as the legislator, namely the one who “commands” a law:

  • Charity
דברים טו:יא כִּ֛י לֹא יֶחְדַּ֥ל אֶבְי֖וֹן מִקֶּ֣רֶב הָאָ֑רֶץ עַל כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר פָּ֠תֹחַ תִּפְתַּ֨ח אֶת יָדְךָ֜ לְאָחִ֧יךָ לַעֲנִיֶּ֛ךָ וּלְאֶבְיֹנְךָ֖ בְּאַרְצֶֽךָ:
Deut 15:11 For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.
  • Hebrew Slave
דברים טו:טו וְזָכַרְתָּ֗ כִּ֣י עֶ֤בֶד הָיִ֙יתָ֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֖ יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ עַל־כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה הַיּֽוֹם:
Deut 15:15 Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today.
  • Refuge Cities
דברים יט:ז עַל כֵּ֛ן אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ לֵאמֹ֑ר שָׁלֹ֥שׁ עָרִ֖ים תַּבְדִּ֥יל לָֽךְ:
Deut 19:7 That is why I command you: set aside three cities.
  • Not to pawn a widow’s garments
דברים כד:יח וְזָכַרְתָּ֗ כִּ֣י עֶ֤בֶד הָיִ֙יתָ֙ בְּמִצְרַ֔יִם וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֛ יְ־הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ מִשָּׁ֑ם עַל כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת הַדָּבָ֖ר הַזֶּֽה:
Deut 24:18 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that YHWH your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.
  • Leaving grapes for widows and orphans
דברים כד:כב וְזָ֣כַרְתָּ֔ כִּי עֶ֥בֶד הָיִ֖יתָ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם עַל כֵּ֞ן אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת הַדָּבָ֖ר הַזֶּֽה:
Deut 24:22 Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.

In the laws concerning the Hebrew slave and the widow’s garment, Moses refers to YHWH your God, in the third person, as the one who redeemed Israel—but uses the first person when explaining the origin of the command. This implies that Moses, who commands these laws, is also the authority behind them.

Stage 2 – Distinguishing Between Decalogue and Other Commands

When Deuteronomy explains the rationale behind the Sabbath law of the Decalogue, it puts the following words in Moses’ mouth:

דברים ה:טו וְזָכַרְתָּ֗֞ כִּ֣י עֶ֥֤בֶד הָיִ֣֨יתָ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗֔יִם וַיֹּצִ֨אֲךָ֬֜ יְ־הֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֤֨יךָ֙ מִשָּׁ֔ם֙ בְּיָ֥֤ד חֲזָקָ֖ה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֑ה עַל כֵּ֗ן צִוְּךָ֙ יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לַעֲשׂ֖וֹת אֶת י֥וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת:
Deut 5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and YHWH your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore YHWH your God has commanded you to observe the sabbath day.[8]

This implies that at least one layer of Deuteronomy thought that different laws have different origins: the Decalogue, representing the fundamentals of the covenant, were given by God, while the other laws related to the covenant, were given by Moses.

This idea was introduced when later scribes had a sense that the book of Deuteronomy could not stand on its own, and that it must be supplemented with the Decalogue, which D didn’t originally have.[9] Thus, the Decalogue and many other passages that assume it, were added into Deuteronomy at this stage. This addition allowed Moses’ Teaching/Torah to be based on God’s mandate to Moses to give “additional” laws, i.e., to expand on the Decalogue.

Deuteronomy 4 partakes in this same idea, which is analogous to the conception of R. Nissim discussed above.

The Horeb Covenant: A Decalogue by Design (Deut 4)

Deuteronomy 4:9-14 divides between what God legislated and between what Moses legislated, but it explains the reason for the Mosaic legislation differently:

