web analytics
April 21, 2014 / 21 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post
Spa 1.2 Combining Modern Living in Traditional Jerusalem

A unique and prestigious residential project in now being built in Mekor Haim Street in Jerusalem.



The Torah as G-d’s Song

The Torah scroll is the nearest Judaism comes to endowing a physical entity with sanctity.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Share Button

At the end of his life, having given the Israelites at G-d’s behest 612 commands, Moses is instructed to give them the last; command 613:

“Now therefore write down for yourselves this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be my witness within the people of Israel.” (Deut. 31: 19)

According to the plain sense of the verse, G-d is speaking to Moses and Joshua and is referring to the song in the following chapter, “Listen, O heavens, and I will speak; Hear, O earth, the words of My mouth.” Oral tradition, however, gave it a different and much wider interpretation, understanding it as a command for every Jew to write – or at least take some part in writing – a sefer Torah, a scroll of the law.

“Said Rabbah: Even though our ancestors have left us a scroll of the Torah, it is our religious duty to write one for ourselves, as it is said: ‘Now therefore write this song, and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.’ ” (Sanhedrin 21b)

The logic of the interpretation seems to be, first, that the phrase “write down for yourselves” could be construed as referring to every Israelite (Ibn Ezra), not just Moses and Joshua. Secondly, the passage goes on to say (31: 24): “Moses finished writing in the book the words of this law from beginning to end.” The Talmud (Nedarim 38a) offers a third reason. The verse goes on to say: “that this song may be My witness within the people” – implying the Torah as a whole, not just the song in chapter 32.

There is something poetic about this being the last of the commands. It is as if G-d were saying to the Israelites: “It is not enough that you have received the Torah from Moses. You must make it new again in every generation.” The covenant was not to grow old. It had to be periodically renewed.

So it is to this day, that Torah scrolls are still written as in ancient times, by hand, on parchment, using a quill – as were the Dead Sea Scrolls two thousand years ago. In a religion almost devoid of sacred objects (icons, relics), the Torah scroll is the nearest Judaism comes to endowing a physical entity with sanctity – and this is an understatement. The Torah is less like an object than a person. In its presence we stand as if it were a king. On Simchat Torah we dance with it as if it were a bride. If one is, G-d forbid, damaged or destroyed we bury it as if it were a human; we mourn as if we had lost a relative. Judaism is the story of a love affair between a people and a book, the Book of Books.

What though – if we take the command to refer to the whole Torah and not just one chapter – is the significance of the word “song” [shirah]: “Now therefore write down for yourselves this song”? The word shirah appears five times in this passage. It is clearly a keyword. Why? On this, two nineteenth century scholars offered striking explanations.

Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin) interprets it to mean that the whole Torah should be read as poetry, not prose (the word shirah in Hebrew means both a song and a poem). To be sure, most of the Torah is written in prose, but it has, argues Netziv, two characteristics of poetry. First, it is allusive rather than explicit. It leaves unsaid more than is said. Second, like poetry, it hints at deeper reservoirs of meaning, sometimes by the use of an unusual word or sentence construction. Descriptive prose carries its meaning on the surface. The Torah, like poetry, does not. (Kidmat Davar, preface to Ha’amek Davar, 3).

In this brilliant insight, Netziv anticipates one of the great twentieth century essays on biblical prose, Erich Auerbach’s “Odysseus’ Scar.” Auerbach contrasts the narrative style of Genesis with that of Homer. Homer uses dazzlingly detailed descriptions so that each scene is set out pictorially as if bathed in sunlight. By contrast, biblical narrative is spare and understated. In the example Auerbach cites – the story of the binding of Isaac – we do not know what the main characters look like, what they are feeling, what they are wearing, what landscapes they are passing through:

Share Button

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

No Responses to “The Torah as G-d’s Song”

Comments are closed.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Current Top Story
BDS targets Zabar's; Carole Zabar promotes BDS proponents.
All in the Family: BDS Protests Zabars; Carole Zabar Promotes BDS
Latest Judaism Stories
Reiss-041814-King

Amazingly, each and every blade was green and moist as if it was just freshly cut.

PTI-041814

All the commentaries ask why Hashem focuses on the Exodus as opposed to saying, “I am Hashem who created the entire world.”

Leff-041814

Someone who focuses only on the bones of the Torah makes his bones dry and passionless.

The following is President Obama’s statement on Passover (April 14, 2014). As he has in the past, the President held an official Passover Seder at the White House. Michelle and I send our warmest greetings to all those celebrating Passover in the United States, in Israel, and around the world. On Tuesday, just as we […]

The tendency to rely on human beings rather than G-d has been our curse throughout the centuries.

“Who is wise? One who learns from each person” (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.

“I’ll try to help as we can,” said Mr. Goodman, “but we already made a special appeal this year. Let me see what other funds we have. I’ll be in touch with you in a day or two.”

Rashi is bothered by the expression Hashem used: “the Jews need only travel.”

Reckoning Time
‘Three Festivals, Even Out Of Order’
(Beizah 19b)

Two husbands were there to instruct us in Texas hold ‘em – and we needed them.

Question: Why do we start counting sefirat ha’omer in chutz la’aretz on the second night of Pesach when the omer in the times of the Beit Hamikdash was cut on Chol HaMoed?

M. Goldman
(Via E-Mail)

A few background principles regarding the prohibitions of chametz mixtures on Pesach may provide some shopping guidance.

According to the Rambam, the k’nas applies to any chametz on Pesach with which one could, in theory, transgress the aveirah – even if no transgression actually occurred.

She was followed by the shadows of the Six Million, by the ever so subtle awareness of their vanished presence.

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Sacks

In Judaism, to be without questions is a sign not of faith, but of lack of depth.

Rabbi Sacks

You perpetuate a transformative event by turning it into a ritual.

There is much in this episode that is hard to understand, much that has to do with the concept of holiness and the powerful energies it released that, like nuclear power today, could be deadly dangerous if not properly used. But there is also a more human story about two approaches to leadership that still resonates with us today.

Nasi is the generic word for a leader: a ruler, king, judge, elder, or prince. Usually it refers to the holder of political power.

The account of the construction of the Tabernacle in Vayakhel-Pekudei is built around the number seven.

Vayakhel is Moses’ response to the wild abandon of the crowd that gathered around Aaron and made the golden calf.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you fail. Such is life.

In Judaism, monarchy had little or no religious function.

    Latest Poll

    Now that Kerry's "Peace Talks" are apparently over, are you...?







    View Results

    Loading ... Loading ...

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/the-torah-as-g-ds-song/2013/08/29/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: