It is often said today that Muslim-Jewish relations were always good before Zionism and the State of Israel, and that Jews and Muslims historically lived in peace. Is this notion true? Find out in this class, as we dive into an eye-opening letter written by the Rambam to the Jews of Yemen in the 12th century, uncover what Islam really preaches about Jews, and conclude with an incredible prophecy from the Zohar that has come true right before our eyes in recent years.
This week we begin reading the fifth and final book of the Torah, Devarim, literally “Words”. This book is distinct from the others, for it is written from the perspective of Moses. It records Moses’ final words to the nation over his last 37 days of leadership. Devarim serves, in many ways, as a summary of the Torah, and is therefore traditionally referred to as Mishneh Torah, a “repetition” of the Torah. In fact, when our ancient Sages first translated the Torah into Greek (at the behest of King Ptolemy), they called the book Deuteronomion, “repeated law”, ie. the Greek translation for Mishneh Torah. Having said that, Deuteronomy introduces a number of new mitzvot previously unmentioned in the Torah, and contains some of the Torah’s most significant passages, including the Shema and Ha’azinu.
The reader will quickly notice that Deuteronomy has a totally different tone from the rest of the Torah. Its language is far more similar, not to the books of Torah that precede it, but to the books of Tanakh that follow it: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. (Secular scholars actually combine these books and label them the “Deuteronomistic history”.) Thus, the fifth book of the Torah plays a critical function: it concludes the Five Books of Moses while simultaneously introducing and segueing into the rest of the Tanakh. One who reads the conclusion of Deuteronomy and immediately starts Joshua will hardly notice that they’ve changed books. For instance, the former ends with Moses telling Joshua to be chazak v’ematz, “strong and brave” (Deuteronomy 31:7, 23), while the latter picks up with the same exact phrase multiple times (Joshua 1:6, 7, 9, 18).
This signifies the fluid, continuous chain of transmission, starting with Moses, passing on directly to Joshua, then the Elders, down through the rest of the Prophets, to the Men of the Great Assembly, and to the Sages that followed (Avot 1:1), up to the rabbis of the present day. Herein lies the true purpose of Deuteronomy: it holds together all of Judaism, including both the “Written” and “Oral” Torah. We may think of Deuteronomy as “Written”, but a careful reading shows that it is quite clearly more “Oral” in nature. One of the most puzzling things about it is that with all of the key narratives that it repeats, it appears to change the details!
For example, in the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus, Shabbat is to commemorate the world’s Creation in six days, and God’s resting on the seventh (Exodus 20:11). In the Ten Commandments of Deuteronomy, however, Shabbat is to commemorate that God took us out of Egypt and we are no longer slaves who must work around the clock (Deuteronomy 5:15). Which is it? Another example is the Sin of the Spies: in Numbers 13 we read that God commanded to send spies to scout the Holy Land; in Deuteronomy 1:22, it is the people themselves that request it of Moses. What was it? Even more problematic, in Deuteronomy 10:6, Aaron dies in a different place and at a different time than that presented in Numbers 33:38! How do we make sense of these discrepancies?
The classic answer is that Deuteronomy is Moses’ own recollection of past events. After all, the book begins by saying Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe—these were specifically the words of Moses himself. The Zohar (III, 261a) says that unlike the rest of the Torah which was dictated to Moses by God, “Mishneh Torah was spoken from Moses’ own mouth” (משנה תורה משה מפי עצמו אמרן). As such, included within it were Moses’ own interpretations of the Torah and the law. And this, therefore, serves as the foundation for the entire Oral Tradition. Moreover, this is why we always refer to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu, “Moses our rabbi”. He is the first rabbi, the first to analyze and interpret the Torah, extracting its deeper meanings and uncovering the hidden wisdom of God buried in the plain text—in the words of the Zohar, the chokhmah ila’ah (חכמה עלאה) buried inside.
The Zohar concludes that Deuteronomy is the Oral Torah! It is from Deuteronomy that we learn about the need to interpret the Torah and extract the wisdom within it. The Zohar adds that this is why the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy have a seemingly superfluous vav before them (וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ וְלֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ וְלֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה) whereas the Ten Commandments in Exodus do not (לֹ֣֖א תִּֿנְאָ֑͏ף׃ לֹ֣֖א תִּֿגְנֹֽ֔ב׃ לֹֽא־תַעֲנֶ֥ה). The extra vav, which means “and”, serves to teach that this is the command and, hidden inside, all the other additional laws one can extract from it! The Zohar gives an example: In Exodus we are told only not to covet a fellow’s wife (לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ), but in Deuteronomy we are told not to covet and not to crave (וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֑ךָ וְלֹ֨א תִתְאַוֶּ֜ה). Rabbi Yose explains that based on Exodus alone one might think the law is only not to actually abduct a woman, or conspire to do so, but from Deuteronomy we further learn that one is forbidden from even craving another, whether in thought or desire, even without acting on it. The Zohar gives other examples, showing how the purpose of Deuteronomy is actually to extract the true meaning of the previous four books of the Torah.