דברים ד:ט …וְהוֹדַעְתָּ֥ם לְבָנֶ֖יךָ וְלִבְנֵ֥י בָנֶֽיךָ: ד:י י֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָמַ֜דְתָּ לִפְנֵ֨י יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ֘ בְּחֹרֵב֒ בֶּאֱמֹ֨ר יְ־הֹוָ֜ה אֵלַ֗י הַקְהֶל־לִי֙ אֶת הָעָ֔ם וְאַשְׁמִעֵ֖ם אֶת דְּבָרָ֑י… ד:יא וַתִּקְרְב֥וּן וַתַּֽעַמְד֖וּן תַּ֣חַת הָהָ֑ר… ד:יב וַיְדַבֵּ֧ר יְ־הֹוָ֛ה אֲלֵיכֶ֖ם מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָאֵ֑שׁ ק֤וֹל דְּבָרִים֙ אַתֶּ֣ם שֹׁמְעִ֔ים… ד:יג וַיַּגֵּ֨ד לָכֶ֜ם אֶת בְּרִית֗וֹ אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִ֑ים וַֽיִּכְתְּבֵ֔ם עַל שְׁנֵ֖י לֻח֥וֹת אֲבָנִֽים: ד:יד וְאֹתִ֞י צִוָּ֤ה יְ־הֹוָה֙ בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֔וא לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֔ם חֻקִּ֖ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֑יםלַעֲשֹׂתְכֶ֣ם אֹתָ֔ם בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:
Deut 4:9 …And make them known to your children and to your children’s children: 4:10 The day you stood before YHWH your God at Horeb, when YHWH said to Me, “Gather the people to Me that I may let them hear My words… 4:11 You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain…. 4:12 YHWH spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words… 4:13 He declared to you the covenant that He commanded you to observe, the Ten Commandments; and He inscribed them on two tablets of stone. 4:14 At the same time YHWH commanded me to impart to you laws and rules for you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.

The Decalogue here constitutes God’s covenant that the people needed to hear directly. Verse 14, “At the same time YHWH commanded me to impart to you laws and rules for you to observe…” then means that God commanded Moses to supplement the Decalogue with statutes and ordinances of his own— Moses did not simply decide on his own initiative to command the Israelites his commandments. God told Moses to do this! This is precisely the conception of the Mitzvot suggested by R. Nissim!

God commands Moses to Teach Statutes and Ordinances

This limited revision of the Deuteronomic conception, that God gave the Decalogue and Moses came up with the rest of the laws, also appears to be reflected in the verses 5—8 of the same chapter:

דברים ד:ה רְאֵ֣ה׀ לִמַּ֣דְתִּי אֶתְכֶ֗ם חֻקִּים֙ וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֔ים כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוַּ֖נִי יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֑י לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת כֵּ֔ן בְּקֶ֣רֶב הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם בָּאִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ: ד:ו וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֘ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם֒ כִּ֣י הִ֤וא חָכְמַתְכֶם֙ וּבִ֣ינַתְכֶ֔ם לְעֵינֵ֖י הָעַמִּ֑ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִשְׁמְע֗וּן אֵ֚ת כָּל הַחֻקִּ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה וְאָמְר֗וּ רַ֚ק עַם חָכָ֣ם וְנָב֔וֹן הַגּ֥וֹי הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה: ד:ז כִּ֚י מִי ג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר ל֥וֹ אֱלֹהִ֖ים קְרֹבִ֣ים אֵלָ֑יו כַּי־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ בְּכָל קָרְאֵ֖נוּ אֵלָֽיו: ד:ח וּמִי֙ גּ֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל אֲשֶׁר ל֛וֹ חֻקִּ֥ים וּמִשְׁפָּטִ֖ים צַדִּיקִ֑ם כְּכֹל֙ הַתּוֹרָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לִפְנֵיכֶ֖ם הַיּֽוֹם:
Deut 4:5 See, I have imparted to you laws and rules, as YHWH my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 4:6 Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, “Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.” 4:7 For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is YHWH our God whenever we call upon Him? 4:8 Or what great nation has laws and rules as perfect as all this Teaching that I set before you this day?

Verse 5 indicates that God commanded Moses to teach the people statutes and ordinances for them to follow in the land; it does not state that God gave Moses these statutes. The text argues that obedience to these righteous statutes would impress the nations of the world with Israel’s greatness as a wise and understanding nation, but says nothing about the wisdom of Israel’s deity.

In short, according to this stage, God delivered the Decalogue only to the people, and the rest of the laws were Moses’ idea, though the fact that there should be more laws may indeed have been God’s.

Stage 3 – Moses Learns All the
Commandments on Horeb (Deut 5)

Conflicting Conceptions of God’s Part in Giving the Law

Several passages within the book of Deuteronomy imply another conception of the giving of its laws, not just the Decalogue, as may be seen by comparing Deut 6:17 with 12:28.

