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SBL e-journal

Baruch Alster





Torah Study Is Essential for Ensuring Observance



APA e-journal

Baruch Alster





Torah Study Is Essential for Ensuring Observance






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Torah Study Is Essential for Ensuring Observance

To uphold the covenant, Deuteronomy requires two forms of torah study: Learning the commandments and learning the reasons for keeping them. But what happens if even that fails?


Torah Study Is Essential for Ensuring Observance

A Yeshiva Boy  by Isidor Kaufmann (1853–1921) 

Study and Covenant

According to Deuteronomy, study is considered essential for obeying the commandments that comprise Israel’s covenant with God.[1]  This is reflected in Moses’ main speech in the book (chs. 5-26), which begins:

דברים ה:א …שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי דֹּבֵר בְּאָזְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם וּלְמַדְתֶּם אֹתָם וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם לַעֲשֹׂתָם.
Deut 5:1 …Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day! Study them and observe them faithfully.[2]

Study, Obedience, Blessing

In what is known as the second passage of the Shema (Deut 11:13-21), fulfilling the commandments is presented as a prerequisite for the community receiving divine agricultural blessing. The passage begins by saying that keeping commandments will lead to blessing:

דברים יא:יג וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְו‍ֹתַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּלְעָבְדוֹ בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁכֶם. יא:ידוְנָתַתִּי מְטַר אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ יוֹרֶה וּמַלְקוֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ דְגָנֶךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ….
Deut 11:13 If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the LORD your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, 11:14 I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil…

The passage continues by prescribing study as a means to enable the community to follow the commandments, and thus maintain their hold on the land:[3]

דברים יא:יחוְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה עַל לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל נַפְשְׁכֶם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּם אֹתָם לְאוֹת עַל יֶדְכֶם וְהָיוּ לְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם.יא:יטוְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם לְדַבֵּר בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ.יא:כוּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזוּזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ.יא:כאלְמַעַן יִרְבּוּ יְמֵיכֶם וִימֵי בְנֵיכֶם עַל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְ-הוָה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לָתֵת לָהֶם כִּימֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם עַל הָאָרֶץ.
Deut 11:18 Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead, 11:19 and teach them to your children – reciting them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up; 11:20 and inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates – 11:21 to the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is a heaven over the earth.

As the agricultural blessing must be renewed year after year, the community must study the commandments and fulfill them constantly.

 Memorizing the Commandments: One Form of Study

The passage tells the Israelites to impress דברי אלה (“these My words”) upon their hearts, meaning to study them closely and memorize them. The exact referent of this phrase,  however, is ambiguous. It can refer to the immediate context, namely to internalizing the theological principle of reward and punishment as a motivation to observe the commandments, a warning never to forget the importance of keeping God’s commandments and the consequences of not doing so.[4]

Alternatively, it can refer to the entire legal system as envisioned in Deuteronomy. If so, it would mean constantly studying the laws as set forth in the Deuteronomic law collection. This latter meaning is more likely, and is almost certainly the meaning of the similar phrase in the first paragraph of Shema (Deut 6:4-9).

The Shema

In the Shema passage (6:4-9), the last four verses constitute a direct parallel to 11:18-20:

דברים ו:ד שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְ-הוָה אֶחָד. ו:ה וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ. ו:ווְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל לְבָבֶךָ.ו:ז וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ בְּבֵיתֶךָ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ וּבְקוּמֶךָ. ו:חוּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ. ו:טוּכְתַבְתָּם עַל מְזוּזֹת בֵּיתֶךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ.
Deut 6:4 Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. 6:6 Take to heart these words[5] with which I charge you this day. 6:7 Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. 6:8 Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; 6:9 inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

The word “charge” here (צ-ו-ה) refers to a legal corpus, most likely the Deuteronomic laws.[6] Similar expressions in chs. 5-11 support this understanding. The phrase “with which I charge you” (אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם/מצוך) appears eleven times in the hortatory section of Moses’ main speech: 6.2; 6.6; 7.11; 8.1; 8.11; 10.13; 11.8; 11.13; 11.22; 11.27; 11.28. In virtually all these cases, the phrase implicitly refers to Deuteronomy’s legal collection.

Loving God – Keeping God’s Laws

Thus, the שמע passage prescribes learning the law, in order to “love” God, which means, according to most scholars, to uphold the covenant,[7] whose content consists of the laws. This is evident from the latter part of 11:13 quoted above, in which obeying the commandments is equated with “loving the LORD your God, and serving Him with all your heart and soul.” As it is impossible to fulfill so many commandments without constantly reviewing them, Deuteronomy demands this kind of study.

Teaching Your Sons Why: Another Form of Study

In addition to learning or memorizing the commandments, Deuteronomy also requires parents to teach their children the reason Israelites are to keep these commandments. Thus, later in chapter 6, Deuteronomy writes of a son asking his parent:

דברים ו:כ כִּי יִשְׁאָלְךָ בִנְךָ מָחָר לֵאמֹר מָה הָעֵדֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם.
Deut 6:20 When, in time to come, your son asks[8] you, ‘What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the LORD our God has enjoined upon you?’