In that case, Moses the rabbi was the first to reinterpret the Torah and extract new layers of meaning from it. It is in Deuteronomy that he lays out the rabbinic system, and in Deuteronomy that the 613 mitzvot of the Torah are completed. Beautifully, the numerical value of Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו) is 613. It has further been pointed out that the system Moses laid out in Deuteronomy, relayed specifically over his last 37 days, correspond to the 37 tractates of Talmud, solidifying the link. So, we see that Deuteronomy accomplishes two things: first, weaving smoothly into the rest of the Tanakh, and second, bridging to the Oral Torah. It is no coincidence that the first official written work of Oral Torah is called the Mishnah, a direct link to Moses’ Mishneh Torah.
With this in mind, there is truly little room to distinguish between “Written” and “Oral” Torah at all. The two are inseparable and intertwined, like the branches of the Tree of Life (to paraphrase the poetic words of the Zohar). The Oral Torah begins in Deuteronomy, and flows through the rest of the Tanakh, before being fleshed out in fuller form in the Mishnah, then the Talmud. There is a continuous historical, chronological, legal, linguistic chain of development. (If considering the ‘Nakh as “Oral Torah” seems strange and counterintuitive, keep in mind how the Samaritans—who deny an Oral Torah—only hold Moshe’s Torah as holy, and have no ‘Nakh at all! They reject the Prophets basically the same way they reject the Talmud!)
It is worth adding one more point here: the first person to actually codify the entire Torah, both “Written” and “Oral”, was the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204), “Maimonides”. As the famous saying goes, “from Moshe to Moshe there arose no one like Moshe”, ie. since Moshe Rabbeinu there was none as great as Moshe ben Maimon. In some ways, he completed the Torah process that began at Sinai—at least its legal portion. He summarized and codified all of Jewish law, clearly and succinctly, in a 14-volume masterpiece that he called, not coincidentally, the Mishneh Torah. It remains the only complete code of Jewish law, that covers all aspects of Torah and Judaism. In his introduction, the Rambam boldly states that no other code is required and, quite incredibly, that a person who wants to understand all of Judaism need only read the Torah, and his Mishneh Torah!
For this (among other things), the Rambam was heavily criticized. He sought to set in stone Jewish law, but Jewish law is not meant to be set in stone. Even the Ten Commandments that were literally set in stone in Exodus were already interpreted differently by Moshe Rabbeinu in Deuteronomy! Jewish law must remain alive and breathing, changing, growing, adapting with the times.
One might ask: if that’s the case, why did Moses say not to add or remove anything from his Torah? (Deuteronomy 4:2) At the same time, he said to listen to the future rulings of the Torah leaders that arise in each generation, and not to veer “right or left” from their decrees (Deuteronomy 17:11). Throughout history, many solutions have been presented to this problem. One way to understand it is to remember that, in Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking to the soul of each individual Jew. The other four books of the Torah were God’s Word to the nation as a whole. Deuteronomy is Moses’ word to his people, to each person. Thus, in the same way that he says each person should listen to the consensus of the Torah authorities (17:11), so too should each person not add or remove anything from the Torah of their own accord (4:2). Only a recognized majority body of scholars could ever make critical emendations when necessary. This was indeed the case throughout the era of Prophets and the Talmud, when a Sanhedrin existed (it formally ended in the 5th century, see ‘An Eye-Opening History of the Sanhedrin’).
That brings us back to the Rambam. In his Mishneh Torah introduction, he lamented the fact that, due to our exile, individual rabbis have had to make local rulings that were subsequently adopted by others and, over the centuries, Judaism started to fracture because of it, and there was growing confusion regarding the law. The Rambam therefore sought to clarify and codify the actual, universal Jewish law, based strictly on the Torah and Talmud, the only documents that carried the authority of a Sanhedrin or other recognized majority body of scholars. He explains this all in the latter half of his introduction.
While the Mishneh Torah did not end up being the last word on Jewish law, it did launch a trend where the law needed more widespread consensus and recognition. It led to more in-depth codes of law, with more explanation, and more debate regarding the finer points of law. It led to a “virtual” Sanhedrin of sorts, where legal texts attain primacy over time through majority recognition of rabbis separated by thousands of miles. And so, Jewish law continues to evolve, adapt, and grow, as always intended by the first Moses—and the first rabbi—Moshe Rabbeinu.
This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, which begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book (Deuteronomy), is written from the perspective of Moses, and summarizes much of what the Torah discussed earlier. At the same time, it also introduces many new mitzvot, and reveals deeper insights into the Torah’s previous narratives. For example, while the book of Numbers told us that Moses was forbidden to enter the Holy Land because he disobeyed God in striking the rock, here we are told that Moses was forbidden to enter the Land because of the incident of the Spies! (1:22-38) How do we reconcile these differences? The answer can actually be found in next week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.
Va’etchanan (literally “and I beseeched”) describes how Moses begged God to allow him to enter the Holy Land. The Talmud (Berachot 32b) states that Moses prayed so much that God actually relented and forgave him for striking the rock. However, it would have been wrong for Moses to enter the Holy Land at that time, considering that the rest of the men were condemned to perish in the Wilderness because of the sin of the spies. After all, Moses was their leader. Could a shepherd abandon his flock? Would a captain abandon his sinking ship? So, Moses didn’t enter the land not because of the rock, but because of the spies.