דברים ו:יז שָׁמ֣וֹר תִּשְׁמְר֔וּן אֶת מִצְוֹ֖ת יְ־הֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם וְעֵדֹתָ֥יו וְחֻקָּ֖יו אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּֽךְ:
Deut 6:17 Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that YHWH your God has enjoined upon you.
דברים יב:כח שְׁמֹ֣ר וְשָׁמַעְתָּ֗ אֵ֚ת כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אָנֹכִ֖י מְצַוֶּ֑ךָּ לְמַעַן֩ יִיטַ֨ב לְךָ֜ וּלְבָנֶ֤יךָ אַחֲרֶ֙יךָ֙ עַד עוֹלָ֔ם כִּ֤י תַעֲשֶׂה֙ הַטּ֣וֹב וְהַיָּשָׁ֔ר בְּעֵינֵ֖י יְ־הֹוָה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
Deut 12:28 Be sure to heed all these commandments that I (=Moses) enjoin upon you; thus it will go well with you and with your descendants after you forever, for you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of YHWH your God.

The formulations are similar, yet where Deuteronomy 12:28 speaks of the things that Moses enjoins, without intimating that Moses enjoins God’s laws, Deuteronomy 6:17 speaks of God’s laws that God enjoins. The similarities between Deut 6:17 and 12:28 (both beginning with a doubled verb phrase starting with שמר) imply that one is likely a theological reworking of the other. Most probably, a later editor, uncomfortable with the implication that Moses legislated the laws, recasts the giving of the laws as coming directly from God.

An in-between phrasing of this idea appears in Deut 4:40:

דברים ד:מ וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֞ אֶת חֻקָּ֣יו וְאֶת מִצְוֹתָ֗יו אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֤י מְצַוְּךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֲשֶׁר֙ יִיטַ֣ב לְךָ֔ וּלְבָנֶ֖יךָ אַחֲרֶ֑יךָ…
Deut 4:40 Observe His laws and commandments, which I enjoin upon you this day, that it may go well with you and your children after you…

This passage also echoes Deuteronomy 12:28 with the words, “that it may go well with you, and your children after you.” It adds, however, that Moses commands the commandments of God, most likely implying that what Moses taught he learned from God on Mount Horeb. Many passages in Deuteronomy make this claim.[10] Yet, as we saw above, other verses in Deuteronomy suggest otherwise and they should not be normalized to agree with the conception found in 4:40 and elsewhere.

God as Lawgiver: Moses as Mouthpiece

The main impression left by the book of Deuteronomy as a whole is that of Deuteronomy 4:40, that the commandments of God originated at Horeb (Deuteronomy’s name for Sinai) in a revelation to Moses, and were taught to Israel by Moses. In fact, according to conclusion of Deuteronomy 5, God had originally planned to relate all of the commandments of the Torah to the people at Horeb. However, after hearing the first commandments, the people panicked and asked Moses to receive the remaining commandments from God on their behalf. Thus, we read (5:20-28 [23-31 in some Bibles]):

