Steve emails: Could you clarify the orthodox understanding of how, when and where was the actual full torah written by Moses as dictated by God. Was it when Moses was on Mt. Sinai in which case he came down with the tablets and the full written torah, or was it while they were wandering in the desert?
If there is a disagreement in this, how can Orthodox Jews believe in every word as holy when we don’t even know how and when and where it was transcribed?
Rabbi Rabbs responds: When Moses was on Mt. Sinai, G-d told him the entire Oral Torah and dictated to him letter for letter the entire Written Torah until that point in time. He also received the tablets.
Rashi explains that after Moses descended from the mountain, he wrote the entire Written Torah as it was dictated to him on the mountain. However, that book was obviously not complete. So, for the next 40 years in the desert, G-d continued to tell Moses what to add to the Written Torah.
I don’t believe there is any disagreement in that, and we absolutely do know how and when it was transcribed.
YAAKOV EMAILS: R’ Levi and R’ Herschel (Rabbs),
Please consider the following- written by Gil Student- which casts considerable doubt on the monolithic presentation above:
The Gemara in Gittin 60a records a dispute regarding the writing of the Torah:
R’ Yochanan said in the name of R’ Bena’ah, “The Torah was given scroll by scroll.” R’ Shimon ben Lakish (Reish Lakish) said, “The Torah was given sealed.”
So we see that Moshe wrote the entire Torah, with the possible exception of the last eight verses, after hearing from G-d exactly what to write. According to R’ Yochanan, this process took place over a long period of time and according to Reish Lakish it took place at the end of Moshe’s life. The Ramban, in his introduction to his commentary on the Torah, says that according to R’ Yochanan the process was as follows. When Moshe descended from Mt. Sinai he wrote from the beginning of the Torah until the end of the passages about the Mishkan, i.e. the books of Genesis and Exodus. He wrote the rest of the Torah at the end of the forty years, as evidenced by Deut. 31:26. According to Reish Lakish, the entire Torah was written at that late time.
R’ Zev Wolf Einhorn points out in his Perush Maharzu that it seems like Moshe had some sort of book of Genesis well before he descended from Mt. Sinai. Similarly, we find in Yalkut Shimoni on Chukat (247) Moshe informing Aharon of his impending death by reading from the book of Genesis. According to Reish Lakish, that the Torah was written at the end of the forty years, how could Moshe have already had a book of Genesis? The Talmud Yerushalmi in Megillah 3:4 tells us that Moshe instituted that the Torah be read on Shabbat, holidays, Mondays, and Thursdays and in Talmud Bavli, Bava Kamma 82a, it seems like that was done during the stay in the desert. Yet, according to Reish Lakish, there was not yet a written Torah to be read.
The answer is simply that our forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov, and even those who preceded them like Adam and Noach, wrote down personal histories and theological works that were kept by their descendants. As prophets, their writings were sacred and treated like holy books. They were studied by their children and handed down from generation to generation. Rashi on Gittin 60a sv. katuv says that first the scroll of Creation was written, then the scroll of Noach, and then the scroll of Avraham. Unlike the Ramban who says that the entire book of Genesis was written at one time, Rashi seems to say that it was written at different times, scroll by scroll.
RABBI RABBS EMAILS: Yaakov,
Thank you for your input. I am well aware of that Gemara in Gittin, but I don’t see how what I wrote contradicts it, nor do I see how anything you posted casts doubt on whatever it is that you consider “monolithic”.
If you carefully read the question asked to me, at least the way I understood it, it was presented in binary form: “Was it when Moses was on Mt. Sinai in which case he came down with the tablets and the full written torah, or was it while they were wandering in the desert?”
On the mountain vs. in the desert.
Both opinions in Gittin would agree that it wasn’t written on Mt Sinai. Whether Moses wrote it down in piecemeal over the next 40 years or waited to write the whole thing down at the end of those 40 years is merely splitting hairs and irrelevant as far as the question asked to me is concerned.