Moshe, the Master of all Prophets

These are the words that Moshe spoke to all Israel across the Jordan, in the wilderness, on the plain, opposite the Reed Sea, and between Paran and between Tofel, and Lavan, and Chatzerot, and De-Zahav.  (Sefer Devarim 1:1)

I. Sefer Devarim’s Treatment of Commandments

Parshat Devarim begins the final book of the Torah.  There are a number of stylistic differences between this book and the previous four books of the Torah.  In the preceding three books – Shemot, VaYikra, and BaMidbar – Moshe communicated the mitzvot of the Torah to the nation.  In Sefer Devarim, he communicates additional mitzvot and reviews some of those previously presented.  However, there is a fundamental difference between Sefer Devarim and the previous books in the manner in which commandments are introduced.  In the previous books, the communication of a commandment or series of commandments was introduced by a standard statement:  Hashem spoke to Moshe and told him to command or to speak to Bnai Yisrael.  This statement is not used in Sefer Devarim to introduce the discussion of mitzvot.  Why is this introductory statement not used?

II. Sefer Devarim Declares its Own Uniqueness

Rav Yaakov Ettlinger[1] raises another interesting question.  The above passage opens with “These are the words”.  The Midrash explains that there is difference between the phrases “These are” (aileh) and “And these are” (ve’aileh).  When the Torah uses the phrase “And these are” its intention is to introduce new material as a continuation of the material that preceded.  The phrase “These are” is intended to distinguish between the material to be presented and the preceding material.[2] Let us apply this principle to the above passage.  The phrase “These are the words” distinguishes between the content of Sefer Devarim and the content of the previous books of the Torah.  In some manner Sefer Devarim is unique and cannot be compared to the other books of the Torah.  Rav Ettlinger asks, “What is this unique character of Sefer Devarim?”


And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of Bnai Yisrael saying:  This is the thing that Hashem commanded.  (Sefer Bamidbar 30:2)

III.  Moshe’s unequaled level of prophecy He suggests that we consider a comment cited by Rashi from the Midrash. Commenting of the above passage Rashi explains:

Moshe prophesied with, “Thus says Hashem, 'At midnight… ’” (Shemot 11:4), and the prophets prophesied with [the phrase] “Thus says Hashem.” But Moshe surpassed them, for he prophesied with the expression, “This is the thing.”

Rashi is explaining that Moshe and other prophets introduced prophecies with the phrase, “Thus says Hashem”.  However, only Moshe introduced prophecies with the phrase, “This is the thing”.  What is the meaning of this phrase and why is it used exclusively by Moshe?

Rav Ettlinger explains that the phrase, “This is the thing” means that the prophecy Moshe is communicating will be expressed in Hashem’s words.  The phrase, “Thus says Hashem” means that the prophet is communicating his prophecy in his own words.  Moshe’s use of the phrase, “This is the thing” reflects Moshe’s unique level of prophecy.  Only he received Hashem’s message with absolute clarity.  Others could not use this phrase because they did not perceive the word of Hashem with Moshe’s precision.  They could only express Hashem’s communication in their own words.

IV. Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s words

Let us now return to the opening passage of Sefer Devarim.  The book opens with the phrase “These are the words.”  This contrasts Sefer Devarim with the preceding books of the Torah.  What is the distinction communicated by this phrase?  Rav Ettlinger responds that the other books of the Torah were communicated to Moshe by Hashem.  He recorded this communication.  The content of Sefer Devarim was created by Moshe.  It is his words.  It is inspired by Hashem but it is not the words of Hashem.[3]

This is significant.  Hashem commands Moshe to record Sefer Devarim and that it will be part of the Torah.  Hashem made Moshe’s words His own and part of the corpus of His Torah.[4]

