The Dictation Model of Torah Revelation
“Dictation” According to Maimonides
The idea that the Torah was dictated to Moses in a single kind of revelation and, therefore, that every word and every verse of the Torah is equal to all others in importance, has become one of the foundational principles of contemporary religious education. Education according to this doctrinarian stance leads needlessly to a difficult struggle with biblical criticism.
When did this become a central view, and what are its roots in Rabbinic literature and the writings of the Rishonim? In this article, I will argue that the source of this position as a fully-formed idea is not in the words of Rabbis but in the words of Maimonides. Only in later generations did these words become one of the fundamental principles of Judaism, possibly in response to new movements and ideas. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch expresses the Maimonidean view in connection with the communal recitation of the Decalogue:
Therefore the practice of reciting the Decalogue was not accepted in communal prayer, “because of the contentions of the sectarians” (Berakhot 12a), lest people think that the Decalogue is the entire Torah or that it is greater in sanctity or divine status.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote in response to the publication of Rabbi Judah he-Hasid’s commentary on the Torah, which states that there are verses in the Torah that Moses did not write:
Sanhedrin 99a says: “Another [baraita] taught: ‘Because he despised the word of the Lord’(Numbers 15:31)—This refers to one who says that the Torah is not from heaven. And even one who says ‘the whole Torah is from heaven except this verse, which was not said by the Holy One blessed be He but by Moses himself’ is included in ‘because he despised the word of the Lord.’” Maimonides’ commentary explains, in the eighth principle of faith, that Moses wrote only what was spoken to him by God and that he was therefore called “the inscriber.” And there is no difference between ‘And the sons of Ham were Kush and Mizraim’(Genesis 10:6), ‘and the name of his wife was Mehetabel’ (Genesis 36:39), ‘Timna was the concubine of…’(Genesis 36:12), and ‘I am the Lord your God’(Deuteronomy 5:6) or ‘Hear O Israel’(Deuteronomy 6:4), for all were spoken by God.
Rabbi Menashe Klein, author of the Mishne Halachot, even had reservations about writing the commandments on the wall of the synagogue out of concern for Maimonides’ position “not to change anything in the Torah.” This formulation perfectly fits the mainstream educational position today that there are no distinctions between one verse and another or between one passage or another in the Torah, either in their mode of revelation or in their content.
The source of the view that the various words and verses in the Torah are of uniform importance, which has become a central principle in contemporary religious education, appears for the first time in the words of Maimonides. His view is elaborated in the eighth of his principles of faith, which are enumerated in his introduction to Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:
The eighth principle is that the Torah is from Heaven. That is, we must believe that the entire Torah in our hands today is the Torah that was given to Moses and that it was entirely spoken by God, which is to say that all of it was transmitted by God by means of the transmission that is metaphorically called “speech,” although no one knows the nature of that transmission except he to whom it was transmitted, peace be upon him, and that he had the status of a scribe: it was spoken to him and he wrote all of it down—its dates, its narratives, and its commandments—and therefore he is called “the inscriber.” And there is no difference between And the sons of Ham were Kush and Mizraim and Put and Canaan (Genesis 10:6), and the name of his wife was Mehetabel daughter of Matred (Genesis 36:39), and I am the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 5:6) or Hear O Israel the Lord is our God the Lord is One (Deuteronomy 6:4). All were spoken by God, and all are the perfect, pure, holy, and true Torah of the Lord. [In the eyes of the Rabbis] Manasseh was a heretic greater than any other heretic only because he thought that the Torah had a kernel and a husk and that the dates and narratives have no value and that Moses said them on his own. . .
The way we tell the story of the formation of cultural or religious stances influences their importance and their content. Often, as a result of this narrative, a parallel system of principles is created (although this is not a necessary outcome, as we will see further on). If, for example, we told the story of the founding fathers of the United States as a story of rebellion against the lawful reigning king of England, our attitude toward the Declaration of Independence and toward American law might change entirely, from an expression of freedom and democracy to a feeble excuse for rebellion. Maimonides’ words here are a salient example of a way in which a story about the formation of principles influences their content.
Following the Rabbis’ statement in tractate Bava Batra that the entire Torah was dictated to Moses, which we will look at later, Maimonides created the principle of the uniformity and equality of all words and verses of the Torah. According to this principle, statements that distinguish between narrative frame and content as well as statements that attribute greater importance to certain parts of the Torah are viewed as heresy. As we will propose, Maimonides’ harshness here is likely a polemic against the sectarians of his time, and his words need not be understood in their plain sense.
The Development of Maimonides’ Principle of “Torah from Heaven”
We must now examine the two assumptions at the basis of Maimonides’ words:
- Is the description of Moses as having “the status of a scribe: it was spoken to him and he wrote all of it down” the only way his role is described in rabbinic literature?
- Was the idea that all the words of the Torah are equal accepted throughout the rabbinic period?
As we have indicated, these two issues are intricately connected, and it is impossible to separate them completely.
One might expect a study of the rabbinic sources to support Maimonides’ view, but in fact, it reveals a more complex picture. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin 10 enumerates a list of people who have no portion in the world to come:
These are the ones who have no portion in the world to come: one who says that the doctrine of resurrection is not from the Torah and [one who says that] the Torah is not from heaven. . .
The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 99a) takes a firm stand on the nature of the revelation of the Torah: the Torah in its entirety was given from heaven; all who say otherwise are included in ‘because he despised the word of the Lord’ (Num. 15:31).
Another [baraita] taught: ‘Because he despised the word of the Lord’—This refers to one who says that the Torah is not from heaven. And even one who says “the whole Torah is from heaven except this verse, which was not said by the Holy One blessed be He but by Moses himself” is included in ‘because he despised the word of the Lord.’And even one who says “the whole Torah is from heaven except this point, this a fortiori (kal va-chomer)argument, or this one analogy (gezerah shavah)” is included in ‘because he despised the word of the Lord.’
The expression “Torah from heaven” at the start of this baraita refers to the theological meaning of the Torah, that is to say, its heavenly validity, in keeping with the simple meaning of the Mishnah. However, the continuation of the baraita hints that the meaning of the expression changed and it came to represent the description of the means of transmission of the Torah. The moderate heresy described in the baraita—the statement that one verse was not said by God, but rather by Moses—is based on the assumption that all the other verses were spoken by God to Moses. If this statement is so objectionable and so grave, one must conclude that the acceptable and proper statement is that the entire Torah, with no exception, was spoken by God to Moses. This stance is also reflected in the debate over the final verses in the book of Deuteronomy that narrate the death of Moses. These verses pose a problem for the description of the dictation of the entire Torah to Moses, and the Talmud suggests the following resolution:
The Talmud has stated earlier in this passage: “Joshua wrote the book that bears his name and eight verses of the Torah.” This statement is in agreement with the authority that says: “Joshua wrote eight verses in the Torah, as has been taught: ‘Moses, the servant of God, died there’(Deuteronomy 34:5)—Is it possible that Moses was alive and wrote ‘Moses … died there’? Rather, Moses wrote to this point, and Joshua wrote from this point onward.” These are the words of Rabbi Judah, or some say Rabbi Nehemiah. Rabbi Simeon said to him: “Is it possible that the Torah was missing one letter? But it says, ‘Take this book of Torah’(Deuteronomy 31:26)! Rather, to this point the Holy one blessed be He spoke and Moses spoke and wrote, and from this point onward Moses wrote in tears” (b. Bava Batra 15a).
Maimonides combines the statements that arise from the two sources that we have seen: the passage in Sanhedrin defines one who denies that the entire Torah is from heaven as one who despises the word of God, but it does not state explicitly what “Torah from heaven” means, even though Maimonides’ description of the dictation derives from there. The passage from Bava Batra deals explicitly with the means of the Torah’s transmission, but it does not deal with the fundamental question of “Torah from heaven.” The combination of these statements identifies the view that the entire Torah was dictated to Moses by God with the theological principle of “Torah from heaven,” the rejection of which includes one in the category of ‘because he despised the word of the Lord.’ That is to say, by combining the two sources Maimonides created a new idea: that all parts of the Torah are unified and equal, as stated in his commentary on the Mishnah, cited above.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
May 14, 2014
May 4, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
Essays on Related Topics: