The Significance of Ibn Ezra's Position that Verses Were Added to the Torah
The Halachic Significance of Ibn Ezra’s Position
Maimonides’ eighth principle of faith deals with the divine origin of the Torah and its revelation. In it, Maimonides (1135, Spain – 1204, Egypt) makes a sweeping claim that we are required to believe that God gave the entire Torah as we have it now to Moses. He adds that every verse must be considered an equally significant part of revelation; even every letter must be taken as containing divine wisdom.
This faith claim actually has practical halachic significance. Maimonides in Mishneh Torah, “Hilchot Tefillin, Mezuzah ve-Sefer Torah” (7:11), rules concerning Torah scrolls:
…If a person wrote a plene word defective, or a defective word plene, or if he wrote the keri of a word instead of its ketiv… or if he wrote a parasha with an open beginning instead of a closed beginning, or a closed beginning instead of an open one, or if he wrote a poem as if it were prose or prose as if he wrote out an entire parasha as if it were a poem—this renders the Torah scroll invalid. Such a Torah scroll has no holiness at all, and is akin to a chumash from which one teaches children scripture.
This rule codifies in halachic terms Maimonides’ belief about the Torah: every letter of the Torah is sacred and every word integral, such that even writing a plene word defective or presenting the text in a different manner ruins the scroll.
To be fair, Maimonides never states that this rule is because all these things are original to the text. It is certainly possible that this is just part of the way halakha works, that mitzvot come with very specific requirements. Nevertheless, the rule certainly expresses the integrity and perfection of the Torah as we have it, and works particularly well with Maimonides’ eighth principle of faith that God gave the Torah, with the exact wording we have now, to Moses in the wilderness.
Keeping Maimonides’ formulation in mind, the position of Abraham ibn Ezra (an earlier scholar whose position may not have been known to Maimonides) that certain verses, including the last twelve verses of the Torah, were added after the death of Moses, is astounding. This is clearly at odds with Maimonides position. To state the point in halachic terms, assuming ibn Ezra to be correct, if we were to find the actual Torah written by Moses’ hand, it would be pasul (invalid), or to quote Maimonides, “have no holiness at all.”
Mainstreaming Ibn Ezra’s Position
Since ibn Ezra (1089, Spain – 1164, England) himself couches this idea in obscure hints, and the commentaries on ibn Ezra that spell it out—like the Tzafenat Paaneach—were relatively unknown until modern times, the broader Orthodox Jewish world has only really begun to digest this way of thinking. Meanwhile some have accepted his position and even used it as a jumping off point to more extreme ideas.
For example, in his debate with Prof. Israel Knohl, who uses ibn Ezra’s words as a basis for an expansive defense of the religious acceptability of modern academic scholarship, R. Mordechai Breuer stated the following:
I do not know if [ibn Ezra’s] words were to the liking of the rabbis. In any event, they were uttered by Ibn Ezra, and we can therefore not reject their legitimacy.
In other words, Breuer feels forced by the weight of ibn Ezra’s religious authority to concede that his views are legitimate, since if they weren’t, wouldn’t that make ibn Ezra a heretic?
This same approach seems to be the basis of the RCA’s recent nod to ibn Ezra as well. In theirStatement on Torah Min HaShamayim, the RCA qualifies its advocacy for a strict interpretation of Torah Min HaShamayim with the following caveat:
Whatever weight one assigns to a small number of remarks by medieval figures regarding the later addition of a few scattered phrases, there is a chasm between them and the position that large swaths of the Torah were written later.
Like Breuer’s statement, the statement of the RCA seems to imply that they have no choice but to accept ibn Ezra’s position as a possibility, because his religious authority cannot be overruled.
Digesting the Implications of Ibn Ezra’s Position
What does it mean when we accept the ibn Ezra claims that certain verses were added into the Torah? To state the obvious, it means that Moses did not have these verses, and thus the Torah Moses gave to Israel was not the same Torah we have today.
The issue gets more complicated when trying to picture how this could have possibly happened. Working with the traditional framework, let’s imagine the timeline of the Torah as envisioned by ibn Ezra. Shortly after Moses’ death, Joshua takes the Torah Moses wrote and adds the last 12 verses. Assuming only one copy at the time—or thirteen copies according to Deuteronomy Rabba (9:4)—and Joshua as the undisputed disciple of Moses and leader of Israel, it is not too difficult to imagine how that addition was made but when get to the other additions the possibility falls apart.
Let’s take the addition of the verses about Og’s bed, where the speaker notes that Og’s giant bed is in Rabbah of the Ammonites. Certainly this could not have been penned by Moses, since, ostensibly, Og’s bed should have been in Bashan at that point, since this is where Og lived. In fact, this verse would probably have been written after Israel conquered Rabbah under David—thus notes R. Joseph Bonfils in his gloss on ibn Ezra—otherwise how could its author have seen the bed!
