As we approach the end of the book of Devarim, I have once again been reflecting on the differences in style and content that appear in this last book of the Torah in contrast to the preceding four volumes. Any serious student of Torah would notice a host of variations between these texts, and the obvious question is why.
Let me explain. First, the language is different. In Devarim, Moshe Rabbeinu often speaks in the first person, something that is not found in the first four books of the Torah. Second, there are blatant textual disparities between Devarim and the preceding books, such as in the language of the Ten Commandments. The text in Devarim includes additional words as well as a host of laws which do not appear earlier in the Torah. The section dealing with the blessings and rebukes are markedly different.
One can therefore ask: Why these discrepancies? Was this book written by someone else? Is it G-d-driven as the other books, or was it written by Moshe? These questions are indeed the subject of discussion among our Sages as well.
When one reads the commandments of Shabbat as they appear in the books of Shemot and Devarim, two divergent formulations appear: “Zachor” and “Shamor.” Which one appeared on the Ten Commandments? Or did they both appear? Our Rabbis state that these two versions were said at one time, something that no human can achieve, and both appeared on the Decalogue.
But the questions still abound. What about all the other dissimilarities between the book of Devarim and the other four books? The additional laws, the curses and blessings – how were these recorded? Were they written and given by G-d, or were they Moshe’s words?
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, author of Emes L’Yaakov, develops an interesting approach. He notes that there are times in the Torah that we see a word written in one way, yet we read it another way. Examples of this can be found in the portion of Ki Tavo, in which the Torah writes words one way, yet we vocalize them very differently. This phenomenon is referred to as “kri u’ktiv.” He therefore posits the innovative notion that the differences between the text in Devarim and the conflicting texts in the other sections of the Torah are just an example of this principle of kri u’ktiv, in which one time the text appears as we should read it and the next time it appears as it is written, or vice versa.
I believe that perhaps there is another explanation for these apparent differences. In defining how the Torah was given to the Jewish people, the Bais Halevi states that on the original Decalogue, the unwritten Torah (Torah She-b’al Peh) was written as well. When the second set of tablets were given, however, the Oral Torah was omitted. This omission made the Jewish people an integral part in the transmission of the Torah.
Before, they were outsiders, looking at the text as it appeared in writing. Now that the Oral Law was no longer written, the Jewish people were charged with being intimately involved in the transmission. They became the conduit for receiving and transmitting the Oral Torah. They fundamentally became the unwritten law!
It is this understanding that I believe explains the blatant disparities between the book of Deuteronomy and the other four preceding books. I would like to offer the theory that the book of Devarim is the first example of the Oral Law as interpreted by our teacher Moses. Its importance and value remains equal to the other books, but it represents the beginnings of the elucidation and expounding of the preceding written books of the Torah and the meanings of those words. In essence, then, Moshe in the book of Devarim provided the first example of the exposition of the preceding books of the Torah, incorporating the unwritten Torah. Using this reasoning, we can easily explain the contrast in language, style, and content in the book of Devarim when compared to the other books.
I was fortunate to have found this same idea in the writings of Rav Dov Ber Soloveitchik. He writes: “Initially, Sefer Devarim was imparted orally by Moses as Torah She-b’al Peh, Oral Law. Only later was it written and incorporated as Torah She-b’chtav, the written Torah. (Mesoret Harav on Devarim, page 217).
With this in mind, we can now easily understand the differences between the book of Devarim and the rest of the books of the Torah without resorting to more difficult explanations.