To Repeat Or Not To Repeat


אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּעֵבֶר, הַיַּרְדֵּן: בַּמִּדְבָּר בָּעֲרָבָה מוֹל סוּף בֵּין-פָּארָן וּבֵין-תֹּפֶל, וְלָבָן וַחֲצֵרֹת --וְדִי זָהָב

Last year after I suggested a riddle on Devarim, interesting comments came up concerning the two Hebrew names of the fifth book of the Torah, namely Devarim and Mishneh Torah.

Although Mishneh Torah literally means the repetition of the Torah, it is not really what this book is. A number of laws are omitted here (the laws of the Temple service for instance), others are new (the laws of divorce and yibbum – levirate – to state but a few) while others are expressed differently (Aseret ha-Dibrot or the Ten Commandments for instance).

So why this name?

In a lecture I listened to a couple of days ago, the speaker attempts to explain what Devarim is, or rather what is specific about this book.

Part of the answer is provided in the very first verse: “These are the words Moses spoke to all Israel [le-khol Yisrael] in the desert east of the Jordan-that is, in the Arabah-opposite Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth and Dizahab” as opposed to the expression found in previous books; “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe lemor. And Hashem said to Moshe”

Moshe was adressing a new generation of Israelites; people who had been born in the desert, who had not been present at Mount Sinai when their parents had received the Torah and but also people who were about to enter the land of Israel and put God’s words into action.

To quote Rabbi Sacks “Moses was preparing the Israelites for a new mode of existence”. Therefore this book reads like the first commentary of God’s laws as taught by Moshe Rabbenu himself.

I couldn’t help but notice that this very special distinct status is reflected in the very name of the book, Mishneh Torah. Mishneh (whose Hebrew letters are exactly the same as Mishnah) suggests the first commentary of the Torah and announces more commentaries to come while Torah reminds us that we are reading God’s sacred words, albeit in an unusual form.

As should still be the case today, a different audience implies different wording and emphasis. Thus Moshe is repeating what God had said previously but in a way that takes into account the people he is addressing; a lesson for teachers of all kinds.