This means that a prophet hundreds of years after Moses added the description of Og’s bed into Moses’ speech in the preamble to Deuteronomy. This raises a litany of questions: How many Torah scrolls were there at the time? Did he make the change in only one of them or did he get to all of them? How could he have done so? Additionally, how did he convince everybody that it was legitimate for him to add a sentence into the Torah of Moses? Furthermore, ostensibly the text as it was had been considered perfect and holy for hundreds of years. Suddenly, the old text was no longer perfect and holy and only the new text counted?
Assuming the above to be the case, why is it that we have no record or mesorah of such a thing occurring? Even worse, there is no indication in the text itself that this parenthetical comment wasn’t made by Moses. Was the author of this comment intentionally trying to pass off his own comment as Moses’? If not, how is it that no one until ibn Ezra ever noticed that the comment couldn’t have been made by Moses?
How do we understand the audacity of the author of this addition? Ibn Ezra, as interpreted by Bonfils, assumes he was a prophet. Indeed, this is an important point since otherwise the claim that every line of the Torah is from heaven would be undermined. But wasn’t Moses supposed to have been a unique prophet? Wasn’t he the only prophet to whom God spoke “mouth to mouth” (Num 12:8)? Doesn’t Maimonides say that this is one of the core beliefs of Judaism (Mishneh Torah, “Yesodei HaTorah” 7:6). Maimondes even presents the uniqueness of his prophecy as the seventh principle of faith, denial of which is a form of apostasy (Mishneh Torah, “Teshuva” 3:8).
Furthermore, channeling the verse in Deuteronomy (13:1) that states that it is forbidden to add or subtract from the revelation, Maimonides presents the claim that nothing will ever be added to Moses’ Torah as his ninth principle of faith?
Thus, to uphold his position, ibn Ezra must posit that other prophets could reach the level of prophecy Moses did, and that the Torah was meant to be added to over time. Granted ibn Ezra predates Maimonides and has no need to conform to the later scholar’s views. Nevertheless, many nowadays feel that these principles of faith are core to Judaism and imagine that everyone must have accepted them. The fact that an authority central enough to be placed in the standard Mikraot Gedolot printing of the chumash rejected at least three of these claims is jarring to say the least.
Putting aside some of the more technical questions, let’s examine the content of these additions. What was so pressing that these later prophets needed to add words to the sacred Torah of Moses? To return to our example, the addition tells the readers that Og’s giant bed is in Rabbah of the Ammonites, and that it is 9 by 4 cubits. Other verses like “the Canaanite was then in the land” or “the Horim had formerly inhabited Seir” are similarly inconsequential in content. What message lies in the edits that God chose to inform a prophet to add to the Torah hundreds of years after Sinai?
The Real Implication of Ibn Ezra’s Position
Other than the Talmudic position that the last 8 verses of the Torah were written by Joshua, ibn Ezra had no mesorah that the verses he saw as late were not from Moses. It is unclear whether he even felt that he had found all the post-Mosaic additions. What ibn Ezra had was the gift of critical reading. He noticed that certain statements could not have been made by Moses because, contextually speaking, they were situated in a different period of time. Ibn Ezra’s critical eye was enough, in his mind, to give him license to claim that some of the Torah could not have been written by Moses.
Thus statements like that of the RCA that ibn Ezra’s position is essentially different than that of academic biblical scholarship, since the latter assumes most or all of the Torah does not stem from Moses whereas ibn Ezra believed that the overwhelming majority of verses were written by Moses, fails to recognize the implications to the traditional approach to Torah. Ibn Ezra’s position undermines the rigid model of an original Torah, and shatters the position of Torah as an eternal and perfect document. Without the ibn Ezra, the idea that people—even later prophets—could add to the text would be unthinkable. Ibn Ezra’s understanding of Torah was much more pliable than the traditional models.
From ibn Ezra’s perspective, the question here is not a question of faith but one of fact: could Moses have written the entire Torah? The point we must digest when reading ibn Ezra is that when faced with what his mind told him had to be a late addition into the text, he accepted this as fact and reinterpreted tradition accordingly.
Modern critical tools have taken us much further than ibn Ezra’s first realizations about the composite nature of the text. How he would have answered the questions will probably remain a mystery, but the fact that he took the leap simply because of critical reading and thinking is the real significance behind his position.
The question for us becomes: what do we do when our minds tell us that we are looking at a composite text that was put together over time from multiple sources? Do we say that this can’t be because it contradicts mesorah or do we say that if this is how it was, we must reinterpret our tradition accordingly? The ability to do the latter is the real significance of ibn Ezra’s position.
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August 5, 2014
January 18, 2020
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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