A Unique Set of Pesukim
The events described in the Torah were written by Moshe Rabbeinu, exactly as transmitted from Hashem, after those events occurred. For example, the incident of the Mergalim was written after this incident occurred and the Korach rebellion was recorded in the Torah after this event transpired. While there is a dispute (Gittin 60a) whether the events of the Torah were recorded after each specific incident (Torah Megillah Megillah Nittenah) or only towards the conclusion of Sefer Devarim and Moshe Rabbeinu’s life (Torah Chatumah Nittenah; all agree that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the Torah up to the events of Har Sinai at Har Sinai – see Rashi to Shemot 24:4), all agree that the events were recorded only after each event occurred.
There are indeed prophetic portions in the Torah, such as in Bilam’s blessings and the Tochachot (sections of rebuke) at the end of Sefer VaYikra and Sefer Devarim. As noted by Rabbeinu Bachya, these sections record events before they occur. However, in these portions, the Torah makes it clear that these events will happen in the future. On the other hand, Moshe Rabbeinu’s death is presented in the Torah in past tense as having already occurred.
Hence, the last eight Pesukim of the Torah (Devarim 34:5-12), which describe the death of Moshe Rabbeinu as having already happened, pose a serious difficulty. On the one hand, if Moshe Rabbeinu wrote these Pesukim in advance of his death, these Pesukim differ from the entire Torah. On the other hand, it is axiomatic that the entire Torah was written by only Moshe Rabbeinu, as indicated in Devarim 31:24, which states that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the words of theTorah “until their completion.” Is it possible that the last Pesukim follow the pattern of the rest of the Torah and record the events only after they occurred, but differ in that they were not written by Moshe Rabbeinu?
The Tannaitic Dispute – Bava Batra 15a
The Gemara (Bava Batra 15a) records a major dispute among the Tanna’im about this issue. Rabi Nechemyah argues that Yehoshua wrote these last Pesukim, whereas Rabi Shimon asserts that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote these Pesukim as well (although he was crying while writing these Pesukim; see Rav Yehuda Gershuni’s Hagot BePharashiyot HaTorah for a summary of the major opinions explaining the meaning of writing in tears). Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8 and Hilchot Tefillah 13:6) rules strongly in favor of Rabi Shimon, but Rashi (Devarim 34:5) cites both opinions. All opinions agree, however, that these Pesukim in some manner differ from the rest of the Torah. This phenomenon has Halachic implications for the Torah reading on Simchat Torah, as noted by the Gemara (ibid.).
According to Rabi Shimon and Rambam, these events are prophetic when written by Moshe Rabbeinu but are written in the past tense because they are “as good as done.” Some refer to this writing style as “prophetic past” and note that this phenomenon appears on occasion later in Tanach, such as in Yeshayahu 5:13, Iyov 5:20 and Divrei HaYamim Bet 20:37.
It is reasonable to suggest that even Rabi Shimon and Rambam would agree that these last eight Pesukim were not revealed to the entire Jewish People until after these events occurred. Thus, the Pasuk (Devarim 34:9) that states that the Jewish People were obedient to Yehoshua subsequent to Moshe Rabbeinu’s death was not known to us until it occurred. It is possible that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the last eight Pesukim in prophetic past before his death but handed these Pesukim to a very limited group of students who revealed these Pesukim as Moshe Rabbeinu’s writing only after the events occurred.
Malbim (introduction to Sefer Tehillim) suggests the same approach regarding Rabi Meir’s opinion (Pesachim 117a) that David HaMelech composed the entire Tehillim. A problem with this opinion is that Tehillim includes Mizmorim that mourn the loss of the Davidic kingdom (Mizmor 89) and the exile to Babylon (Mizmor 137) as well as those that celebrate Shivat Tziyon, the return to Zion to build the Second Beit HaMikdash (Mizmor 126). Malbim explains that this opinion believes that David HaMelech composed these Mizmorim but handed them only to a small coterie of students, who, in turn, handed them to subsequent generations of limited groups of students, to be revealed to the entire Jewish People only when these Mizmorim would become relevant.
