Simchat Torah: Celebrating a Torah of fire and water

How did Moshe begin his blessings to the Children of Israel?

Daniel Pinner

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Dedicated to the memory of my mother, Dr Hana Pinner z”l, who passed away on Motzaei Shmini Atzeret, 23rd Tishrei 5767 (15th October 2006). Yehi zichrah baruch.

Simchat Torah: the day we celebrate the Torah by concluding it and immediately beginning it anew.

The Torah-reading for Simchat Torah is the final two chapters, the final 41 verses, of the Torah (Deuteronomy 33:1-34:12), followed immediately by the first 34 verses (Genesis 1:1-2:3).

The Torah-reading opens with Parashat Ve-zot ha-Brachah:

וְזֹאת הַבְּרָכָה, “And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the Man of G-d, blessed the Children of Israel before his death”.

There is an overwhelming poignancy in this:

Moshe, the greatest Prophet who ever lived, “the Father of the Prophets” (Megillah 13a, Avot de-Rabbi Natan 1:4, Sifrei Bamidbar, Pinchas 134 et al.), the man who had led us out of slavery and into redemption, the Man of G-d who had brought us the Torah down from Heaven itself, the man who had defended us against G-d Himself when He had threatened, in His fury, to destroy the nation, the leader who had guided us through forty years in the Sinai Desert, was now to die in exile, forbidden to enter the Land of Israel and to see his beloved nation live free and independent in their homeland.

Last Shabbat, Parashat Ha’azinu concluded by recording G-d’s final charge to Moshe:

“Ascend this mountain of mountain-passes [1], Mount Nevo, which is in the land of Moab, which faces Jericho, and see the Land of Canaan which I give to the Children of Israel as an inheritance. And you will die on the mountain… From afar you will see the Land, though you shall not go there, to the Land which I give to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:49-52).

And now, on Simchat Torah, as we conclude the Torah, we continue with the very next verse:

“And this is the blessing with which Moshe, the Man of G-d, blessed the Children of Israel before his death…”. Then follow Moshe’s blessings to Israel as a whole, then to the individual Tribes. And then, only after blessing his beloved nation, “Moshe ascended from the Plains of Moab to Mount Nevo, the top of the peak which faces Jericho” (Deuteronomy 34:1).

Moshe could not depart from the Children of Israel, even to obey G-d’s direct command, without first bestowing his final blessings upon this nation which he so loved!

How did Moshe begin his blessings to the Children of Israel?

– “Hashem came from Sinai, and shone forth for them from Seir; He appeared from Mount Paran, and came from the myriads of Holy Ones; in His right [hand] was a Torah of fire for them” (Deuteronomy 33:2).

This is Moshe’s beautifully poetic and evocative homiletic introduction to Jewish history.

Concatenating several expositions, primarily Targum Yonatan, Targum Onkelos, Targum Yerushalmi, Rashi, and Ibn Ezra:

“Hashem came from Sinai” – Hashem was revealed from Mount Sinai to give the Torah to His nation, the House of Israel;

“and shone forth for them from Seir” – He illuminated the glory of His Shechinah [Divine Presence] from the highlands to give it to the sons of Esau, but they refused to accept it;

“He appeared from Mount Paran” – He appeared in a blaze of glory from Mount Paran to give it to the sons of Ishmael, but they refused to accept it;

“and came from the myriads of Holy Ones” – He returned and revealed Himself in holiness over His nation, the House of Israel, and with Him were multitudes of myriads of holy angels;

“in His right [hand] was a Torah of fire for them” – in the writings of His right [hand] and the Torah from the midst of the flaming fire He gave them Mitzvot.

These references to G-d offering the Torah to the sons of Esau and Ishmael are expounded on in greater detail in the well-known Midrash on Parashat Ve-zot ha-Brachah:

“When G-d revealed Himself to give the Torah to Israel, He appeared not only to Israel but to all the nations. He began with the sons of Esau, saying to them: Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said to them: ‘You shall not murder’. They said, The entire power of these people and their ancestor is that he was a murderer… 

“He went to the children of Amon and Moab and said to them, Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said to them: ‘You shall not commit adultery’. They said, The entire power of these people is their sexual immorality… 

“He went to the sons of Ishmael and said to them, Will you accept the Torah? They said to Him: What is written in it? He said to them: ‘You shall not steal’. They said, The entire power of these people is that their ancestor was a violent robber…

“And so it was with every single nation – He asked them if they would accept the Torah, as it says ‘All the kings of the earth acknowledged You, O Hashem, when they heard the words of Your mouth’ (Psalms 138:4)” (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Parashat Ve-zot ha-Brachah 343; the same events are recorded in different words in Tanna de-vei Eliyahu, Pirkei ha-Yeridot Section 3, s.v. ירידה השישית).

Israel, by contrast, instead of asking what is written on the Torah, responded נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע, “We will do it and we will hear it” (Exodus 24:7): “We will do” before “we will hear”, swearing obedience to the Torah before even knowing what was in it, accepting it unconditionally on trust.

Thus Moshe lovingly allegorised the Giving of the Torah.

And then he continued: “in His right [hand] was a Torah of fire for them”. The Torah is frequently compared to fire, “because the candle is the mitzvah and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23). 

Indeed “the Torah which G-d gave to Moshe is [letters of] black fire engraved on parchment of white fire” (Yerushalmi Shekalim 6:1, Yerushalmi Sotah 8:3, Devarim Rabbah 3:12 et al.).

And this was why, when the Romans wrapped Rabbi Chanina ben Teradyon in a Torah-scroll and burned him to death together with the Torah-scroll, as his students and daughter screamed in anguish, he could comfort them from within the deathly flames with his indescribably heroic and brave and inspiring words:

“If for me you cry, then don’t cry, because better be burnt by a  fire which humans have lit than by a fire which G-d has lit; and if for the Torah-scroll you cry, then don’t cry, because behold! – the Torah is fire, and fire cannot destroy fire” (Semachot 8:12).

And the Torah is also compared to water: “There is no water other than Torah” (Bava Kama 17a, Avodah Zara 5b, et al.), because just as water is essential to physical life, Torah is essential to spiritual life.

So the Torah combines fire and water – a combination which is impossible in this world. But in the World of Truth, אֵשׁ, “fire” and  מַיִם, “water” combine to form שָׁמַיִם, “Heaven” (Bereishit Rabbbah 4:7, Bamidbar Rabbah 12:4 et al.).

And maybe Moshe alludes to this dual character of the Torah – אֵשׁ, “fire” and מַיִם, “water” – in his words, “in His right [hand] was a Torah of fire for them”; in Hebrew, מִימִינוֹ אֵשׁ דָּת לָמוֹ.

Now the words אֵשׁ דָּת are almost universally translated as “a Torah of fire” or something similar. But this translation is terribly inadequate:

As sometimes happens in the Tanach, this is written one way (כְּתִיב) and read another way (קְרִי). It is written אשדת, as one single word, and read aloud אֵשׁ דָּת, as two separate words.

So what does אֵשׁ דָּת connote? And what does אשדת connote?

אֵשׁ, obviously, means “fire”. דָּת, however, is a more problematic word.

In the Tanach, the word דָּת occurs almost solely in the Book of Esther (and once in the Book of Daniel, 6:16), where it means “decree”; it is a Persian loan-word, not authentic Hebrew. (The Book of Esther uses several Persian loan-words, reminding the reader periodically that even though this text in in Hebrew, the events and dialogues were actually happening in Persian.)

In later Hebrew, the word דָּת came to denote “religion”: hence דָּת מֹשֶׁה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל  connotes “the Religion of Moshe and Israel”. The Rambam, in Iggeret Teiman (Epistle to Yemen), refers to Judaism as דָּת הָאֱמֶת (the religion of truth), in contrast to Islam as דָּת הַמְּזוּיֶּפֶת (the false religion).

Hence אֵשׁ דָּת, a “Religion of Fire”, or more idiomatically “a Torah of Fire”.

But as we have noted, the word דָּת is not all that authentically Hebrew.

Let us, then, go with the כְּתִיב instead of the קְרִי, and read אשדת as one single word. What does אשדת connote?

– The word אֶשֶׁד is a very poetic word meaning “waterfall” (see Numbers 21:15), plural אַשְׁדֹּת (see Deuteronomy 3:17, 4:49, Joshua 12:3, et al.). So the phrase מִימִינוֹ אֵשׁ דָּת לָמוֹ would connote: “in His right [hand] was a Torah of gushing water for them”.

Moshe’s blessing to the Children of Israel begins with his love of Torah – the Torah which is both fire and water. A combination which happens in Heaven.

The Torah which we celebrate on Simchat Torah, the Torah which we call “the Torah of Moshe” because he brought it down from Heaven to us and because he was willing to give his very life for it, is the Torah which infuses Heaven into this world.

This Torah is both אֵשׁ דָּת, a Torah of Fire, and also אשדת, a waterfall, gushing waters. It combines fire and water, which can only coexist in form שָׁמַיִם, Heaven. So the Torah which we love and celebrate is a veritable foretaste of heaven itself.


[1] Translating the Hebrew עֲבָרִים as “mountain-passes”, following the Ramban on Numbers 27:12. The standard rendering, “Mount of Abarim”, is unsatisfactory: the name of the mountain is Mount Nevo, which suggests that the appellation הַר הָעֲרָבִים is a description rather than the name of the mountain. The topography of the region definitely supports the understanding “mountain of mountain-passes”.