דברים ה:כ … וַתִּקְרְב֣וּן אֵלַ֔י כָּל רָאשֵׁ֥י שִׁבְטֵיכֶ֖ם וְזִקְנֵיכֶֽם׃ ה:כא וַתֹּאמְר֗וּ הֵ֣ן הֶרְאָ֜נוּ יְ־הוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֵ֙ינוּ֙ אֶת כְּבֹד֣וֹ וְאֶת גָּדְל֔וֹ וְאֶת קֹל֥וֹ שָׁמַ֖עְנוּ מִתּ֣וֹךְ הָאֵ֑שׁ הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ רָאִ֔ינוּ כִּֽי יְדַבֵּ֧ר אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת הָֽאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃ ה:כב וְעַתָּה֙ לָ֣מָּה נָמ֔וּת כִּ֣י תֹֽאכְלֵ֔נוּ הָאֵ֥שׁ הַגְּדֹלָ֖ה הַזֹּ֑את אִם יֹסְפִ֣ים׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ לִ֠שְׁמֹעַ אֶת־ק֙וֹל יְ־הוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ ע֖וֹד וָמָֽתְנוּ׃ ה:כג כִּ֣י מִ֣י כָל בָּשָׂ֡ר אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׁמַ֣ע קוֹל֩ אֱלֹהִ֙ים חַיִּ֜ים מְדַבֵּ֧ר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵ֛שׁ כָּמֹ֖נוּ וַיֶּֽחִי׃ ה:כד קְרַ֤ב אַתָּה֙ וּֽשֲׁמָ֔ע אֵ֛ת כָּל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֹאמַ֖ר יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵ֑ינוּ וְאַ֣תְּ׀ תְּדַבֵּ֣ר אֵלֵ֗ינוּ אֵת֩ כָּל אֲשֶׁ֙ר יְדַבֵּ֜ר יְ־הוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵ֛ינוּ אֵלֶ֖יךָ וְשָׁמַ֥עְנוּ וְעָשִֽׂינוּ׃ ה:כה וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְ־הוָה֙ אֶת ק֣וֹל דִּבְרֵיכֶ֔ם בְּדַבֶּרְכֶ֖ם אֵלָ֑י וַיֹּ֙אמֶר יְהוָ֜ה אֵלַ֗י שָׁ֠מַעְתִּי אֶת ק֙וֹל דִּבְרֵ֜י הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבְּר֣וּ אֵלֶ֔יךָ הֵיטִ֖יבוּ כָּל אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבֵּֽרוּה:כז לֵ֖ךְ אֱמֹ֣ר לָהֶ֑ם שׁ֥וּבוּ לָכֶ֖ם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶֽם׃ ה:כח וְאַתָּ֗ה פֹּה֮ עֲמֹ֣ד עִמָּדִי֒ וַאֲדַבְּרָ֣ה אֵלֶ֗יךָ אֵ֧ת כָּל הַמִּצְוָ֛ה וְהַחֻקִּ֥ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תְּלַמְּדֵ֑ם וְעָשׂ֣וּ בָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י נֹתֵ֥ן לָהֶ֖ם לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃
Deut 5:20 …you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, 5:21 and said, “YHWH our God has just shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire; we have seen this day that man may live though God has spoken to him. 5:22 Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of YHWH our God any longer, we shall die. 5:23 For what mortal ever heard the voice of the living God speak out of the fire, as we did, and lived? 5:24 You go closer and hear all that YHWH our God says, and then you tell us everything that YHWH our God tells you, and we will willingly do it.” 5:25 YHWH heard the plea that you made to me, and YHWH said to me, “I have heard the plea that this people made to you; they did well to speak thus5:27 Go, say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ 5:28 But you remain here with Me, and I will give you the whole Instruction—the laws and the rules—that you shall impart to them, for them to observe in the land that I am giving them to possess.

These verses state that God agreed to Israel’s request not to receive any more of God’s laws from God himself. This third stage of Deuteronomy’s development required presenting the Decalogue in a forced and unnatural way, as an accident, since the editors sought to present everything as from God, but were working with a Deuteronomy text that already contained a distinction between the revelation of the Decalogue and the legislation of the rest of the Deuteronomic legal corpus.

The book of Deuteronomy thus presents Moses as teaching Israel at the Plains of Moab those laws that they had declined to receive from God at Horeb forty years earlier.[11] This is the import of Deuteronomy 6:1, in which Moses moves from his narrative about what happened at Horeb forty years earlier and the present situation:

דברים ו:א וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה יְ־הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:
Deut 6:1 And this is the Instruction—the laws and the rules—that YHWH your God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy.

This formulation echoes Deuteronomy 5:27 [some editions, v. 31]:

דברים ה:כז וַאֲדַבְּרָ֣ה אֵלֶ֗יךָ אֵ֧ת כָּל הַמִּצְוָ֛ה וְהַחֻקִּ֥ים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תְּלַמְּדֵ֑ם.
Deut 5:27 will give you (=Moses) the whole Instruction—the laws and the rules—that you shall impart to them.

Together these texts suggest that according to this part of Deuteronomy, the laws given by Moses to the people at the Plains of Moab were given to him by God at Horeb.

R. Nissim, Deuteronomy, and Hammurabi

The conception of the law expressed by R. Nissim and reflected in most of Deuteronomy 4 is also reflected in the code of Hammurabi. I cite the words of Prof. Victor A. Hurowitz, z”l:[12]

The laws [of Hammurapi’s Code] were not divinely authored, but since Hammurapi presents them as the means by which he carried out his divine commission to establish justice, they may be considered divinely sanctioned, and since Hammurapi portrays himself as being granted by the gods the ability to do justice, the laws which he attributes to himself are ipso facto divinely inspired.[13]

This sounds much like the conception of R. Nissim and Deuteronomy 4.


March 8, 2016


Last Updated

June 26, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).