To this question, the father responds that the commandments stem from Israel’s historical debt to God:

דברים ו:כא וְאָמַרְתָּ לְבִנְךָ עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְ-הוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה. ו:כב וַיִּתֵּן יְ-הוָה אוֹתֹת וּמֹפְתִים גְּדֹלִים וְרָעִים בְּמִצְרַיִם בְּפַרְעֹה וּבְכָל בֵּיתוֹ לְעֵינֵינוּ.ו:כג וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ.
Deut 6:21 You shall say to your son,[9] “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the LORD freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand. 6:22 The LORD wrought before our eyes marvelous and destructive signs and portents in Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household; 6:23 and us He freed from there, that He might take us and give us the land that He had promised on oath to our fathers.
ו:כד וַיְצַוֵּנוּ יְ-הוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לְיִרְאָה אֶת יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ לְטוֹב לָנוּ כָּל הַיָּמִים לְחַיֹּתֵנוּ כְּהַיּוֹם הַזֶּה.ו:כה וּצְדָקָה תִּהְיֶה לָּנוּ כִּי נִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּכַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּנוּ.
6:24 Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these laws, to revere the LORD our God, for our lasting good and for our survival, as is now the case. 6:25 It will be therefore to our merit before the LORD our God to observe faithfully this whole Instructionas He has commanded us.”

Unlike in the Shema, the issue here is not the commandments themselves, but the reason for observing them, namely, because God brought His people out of Egypt and gave us this land.

The requirement to explain to one’s children why they should keep the commandments complements the requirement to constantly study them. The study of both commandments and reasons for observance is necessary to ensure that the Israelites fulfill God’s demands.

Two Kinds of Recitation in Deuteronomy 26

The last two commandments in the main body of the Deuteronomic Law Collection, dealing with the first fruits and the tithes, both include elements of recitation parallel to the two passages from chapter 6 we have already seen.


The first law here (26.1-11) commands the Israelite farmer to bring his first fruits to the Temple, and present his offering to the priest, who in turn places it before the altar. The farmer then must recite an “anamnesis” – a statement whose purpose is to be remembered[10] (vv. 5b-10a):

דברים כו:ה אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה… כו:ח וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ יְ-הוָה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹפְתִים.כו:ט וַיְבִאֵנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וַיִּתֶּן לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. כו:י וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי יְ-הוָה…
Deut 26:5 ‘My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt…26:8 And the LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 26:9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 26:10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.’

The farmer who brings his first fruits begins his recitation with the history of Israel and its debt to God for the exodus, as well as for the land and its blessings. The first fruits ritual prescribed here is established as a repayment of this debt.

Mitzvah Fulfillment

The final commandment of the law collection (vv. 12-15) includes a very different type of recitation. Every third year, the Israelites are commanded to give one tenth of their produce to the poor (as commanded in 14.28-29),[11] and recite a prayer (v. 15), preceded by a “checklist” (vv. 13b-14), where they announce how certain laws pertaining to the tithes have been adhered to:

דברים כו:יג …בִּעַרְתִּי הַקֹּדֶשׁ מִן הַבַּיִת וְגַם נְתַתִּיו לַלֵּוִי וְלַגֵּר לַיָּתוֹם וְלָאַלְמָנָה כְּכָל מִצְוָתְךָ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי לֹא עָבַרְתִּי מִמִּצְו‍ֹתֶיךָ וְלֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי. כו:יד לֹא אָכַלְתִּי בְאֹנִי מִמֶּנּוּ וְלֹא בִעַרְתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ בְּטָמֵא וְלֹא נָתַתִּי מִמֶּנּוּ לְמֵת שָׁמַעְתִּי בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהָי עָשִׂיתִי כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי. כו:טו הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמְּךָ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֵת הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לָנוּ כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ.
Deut 26:13 …“I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: 26:14 I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. I have obeyed the LORD my God; I have done just as You commanded me.’[12] 26:15 Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.”

Just as in the first-fruits recitation, this ritual is meant to be performed after receiving God’s agricultural blessing, and in response to it. However, the recitation is not about why to keep the commandment of tithing, but about the commandment’s details.

Bookending Moses’ Speech with Study and Motivation

The place of these two recitations at the end of Moses’ main speech is significant.[13] One of Deuteronomy’s main concerns is that the Israelites will cease to “love God,” that is, to fulfill the commandments, once they receive the blessing, resulting in their losing the land.[14] At the end of the law code, the two recitations and commandments from chapter 26 serve to bookend the speech with two passages, each one reflecting the two key elements noted above, motivation for keeping mitzvot and study of mitzvot.

 The Song of Moses as Reminder

What if constant Torah study, and motivational speeches turn out not to be enough? In other words, what happens if the Israelites stop keeping the mitzvot and God punishes them? Deuteronomy 28 describes the terrible destruction that will befall Israel if this were to occur. Nevertheless, Deuteronomy does not end there.

In Deuteronomy ch. 31, the Song of Moses (Haazinu, ch. 32) is presented as designed to solve just this problem,[15] as God says there to Moses:

דברים לא:יט וְעַתָּה כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְעֵד בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. לא:כ כִּי אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לַאֲבֹתָיו זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה אֶל אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַעֲבָדוּם וְנִאֲצוּנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת בְּרִיתִי. לא:כא וְהָיָה כִּי תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹתוְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי זַרְעוֹכִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת יִצְרוֹ אֲשֶׁר הוּא עֹשֶׂה הַיּוֹם בְּטֶרֶם אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבָּעְתִּי.
Deut 31:19 Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel. 31:20When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers, and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, 31:21 and the many evils and troubles befall them – then this poem shall confront them as a witness, since it will never be forgotten[16] from the mouth of their offspring. For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath.

Moses promises that this song “will never be forgotten” in subsequent generations, including those that will receive the punishment described in the song for disobeying the commandments.[17] Thus, according to the presentation of the song in the preceding narrative, the song gives the Israelites a second chance, as remembering it is a “learning” process, which enables them to begin keeping the covenant again, reviving the possibility of return to the land.


September 5, 2017


Last Updated

August 30, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Baruch Alster teaches Bible at Givat Washington College in Israel. He received his Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University in 2007, writing his dissertation on the history of Jewish interpretation of the Song of Songs. He has published articles on various aspects of the Bible and the history of Jewish exegesis, and is currently working on a critical edition of a medieval French commentary on the Megillot.