“The Book of Deuteronomy–Mishneh Torah and the Purpose of Repetition”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Devarim, marks the commencement of the fifth book of the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy. It is essentially a repetition of many laws and narratives that are already recorded in the four previous books of the Torah, and, therefore, the final book of the Torah is appropriately known in rabbinic literature as Mishneh Torah (repeat or second Torah). Even its Greek name, “Deuteronomy,” underscores its repetitiveness. The book of Deuteronomy consists of a record of Moses’s final words to the people, his reproof of the nation, and much detail regarding the reward that awaits them for their faithfulness, or punishment for their lack of faithfulness.

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy are found expansions or elaborations on quite a few mitzvot that had been already mentioned in the first four books of the Torah. So, for instance, the Ten Commandments are repeated in parashat Va’etchanan (Deuteronomy 5). However, many entirely new mitzvot are also mentioned. Almost 1/3 of all the 613 mitzvot, according to the count of the Rambam (Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), are found in the book of Deuteronomy.

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), in his introduction to the Book of Deuteronomy, writes that we find in this book that Moses teaches the people about specific mitzvot that the people will need when they enter the Promised Land. Despite this emphasis, the book of Deuteronomy generally doesn’t mention the many laws that apply specifically to the Priests, such as the laws of sacrifice and purity. Nachmanides further notes that Deuteronomy also introduces new mitzvot that were not mentioned previously, such as the laws of defamation and divorce, as well as the law regarding false witnesses who have fabricated their testimony (zomamim).

Accordingly, the book of Deuteronomy serves four distinct purposes: 1. to clarify and expand previously mentioned mitzvot 2. to expand on and emphasize previous biblical narratives 3. to pronounce ethical lessons and warnings regarding reward and punishment 4. to introduce new laws.

Let us now explore these four purposes a bit more in depth.

Clarification of previously mentioned mitzvot: In Exodus 22:25 the Torah states that if a person lends money to a neighbor and exacts a pledge of “clothes” in return for a loan, the creditor must return those clothes so that the borrower will have what to wear during the day. Only at night may the creditor hold the debtor’s clothes. Obviously, as Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) notes, the context in Exodus must refer to “day clothes.” But, what if the pledge that was given were “night clothes”? Consequently, we are informed in Deuteronomy 24:13, “V’sha’chav b’sal’ma’toh,“– and he shall sleep in his clothes. This new verse from Deuteronomy serves to clarify the fact that if the creditor takes “night clothes” as a pledge, they must be returned each night.

Similarly, in Exodus 21:1, scripture states that a Hebrew servant goes free after six years of service. If he comes in alone, he shall go out alone. Is it possible that after all those years of service the servant leaves empty-handed? Therefore, we are taught in Deuteronomy 15:13-14, “Lo t’shal’cheh’noo ray’kam. Ha’ah’nayk ta’ah’nik lo,” He shall not be sent out empty-handed! In fact, the master must grant him a gift of his flocks, his wheat and his wine.

Emphasizing previous narratives and expanding on details: At times we find that the book of Deuteronomy repeats a particular incident that had been previously recorded in the Torah. Most often we find new information in the repetition that expands upon the narrative or provides additional details for the sake of emphasis and edification. For example, in Numbers 14 we learn of the incident of the spies and are told that the people complained to Moses, asking him why is he bringing them to the land of Canaan where they will die by the sword at the hands of the Canaanites. In Deuteronomy 1:27 we learn that their complaint was far more offensive: “B’sin’aht Hashem oh’tah’noo ho’tzee’ah’noo may’eretz Mitzrayim,” The people are quoted in Deuteronomy as saying that the entire purpose of the exodus from Egypt was so that G-d could deliver us into the hands of the Amorites and to destroy us, because G-d hates us so profoundly!

A second example may be found in the Torah’s description of Israel’s battle with Og, King of Bashan, recorded in Numbers 21:33. There, it simply states that King Og went out toward the people of Israel. But in Deuteronomy 3:11, a fearsome picture of Og’s stature and power is provided. “Hee’nay ar’so er’es bar’zel,” behold his bed is an iron bed…nine cubits its length, and four cubits its width. Now that the text in Deuteronomy has informed us of the true power of Og, the immensity of the salvation is much amplified. This important new detail teaches the people the wonders of G-d’s might and His absolute devotion to His people.

Words of reproof regarding reward and punishment: Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, frequent reference is made to accountability. Deuteronomy 8:6: “V’sha’mar’tah et mitzvot Hashem Eh’lo’kecha,” and you should observe the commandments of the Lord, your G-d, to go in his path and to revere him…. Deuteronomy 8:11, take heed not to forget the Lord, your G-d. Again, in Deuteronomy 8:19: And it shall come to pass, if you forget the Lord, your G-d…you shall be surely destroyed. Deuteronomy 11:8-9: And you shall observe all the commandments…and you will inherit the land…so that your days shall be lengthened on the land.

The book of Deuteronomy introduces some significant new mitzvot: The following laws are introduced in the book of Deuteronomy for the first time: laws of divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4; laws regarding the future kings of Israel, Deuteronomy 17:14-20; laws regarding the defamation of a would-be wife, Deuteronomy 22:13-21; the law of conspiring witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21.

Only at the very end of the book of Deuteronomy does the saga of the Jewish people, begun in the previous books, resume. Moses’s farewell to the people, the appointment of Joshua as the new leader, Moses’s blessing of the people and his passing, mark the conclusion of the book of Deuteronomy and provide the lead-in to the book of Joshua and the history of the people in the land of Israel.

The emotional description of the death of Moses that is found at the end of Deuteronomy serves as a poignant conclusion to the world’s most important book.

Pleases remember: Tisha b’Av this year is observed on Saturday night and Sunday, August 13-14, 2005. Have a meaningful fast.

May you be blessed.