Rav Hayyim Angel suggests that the same applies to Yeshayahu’s prophecy (chapter 45) that seems to be about the Persian Emperor Koresh (Cyrus) establishing his empire. The problem is that Yeshayahu lived approximately two hundred years before Koresh conquered and succeeded the Babylonian empire. One may explain that Yeshayahu prophesied about this event long in advance of its occurring, but the prophecy was revealed to all only after Koresh fulfilled the prophecy.
Ibn Ezra’s Bold Opinion
Ibn Ezra occasionally presents daring approaches to Pesukim that are at variance with Chazal in the narrative portions of the Chumash. Ibn Ezra presents a Peshat (straightforward explanation without the aid of Midrashim) approach to Chumash, which he believes may vary with Chazal’s Midrashic approach to sections of Chumash that do not have direct Halachic implications.
In Devarim chapter 34 (Pasuk 1), Ibn Ezra argues that the entire Perek was written by Yehoshua after Moshe Rabbeinu’s death. Thus, Ibn Ezra extends Rabi Nechemyah’s opinion and argues that the last twelve Pesukim were written by Yehoshua. Ibn Ezra is compelled by Devarim 34:1-4’s recording that Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Nevo, apparently alone, where Hashem showed him Eretz Yisrael immediately prior to his death. Ibn Ezra notes that the Pesukim do not record that Moshe Rabbeinu descended the mountain after this episode. Thus, Moshe Rabbeinu did not have the opportunity to record this event after it happened and then transmit it to Bnei Yisrael. Accordingly, Ibn Ezra concludes that Yehoshua wrote also the first four Pesukim of Perek 34, after the event occurred. Ibn Ezra explains that Hashem presented Yehoshua with the information after the event (otherwise, how could Yehoshua have known what happened after Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Har Nevo?).
Rabi Nechemyah could defend his opinion that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the first four Pesukim of Perek 34 (although he believes that the last eight were written by Yehoshua) by arguing that Yehoshua accompanied Moshe Rabbeinu in his ascent to Mount Nevo. Support for this answer may be derived from Yehoshua’s being the sole individual who waited for Moshe Rabbeinu after he ascended Har Sinai to heaven (Shemot 32:17) and from the Halachah (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 339:4) obligating us to Ensure that no one suffer the agony of dying alone.
Another possibility is that after Hashem showed him Eretz Yisrael, Moshe Rabbeinu did, in fact, descend from Har Nevo, in order to record this incident and transmit it to the Torah in accordance to Hashem’s exact specifications. A third option is that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the first four Pesukim while on Har Nevo after being shown Eretz Yisrael but before he died. Yehoshua later discovered the scroll written by Moshe Rabbeinu. This answer might be supported by Sefer Melachim’s recording (Melacim Bet 2:16-17) that after Eiliyahu HaNavi died, his students scoured the area for his whereabouts. Yehoshua may have done a similar search for Moshe Rabbeinu’s body, whereupon he discovered the scroll. There are, in fact, many parallels between Moshe Rabbeinu and Eiliyahu HaNavi, making the comparison an appropriate one.
Ibn Ezra could respond to all of these suggestions that “Ikar Chaseir Min HaSefer”,– none of these suggestions are stated in the text. Rabi Nechemyah and Rashi could reply that this is an example of “Chisurei Mechasra,” that the obvious need not be stated explicitly in the text when we could infer it independently.
Criticism of Ibn Ezra
The Or HaChayim (Devarim 34:9) severely criticizes Ibn Ezra’s approach. He writing that heresy sprouts from this approach, as it strengthens the heretical belief that that the Torah has been edited and changed from its original state. The Or HaChayim emphatically endorses the opinion of Rabi Shimon and Rambam that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote all of the Torah, including the last eight Pesukim.
