“So Moses the servant of the LORD died there…” 34:5
Did Moses record this and the final eight lines of the Torah?
This question has engendered an intense, millenia-long conversation on the nature of Torah and prophecy. It is one of the topics covered in depth in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations. And his text is a great place to begin exploring this concept.
In “The Last Eight Verses” — a subsection of his chapter called “The Minimalist Approach to the Principle of ‘Torah from Heaven'” — Heschel sites more than a dozen sources through the ages, in addition to Talmud passages. The text contains appendices of rabbinic, medieval and modern authorities, and “literary sources” as well as footnotes from Heschel himself and from Gordon Tucker, editor and translator. So, it’s a good way to become familiar with some well-known and more obscure commentators, while following an interesting path.
The 800+ page book is not a Torah commentary, in the typical portion-by-portion style, however. Instead, it presents an extensive discussion of what it means to say Torah is “from Heaven.” Jumping into a particular section — such as the 7-1/2 pages on “The Last Eight Verses” — can be worthwhile, though.
These few pages, for example, encapsulate much of Heschel’s overall discussion of “Torah from Heaven.” The section covers logistical questions surrounding those last verses: Could Moses have written them? how? who else might have done so? It also considers philosophical implications: Are those last verses more or less valuable or sacred, depending on who wrote them and how?
One particularly poignant explanation is that of R. Menaham Azariah of Fano:
“[Moses] was shedding tears not at his own death, but at the suffering of Israel, that they would have to go into exile. The tears mixed with the ink, which had originally been black as the pupil of the eye, and dripped into every letter so that they shone as the very heaves. Indeed the whole Torah ought rightly to have been written with those tears, except that we would have been unworthy of using it.”
16th Century CE Italian author, quoted by Heschel, p.615
Text and Footnotes
This section of Heschel’s book also offers an example of the wonderful interplay between text and footnote and the way that Torah scholars relate to one another across the centuries. And here’s a prime example of why real-live footnotes — right there on the page, none of that flipping around — contribute to immediacy of dialogue between sources:
Maimonides, Heschel explains, having taken up the interpretation that Moses did not write them, decided (Hilkhot Tefillah 13:6) that it was permissible to read the last eight verses without a minyan; there follows some discussion of whether this implies a lesser sanctity of the verses. In one of Heschel’s original footnotes, however, we are told that RaABaD* breaks into this conversation on sanctity to ask the very practical: “Where did the congregation [which must have had a minyan to read the preceding verses] disappear to?”
*According to Heschel’s appendix: Abraham Ben David of Posquieres. Provence. 1125-1198.
See Source Materials for Heschel and other citations.