The Book of Deuteronomy is the biblical book whose law and theology most directly shaped later Judaism.


Excerpted with the permission of the Rabbinical Assembly from Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (© 2001 by The Rabbinical Assembly, published by the Jewish Publication Society ).

The Names of Deuteronomy

Deuteronomy has two Hebrew names: Sefer Devarim, short for (Sefer) ve’eleh hadevarim, “(The Book of) ‘These are the words,'” taken from its opening phrase; and Mishneh Torah, “Repetition of the Torah” (source of English “Deuteronomy”), taken from 17:18. It consists of five retrospective discourses and poems that Moses addressed to Israel in Moav shortly before his death (1:6‑4:43, 4:44‑28:69, 29‑30, 32, 33), plus two narratives about his final acts (Chaps. 31, 34). The book’s core is the second discourse, in which Moses conveys laws that the people commissioned him to receive from God at Mount Sinai 40 years earlier. 

Exclusive Loyalty to God

Several themes in Deuteronomy stand out. Among the Torah‘s books, it is the most vigorous and clear advocate of monotheism and of the ardent, exclusive loyalty that Israel owes God (4:32‑40, 6:4‑5). It emphasizes God’s love, justice, and transcendence.

This book stresses the covenant between God and Israel, summed up in 26:16‑19. Established with the patriarchs, affirmed at Sinai and in Moab, it is to be reaffirmed as soon as Israel enters its land (4:31, 5:2, 28:69, 27).

Life in the Land of Israel

Deuteronomy looks toward Israel’s life in the land of Israel, where a society pursuing justice and righteousness, living in harmony with God and enjoying His bounty, can be established (4:5‑8, 7:12‑13). The promise of this land is conditional (11:8‑9, 21); Israel’s welfare depends on maintaining a society governed by God’s social and religious laws. These laws are a divine gift to Israel, unparalleled in their justice and their ability to secure God’s closeness (4:5‑8). The Torah’s humanitarianism is most developed in Deuteronomy’s concern for the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged.

Centralized Worship

Deuteronomy proclaims the unique rule that sacrifice may take place only in the religious capital, in a single sanctuary (chapter 12). Its aim is to spiritualize religion by freeing it from excessive dependence on sacrifice and priesthood. It urges instead studying God’s law and performing rituals that teach reverent love for Him. These teachings probably laid the groundwork for nonsacrificial, synagogue-based worship.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.

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