This is all the more pertinent now with Tisha B’Av right around the corner. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, along with a handful of other tragedies said to have happened on, or around, that date – the ninth of the month of Av. According to tradition, the origins of Tisha B’Av lie in the incident of the spies. It was on that day that the spies returned from the land of Israel, and reported negatively about the people’s chances of conquering the land. The faithless nation feared and cried needlessly on that day so, it is said, God subsequently gave the nation many good reasons to truly fear and cry on that day throughout history.
The Problem with the 9th of Av
There are many problems with this classic narrative. First of all, why would God punish generations far in the future for the sins of that one generation long ago? Deuteronomy 24:16 itself states clearly that “Parents shall not be put to death because of their children, nor children because of their parents. Each person shall be put to death for their own crime.” While the Torah does also mention a number of times that God “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children to the third and fourth generations”, the phrase concludes by saying this is only true to those that “hate Him”. In any case, it is only to the third and fourth generations, not millennia into the future! Even so, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) says the prophet Ezekiel came and repealed this divine decree anyway:
Said Rabbi Yose bar Chanina, “Moses pronounced four decrees upon Israel, which four prophets came and cancelled.”
…Moses said, “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children…” (Exodus 34:7) Ezekiel came and cancelled it: “The one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:14)
Second of all, did the spies really return on the 9th of Av? The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates that the spies went forth on the 29th of Sivan and returned forty days later on the 9th of Av. However, the Torah tells us that the spies went to Israel at the start of the grape harvest (Numbers 13:20) and the same tractate of Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) states that the grape harvest season lasted from the 15th of Av until Yom Kippur! How could the spies have returned on the 9th of Av when the grape harvest only began on the 15th? (A simple Google search reveals that the ideal time for grape harvest is September-October, which is right between the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.)
On the same note, when exactly were the Temples destroyed? The Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (II Kings 25:8-9) This verse suggests the First Temple was destroyed on the 7th of Av.
Another verse in the Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem; and he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (Jeremiah 52:12-13) The verse is nearly identical, except that this one says Nebuzaradan came on the 10th and destroyed the Temple.
We have the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av, but no 9th! The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) notes this contradiction and tries to reconcile it this way: “On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth, and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day [the tenth].” Rabbi Yochanan goes on to say that if it were up to him, the mourning day would be the 10th of Av, not the 9th, since this is when the Temple was mostly destroyed.
And what about the Second Temple? Josephus lived through its destruction, and later wrote about it in detail. He says that it was destroyed on the 10th of Av, and writes that the Jews mourn its destruction on the same day that they mourn the destruction of the First Temple. However, he seems to admit that he is uncertain about the exact dates that the Temples fell.
What does the Talmud say? It, too, is uncertain, but concludes that since “good things tend to happen on good days, and bad things on bad days,” it is assumed that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same day as the First Temple!
Postponing, Abolishing, or Redefining?
This year, Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, so the fast is postponed, appropriately, to the 10th. While Rabbi Yochanan felt that the 10th is the correct day to fast anyway, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – the great redactor of the Mishnah – wanted to have the fast of Tisha B’Av abolished completely! Some say this was only when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat and needs to be postponed, while others say he wanted it gone entirely (Megillah 5b).
This idea has been echoed in modern times. The primary reason for mourning on Tisha B’Av is because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Jewish people’s exile. Today, the Jewish people have returned to the Holy Land and have rebuilt Jerusalem. While there’s no Temple just yet, we are free to travel to, and settle in, the Holy City whenever we wish. Why are we still mourning?
Perhaps Rabbi Yehudah felt the same way. In his day, Jews had also returned to Jerusalem and enjoyed relatively good terms with the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah himself was friends with the Caesar known in the Talmud as ‘Antoninus’ (possibly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or maybe a local Roman governor).
Meanwhile, far worse tragedies have befallen the Jewish people since then: crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and the list goes on. Why focus on the temples and Jerusalem when there are more recent, greater tragedies? Indeed, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin intended to combine all the days of commemoration, and move Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day to Tisha B’Av.
Perhaps this is what Tisha B’Av should be: one day to remember all of the suffering that has troubled the Jewish people, and all the suffering that continues to plague the world. A day to remind us that Mashiach has not come yet, the Temple is not yet rebuilt, and the world is not yet whole. A day to ask ourselves: what exactly are we doing to hasten the arrival of that magnificent, forthcoming time? What are we doing that will finally put an end to all the mourning? Tisha B’Av should be a day not about drowning in the sad tears of the past, but about actively working towards the happy tears of the future.
And this is precisely what Rabbi Akiva told his colleagues when they saw the ruins of the Temple. While Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah immediately fell into a bout of weeping, Rabbi Akiva was laughing. Surprised, they asked him to explain himself. He told them that while they were dwelling on the destruction of the first and second temples, he was dwelling on the vision of the coming Third Temple. The rabbis responded – and with this the tractate ends – “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”