One wonders why the Or HaChayim singles out Ibn Ezra for criticism while not similarly criticizing Rabi Nechemyah or even Rashi, who presents Rabi Nechemyah as a viable option. After all, Ibn Ezra is simply expanding upon Rabi Nechemyah’s opinion. One may respond that Or HaChayim is disturbed by Ibn Ezra’s venturing beyond where Rabi Nechemyah and Rashi dared to tread. Rabi Nechemyah and Rashi limit their approach to the Pesukim regarding which it seems impossible for Moshe Rabbeinu to have written it during his lifetime.
Resolving an Apparent Inconsistency within Ibn Ezra
Ibn Ezra appears to adopt a strikingly different tone in his grappling with BeReishit 36:31-39, which lists eight generations of kings of Edom “before a king reigned in Israel.” Ramban, Rashbam and Chizkuni all believe that the king of Israel described here is Moshe Rabbeinu. Ibn Ezra cites an opinion that the king in Israel described here is King Saul, and that BeReishit 36:31-39 mentions, by prophetic means, kings not born yet during Moshe’s lifetime.
Ibn Ezra proceeds to quote a commentator from the deviationist Karaitic sect who argued that these Pesukim were written long after Moshe Rabbeinu’s death, during the reign of King Yehoshafat. Ibn Ezra sharply criticizes this view, writing “Heaven forefend, Heaven forefend that the matter is like what he said about the days of Yehoshafat. His commentary deserves to be burnt.”
Why does Ibn Ezra embrace and even expand upon Rabi Nechemyah’s opinion that a small portion of the Torah was not written by Moshe Rabbeinu yet vigorously reject a notion that BeReishit 36:31-39 was written after Moshe Rabbeinu’s death? One may answer that the end of the Torah is a more fitting place to view as a codicil added to the end of the Torah by the leading student of Moshe Rabbeinu after the latter’s death. In addition, it is acceptable to the Ibn Ezra to claim that Yehoshua completed the Torah, since he was in the “same league” as Moshe Rabbeinu.
Chazal (Bava Batra 75a) compare Moshe Rabbeinu to the sun and Yehoshua to the moon. This statement captures the notion that although Yehoshua was a lesser prophet than Moshe Rabbeinu (as indicated by Devarim 34:10, which states that a prophet like Moshe Rabbeinu never arose amongst Israel), he is at least comparable to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moreover, Moshe Rabbeinu states (Devarim 18:15) that Hashem will send us a prophet “like me,” and Ibn Ezra interprets this as referring to Yehoshua. It cannot be referring to other prophets, since they cannot legitimately be compared to Moshe Rabbeinu. In fact, Ibn Ezra interprets the phrase “until this very day” in Devarim 34:6 (which states that no one has discovered the location of Moshe Rabbeinu’s grave “until this very day”) as referring to the end of Yehoshua’s life. Ibn Ezra does not explain this Pasuk, which potentially could be understood to refer to a much later time, to refer to a time later than the death of Yehoshua. Thus, Ibn Ezra cannot countenance the idea of a Pasuk being added to the Torah by someone other than Yehoshua.
While there is vigorous debate regarding the authorship of the last eight (and perhaps twelve) Pesukim in the Torah, there is no debate regarding the authorship of the rest of the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu’s authorship of the rest of the Torah is a pillar of our belief, and Orthodox Judaism cannot countenance deviation, however minor, from this principle of faith. Orthodox Judaism by definition has “red lines,” and if one crosses them, he or she is no longer defined as Orthodox. As open as Ibn Ezra was to bold and innovative approaches within Chumash, his stern comments in his commentary to BeReishit 36:31 demonstrate that he had clear limits and boundaries beyond which he dared not cross.
I acknowledge the assistance I received from Rav Dr. Andrew Schein’s essay on this topic.