Ramban on the Torah: The Placement of Mitzvot in Chumash

By Rabbi Yitzchak Blau, WebYeshiva

Our last post introduced Ramban’s idea that each of the Chumashim revolves around a single theme, a methodological assumption impacting on our understanding of the placement of particular mitzvot. In his introduction to sefer Devarim, Ramban states that the last of the Chumashim contains a summary of the commandants the Jews need to know when entering the land. He notes that Devarim includes little about the sacrificial order or the priesthood and explains that the great alacrity and commitment of the priests means that they did not need a review; they remembered all the details from sefer Vayikra. The rest of the people, however, benefited from hearing their obligations again.

Devarim also introduces certain mitzvot that do not appear earlier in Torah. Laws of levirate marriage, divorce, slander, and the punishment for false witnesses appear only in the last of the five Chumashim. Ramban writes that the Jewish people received these mitzvot at Sinai but they were not recorded in written from until later. Perhaps these mitzvot were not practiced until they entered the land. Alternatively, these commandments consist of occasional obligations rather than permanent duties; therefore, the Torah waits until a later book to record them.

Ramban‘s two explanations for those mitzvot introduced in Devarim raises a number of questions. Birkat hamazon appears for the first time in Devarim (8:10) even though it is a constant demand and not an occasional one. We can defend Ramban by noting that birkat hamazon emphasizes the theme of inheriting the land. The commanding verse itself says that we are to bless God “on the good land that He gave you” and we include this theme in the second blessing of birkat hamazon. Any obligation with strong connection to the land of Israel belongs in a book situated immediately before the Jewish people enter the Holy Land.

Bamidbar brings a different set of questions. In his introduction to Bamidbar, Ramban notes that most of the commandments in that book relate to temporary obligations of the Jews in the desert. This works well for the census and for mitzvot regarding traveling and camping. However, other types of commandments appear as well. For example, the Torah explicitly introduces the mitzva of libation offerings with the words” when you come to the land” (Bamidbar 15:1). Since this is a permanent mitzva that begins in Israel, it should appear in Devarim, not Bamidbar. Ramban explains that this commandment follows immediately after the sin of the spies. After hearing that they would not enter the land for forty years, the Jewish began to despair, assuming that they will never make it to the Promised Land. God counters that despair by stating a mitzva which assumes their eventual success.

Thus, thinking about each sefer’s goal and the individual commandments within it opens up a fruitful avenue for analysis. When studying Bamidbar and Devarim, we should ask about the permanent commandments in the former and about the obligations not related to the land first introduced in the latter.

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