Hashem has Moshe make an unusual demand of the people:
“2 It shall be on the day that you cross the Jordan to the Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, you shall set up great stones and you shall cover them with plaster.
3 You shall write on them all the words of this Torah, when you cross over, so that you may enter the Land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, a Land flowing with milk and honey, as Hashem, the G-d of your forefathers, spoke about you.
4 It shall be that when you cross the Jordan, you shall erect these stones, of which I command you today, on Mount Ebal, and you shall coat them with plaster.
5 There you shall build an altar for Hashem, your G-d, an altar of stones; you shall not raise iron upon them. 6 Of whole stones shall you build the altar of Hashem, your G-d, and you shall bring upon it elevation-offerings to Hashem, your G-d.
7 You shall slaughter peace offerings and eat there, and you shall be glad before Hashem, your G-d.
8 On the stones, you shall write the words of the Torah well clarified.”
(Devarim, Deuteronomy 27:2-8).
“Well Clarified: In seventy languages.” (Rashi – See Talmud Tractate Sotah 36a)
What’s going on here?
The commandment to carve the Torah onto stones is written twice, first in verse 27:2-3, and then repeated in verse 27:4-8.
According to the Talmud – Tractate Sotah (34a), there were three sets of stones, not just one or two, each set consisting of twelve stones.
1. Before his death, Moshe wrote the Torah on one group of stones and erected them in Arvot Moav (the Plains of Moav).
2. Yehoshua (Joshua) ordered a second group of stones placed in the Jordan River.
3. The final group of stones were taken from the Jordan River, carried to Har Eival (Mt. Ebal) and used to build a Mizbayach (altar) there. Subsequently, the stones were carried to Gilgal and permanently implanted there. More details below.
The locations of these stones were known until the time of theTalmud, but archeologists have never found them.
How many stones?
12 in each group. (One stone corresponding to each Shevet [tribe]).
How big were the stones?
The Talmud, Tractace Sotah (34a) gives the volume of each stone as forty Se’ah (one Amah* by one Amah by three Amot – the measurement of a minimum size Mikvah). This means each stone weighed several hundred pounds.
*How big is an amah? Anywhere between one and a half and two feet (that’s somewhere between 48 and 57.6 centimetres for those of you who care).
What was the purpose of the stones?
The first set of stones, (which also contained the words of the Torahin all languages), erected by Moshe in Arvot Moav (on the eastern side of the Jordan River), served as a monument reestablishing the covenant with Hashem that the Bnei Yisroel had nullified when they worshipped the Eigel Hazahav (Golden Calf).
The second set, Yehoshua placed in the Jordan River itself as they crossed. According to Rabbeinu Bachaye, the function of these stones, was for the Kohanim to stand on, to avoid having to stand in the mud. The Kohanim stood their ground holding the Aron (Ark) while the people crossed, until the water returned to its original course.
The third set of stones were taken from the Jordan River, erected onHar Eival in the form of a Mizbayach, and covered with lime (plaster). On the Mizbayach they wrote the entire Torah (in Lashon Hakodesh(Hebrew) as well as in the seventy universal languages, after which, they sacrificed Korbanot on the Mizbayach. They then took it apart and carried the stones to Gilgal, where they spent their first night inEretz Yisroel, and where they re-erected them.
“….When your children will ask their fathers in the future: ‘What is the meaning of these stones?’ You will inform your children: ‘Israel crossed this Jordan on dry land.’ For HaShem your G-d dried up the waters of Jordan from before you, until you crossed, as Hashem your G-d did to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us, until we crossed. So that all the peoples of the earth may know the hand of Hashem, that it is mighty; so that you will fear Hashem your G-d all the days.’ “
(Yehoshua, Joshua 4: 21-24.)
This was to arouse the curiosity of the descendents of those who entered Eretz Yisroel, whereupon they would relate to them how their ancestors crossed the Jordan River (which is where the stones were taken from).
The Oznayim La’Torah, in addition to the above reason, cites two other reasons for the Mitzvah of the stones (all the reasons seem to pertain to the third set).
Both reasons are mentioned in the Torah; one of them, which describes it as a means or as a prelude to capturing Eretz Yisroel.And the other one is written by way of a hint, by virtue of the fact that the Torah was to be translated in all the languages, whose purpose it was to grant the gentile nations access to the Torah. It was to drive home the lesson that Hashem created the world and that it therefore belongs to Him. This in turn, will help to reinforce the lesson that it was Hashem who gave the Jewish people Eretz Yisroel and that it is rightfully theirs (as the first Rashi in the Torah teaches us).
A Mezuza for Eretz Yisroel?
The Abarbanel writes that the writing of the Torah upon stones at the time of entry into Eretz Yisroel is similar to the writing of a Mezuza for the doorposts of one’s home. Just as the Mezuza contains the text of acceptance of the Heavenly yoke, so too the Bnei Yisroel were required to have the complete Torah written upon stones at the “gateway” to Eretz Yisroel. Thus when they will be victorious in their battles and vanquish the inhabitants of the land, they will remember that the success is not theirs, but rather, the hand of Hashem. “Hashem ish milchamah” – “Hashem is Master of war.” (Shmot, Exodus 15:3).
Seventy languages? Why?
In addition to transcribing the Torah into Hebrew, the Jews were commanded to translate it into all languages of the civilized world.
There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, the gentile nations needed an opportunity to learn it. Had they read the inscription and observed the Seven Noahide Laws, they would have been able to stay in Eretz Yisroel. They refused to learn from it.
