Who Wrote the Torah? The Talmud presents a confusing version of the traditional answer, “Moses!” In Tractate Bava Batra, after arranging the order of the Prophetic books, asks, “Who Wrote them?” (Talmud Bava Bathra 14b). The Talmud answers from the beginning, writing, “Moses wrote his Book, and the passage of Billam, and Job.” What is Moses’ Book if not the Torah itself? And surely “parasha Billam,” or Balak, which we read this week is squarely located in the Torah. Why, if the Talmud means to tell us that Moses wrote the Torah, does it have to include our parasha?
Medieval commentators were bothered by this very question and try to deduce a number of insights from it. Most of them, like Meir ben Todros HaLevi Abulafia (Yad Ramah, 1170-1244), insist that “His book” indeed means the Penteteuch, and that one specific narrative within is designated to teach us something special about that passage. Rashi (1040-1105) argues that this passage is mentioned “despite not being about Moses’ needs, teaching or deeds.” The point is, that Moses’ prophesy included things which he didn’t witness directly. Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609), takes this a step farther, noting Moses agreed with all the prophetic blessings that Billam the non-Jewish prophet bestows on Israel.
Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (1260-1330) takes a different approach. He claims that “the passage of Billam [mentioned in the Talmud] is not that passage of Billam written in the Torah, for God wrote that, like the rest of the Torah, rather it was a separate, longer, work to which [the authors of the Talmud] had access.” Now this is interesting. If God wrote the Torah, and not Moses, what is “his book”? I suspect that Asevilli thinks this refers to the book of Deuteronomy, the only book which is narrated, in the first person, by Moses. Modern bible scholars ought to look to this classical commentator for support.
But the reason why this is important should be clear to anyone who has ever prayed in a synagogue. Among the first words found in the prayer book come from this passage. “How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.” These might be words we assume come from a foreign prophet, used to look on us from the outside. But our tradition teaches us that these words are as central to our understanding of ourselves as any other passage in the bible. They come not from humans at all, but from God.
Rabbi Noah Benjamin Bickart is a visiting assistant professor in Jewish and interreligious studies at John Carroll University in University Heights.