Now, let us return to our original question.  In Sefer Devarim mitzvot are not introduced with the standard statement:  Hashem spoke to Moshe and told him to command or to speak to Bnai Yisrael.  Why is this statement not used?  Ramban explains that this phrase suggests that Hashem is communicating to Moshe and directing him to transmit His words to the people.  Sefer Devarim is Moshe’s words.  He includes in his presentation discussion of commandments.  Some of the commandments were not previously communicated to the people.  Some were previously transmitted to the people and Moshe adds additional details.  However, all the commandments were revealed to Moshe at Sinai and or during the first year of the sojourn in the wilderness.  The phrase is not used because Hashem is not now communicating these commandments or their details.  Moshe is transmitting material revealed to him in the past.[5]


Across the Jordan, in the land of Moav, Moshe commenced [and] explained this Law, saying, (Sefer Devarim 1:5)

V. Origins of Written and Oral Torahs

Ramban adds that Moshe designed his presentation.  He decided to review commandments he had already transmitted and to add details.[6]  Let us consider this comment carefully.  The Torah is composed of the Written and the Oral Torahs.  We generally assume that the distinction between these two components is that Hashem directed Moshe to record a portion of the Torah.  This is the Written Torah.  The rest of the Torah – the details that explain how each commandment is observed – were not recorded.  Hashem directed Moshe to transmit these details as an oral tradition.  The division of the Torah was determined by Hashem.  He selected the material that would be recorded and the material that would be transmitted orally.  Ramban is suggesting that this understanding is an oversimplification.  Hashem allowed Moshe to participate in the determination.

Moshe made his final presentation to the nation.  He discussed commandments.  He reviewed mitzvot he transmitted in the past and added details.  Then, Hashem commanded Moshe to record his presentation.  It will be part of the Written Torah.  The details that Moshe communicated in his final presentation became incorporated into the Written Torah.

In other words, these details would have been part of the Oral Torah.  Moshe included them in his final presentation.  Hashem directed Moshe to record his presentation and that it would become the fifth book of the Torah.  Through this directive, these details became part of the Written Torah.

VI. Moshe’s role

In summary, we have seen that Moshe’s words were incorporated by Hashem into His Torah.  We have also learned that through inclusion of Sefer Devarim within the Torah, the new details that Moshe taught regarding the mitzvot previously transmitted became part of the Written Torah rather than the Oral Torah.

Rambam – Maimonides – explains that one of the Torah’s fundamental principles is that Moshe was the greatest of all prophets and that he reached the limits of perfection.[7]  The above discussion provides amazing testimony to the unique stature of Moshe.  It deserves our consideration and this contemplation should inspire a renewed appreciation of the greatness of the master of all prophets.

[1] Rav Ettlinger is best known as author of Aruch LaNer, his commentary on the Talmud.

[2] Midrash Rabba, Sefer Shemot 30:3.  See Rashi, Sefer Shemot 21:1.  Parshat Mishpatim opens with the phrase, “And these are the laws”. Rashi explains that the phrase introduces new laws as a continuation of those that preceded.  The preceding laws were received at Sinai and those that will follow are derived from Sinai.

[3] Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, Minchat Oni, Parshat Devarim.

[4] Rambam comments in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 3:8, “Three individuals are regarded as rejecting the Torah.  One who says that the Torah is not from Hashem – even a single passage, even a single word – if he says Moshe said it on his own [authority], he rejects the Torah.” Rav Ettlinger apparently maintains that by directing Moshe to record his presentation and incorporate it into the Torah, Hashem converted Moshe’s words into His own.  When Moshe recorded Sefer Devarim he was recording Hashem’s words.  However, see Rambam’s comments in his introduction to the tenth chapter of Masechet Sanhedrin.  Rav Ettlinger’s perspective is more difficult to reconcile with Rambam’s comments there.  Nonetheless, it must be acknowledged that Rav Ettlinger’s position is supported by sources in Talmud and Midrash (see, for example, Masechet Megilah 31b and Tanchuma, Devarim, 2).  Also, Ramban seems to subscribe to this position.  Therefore, the challenge is not to reconcile Rav Ettlinger’s position with Rambam’s comments but to reconcile Rambam’s comments with the sources in Talmud and Midrash that describe Sefer Devarim and Moshe’s words.

[5] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim, introduction.

[6] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 1:1.

[7] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Masechet Sanhedrin, introduction to chapter 10.