Additionally, these stones were to show everyone that the Jews had come to Eretz Yisroel not as foreign conquerors but as commanded by Hashem. They also signified that one is about to enter the land of the Torah. Just as a Jewish home has a Mezuza, so these stones were to remind the traveler that the purpose of living in Eretz Yisroelis to keep the Torah. (If only everyone would realize this).
Which came first – the plaster or the writing?
The Sages (Talmud Tractate Sotah 35b) debated the purpose of plastering the stones with lime.
Rabbi Shimon maintained that the stones were covered with plaster in order to provide Moshe and Yehoshua a surface to write on. (Devarim, 27:2-4).
Rabbi Yehuda, however, points out that a few passages later (Ibid 27:8) the Torah explicitly commanded to write upon the stones. He therefore concludes that the Torah was engraved into the stones and they were later covered with lime in order to protect the script.
“According to your approach,” Rabbi Shimon challenged Rabbi Yehuda, “if it was covered with lime, how was it possible for the nations of the world at that time to learn the Torah?”
Rashi explains the question:
The Torah was written on the stones in 70 languages to make it available for anyone who wished to study it. This was done so that no nation should have an excuse that they had no opportunity to learn the Torah. If it was covered in lime, how could the nations study the Torah?
Rabbi Yehuda answered:
“Hashem endowed those nations with a special intelligence, and they sent their scribes to scrape off the plaster, decipher and copy the Torah and bring back to them its contents. Their failure to take advantage of this opportunity to learn and live by that Torah, sealed the decree against them, for they should have learned, but didn’t.”
The obvious question that arises in regard to Rabbi Yehuda’s response to Rabbi Shimon’s challenge is: Why was it necessary to conceal the words of the Torah with plaster and then only be revealed through the efforts of the scribes?
On a simple level, it may be suggested that this was done in accordance with the ruling that it is disrespectful to leave a Torahscroll or any book of Torah learning open when not in use.
A more profound explanation may be that this was intended as a lesson that one can only truly acquire Torah knowledge if he is ready to invest serious effort in studying and understanding the words of the Torah. There are people who may have a curiosity about Torahbut want its contents handed to them on a silver platter, like the person who came before the Sages Hillel and Shammai requesting that they convert him to Judaism on the condition that they teach him the entire Torah while he stands on one leg (Talmud TractateShabbat 31a). To dispel any notion that Torah can be acquired without hard work, our ancestors were commanded to cover the multilingual recording of the Torah with lime so that the nations who really wished to learn would first have to sweat a little along with their study.
Why on stone and not on any other material?
The great sage, Rabbi Akiva, was an illiterate shepherd up to the age of forty. He once came across a stone and was fascinated by the water that dripped constantly, boring a hole in the stone. From this he concluded that if water can penetrate a hard stone, surely Torahcan penetrate his heart of flesh and blood. (Avot D’Rab Natan 6)
By instructing Moshe and Yehoshua to write the Torah on hard stone, Hashem implied that even if a person possesses the poorest faculties (a head as hard as a rock), if he learns Torah diligently it will definitely have an indelible effect on him and will improve him physically and spiritually.
What was actually inscribed on the stones?
What was actually inscribed is the subject of discussion amongst various commentaries.
Abarbanel suggests that only a synopsis, or selected passages ofDevarim, were transcribed.
Ibn Ezra, recognizing the difficulty in copying the entire Torah onto these stones, adopts the approach of Rav Saadia Gaon and suggests that only the 613 mitzvot were written.
The Ramban, on the other hand, accepts the verses at face value, and quotes an ancient text which states that the entire Torah was in fact written on these stones from beginning to end, including all the Tagin (three small upward strokes resembling crowns) and calligraphy. This was the “official” transcription of the Torah, and afterwards, the stones were available for consultation and reference on how to write a Sefer Torah.
How could the entire Torah be written on these stones? The difficulty presented in writing such a massive document on the stones is dismissed by the Ramban, who says, that the stones were either massive in size or that the inscription was a miraculous process which allowed for the inclusion of the entire Torah on a relatively small area (and in 70 languages).
(It seems strange that the Ramban has doubts about the size of these stones, seeing as the Talmud, Tractate Sotah (34a) specifically gives the volume of the stones).
Speaking about miracles, here’s another one: Har Gerizim and HarEival were a distance of sixty Mil* (more than forty miles – one and a half days walking distance). Yet they traveled there, set up the stones, wrote the entire Torah on them in all seventy-one languages and went through the entire ceremony described in this Parsha and returned, all before nightfall.
*How big is a Mil? A Mil is 2000 Amot. How big is an Amah? See note above.
How is it that just for writing the Torah on large stones and bringing them across the Jordan, the Bnei Yisroel will merit entry into Eretz Yisroel?
Writing the Torah on stones and carrying these stones across the Jordan River would indelibly impress upon the minds of the Jewish people that only by virtue of the Torah do they merit to live in Eretz Yisroel. Recognition of this fact was the essential point, and this was the absolute prerequisite of their entry into their land. – Alshich
The Ramban similarly suggests that the entire basis of entering and holding Eretz Yisroel is the Torah. Only by keeping the mitzvot of theTorah does Bnei Yisroel merit entering the land. Thus, it is entirely appropriate that Bnei Yisroel immediately erect these monuments upon crossing into the land.
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the stones taken for the monument were removed from the bed of the Jordan River at the time that it split in order to allow Bnei Yisroel to enter the land. RavHirsch points out that the waters parted for the Aron carrying theLuchot (Tablets), and not for the people. It is only the total and unwavering dedication to the Torah through which we merit possession of Eretz Yisroel.