OzTorah: Ask the Rabbi.


Question.    Did Moses write the whole Torah at one sitting?

Answer.       The sages of the Talmud (Yoma 37b, Gittin 60a) say that the Torah was given “m’gillah m’gillah” (“scroll by scroll”), i.e. section by section. According to this theory, the Torah was not recorded at one sitting but in stages.

Nachmanides’ Introduction to Genesis says,

Torah Scribe Paintings – The Torah Scribe by Carole Spandau

“Moses wrote the whole Torah at God’s dictation… When he returned from Mount Sinai, he wrote the first part to the end of the building of the Tabernacle; the latter part was written at the end of the 40 years of wandering in the desert”.

Some things in the first section are worded differently in the second, e.g. the Ex. 20 and Deut. 5 versions of the Decalogue. Dr Aharon Barth points out that this is no argument for different texts by different writers: only the original writer (Moses at God’s command) had the authority to insert a different emphasis the second time.

This whole discussion raises the question of the so-called Higher Criticism of the Bible, which argues that the Torah is a (rather inefficiently) redacted merging of sources from differing times, places and authors. The traditionalist response is that if and where there are difficulties with occasional passages they will be ironed out in God’s good time, but as a matter of principle and logic the Torah is a unitary work, the Word of God put into writing by Moshe Rabbenu. When the critics spoke of a fictitious “R” (Redactor), Franz Rosenzweig said that the “R” was Rabbenu.


Question.    Why does the first of the Ten Commandments say, “I am the Lord your God”, using both names?

Answer.       First an introduction. Is this a commandment at all? Rambam says it commands us to know that there is a God who redeemed us from Egypt. Others prefer not to call the Decalogue “commandments” but “statements” or “principles”, which echoes the Hebrew, “Aseret HaDib’rot”, “Ten Words”.

“HaShem” (“The Lord”) as the God of mercy and “Elokim” (“God”) as the God of justice, both figure in Statement Number 1, which the Midrash HaGadol explains thus: “If you do My will, I am the Lord, merciful and compassionate. If not, I am God, a judge exacting justice”.


Question.    Why do some congregations read the Akdamut poem at the beginning of K’riat HaTorah on Shavu’ot?

Ruth and Shavu’ot

Answer.     So awesome were the events described in the reading that the poet, the 11th century Ashkenazicantor, Meir ben Yitzhak, was inspired to put his feelings into words. Written in Aramaic, Akdamut praises God who gave Israel the Torah, describes how the nations try to entice the Jews away, and says that we are ready for martyrdom to defend our faith. It ends with a lyrical account of the messianic era with the banquet of the leviathan.

Rabbi Ya’akov Emden called the poem “estimable… precious in my eyes”, but objected to inserting it after the Torah reading had begun.

The poem commences (in David de Sola Pool’s translation),

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
Were every blade of grass a quill,
Were the world of parchment made,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love
Of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor would the scroll
Contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky.

The reference to all the seas being ink and all the reeds pens is derived from the Midrash to Shir HaShirim 1:3. The thought was borrowed by both Moslems and Christians. The Koran says, “Were the sea ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely fail before the words of my Lord fail” (Sura 18, verse 109), and “Were the trees that are in the earth pens, were the sea ink with seven more seas to swell its tide, the words of God would not be spent” (Sura 31, verse 27).

Medieval Christian sermons use the same imagery, and there is even a light-hearted English nursery rhyme composed in 1641 which says,

If all the world were paper,
And all the Sea were ink,
And all the trees were bread and cheese,
How should we do for drink?


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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