“On the east bank of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses began to elucidate (be’er) this Torah.” (Deut. 1:5)
Moses and Ezra
The fifth book of the Torah differs from the first four books. Deuteronomy is not a verbatim transmission of God’s word, but a prophetic work, on par with the writings of other prophets. The final book of the Torah is called Mishneh Torah (Deut. 17:18), for it is Moses’ review and elucidation of the Torah.
A second surge of Torah exegesis took place in the time of Ezra:
“They read in the book of God’s Torah, clarified (meforash); and they gave the sense, and explained the reading to them” (Nehemiah 8:8).
Both Moses and Ezra explained and elucidated the Torah. Their methods of interpretation, however, differed. Moses’ elucidation was a biur, while Ezra’s was a perush. What is the difference between these two methods?
Two Methods of Elucidation
From the time of Moses until Ezra, the Torah was clarified through the method of biur. This word comes from the root be’er, meaning a well of water. Like a well, the creative outpouring of learning flowed “like an overflowing spring and a river that never dries up” (Avot 6:1). This form of analysis begins by deducing the underlying principles; then, all of the details may be derived from these fundamental principles, the hidden foundations of the Torah.
Ezra, however, recognized that the innovative biur, with its subtle methods of induction and deduction, was not suitable for all periods. In a time of exile, this approach could prove to be dangerous. Political instability and social upheaval diminish the quality of scholarship and peace of mind, thus weakening the nation’s spiritual and intellectual capabilities. In such difficult conditions, the method of biur could be misused, leading to a subversion of the Torah’s true aims.
Therefore, Ezra promoted the approach of perush. This is an empirical method of analyzing a subject by examining all of its details. Details are compared to one another, without attempting to determine the underlying principles. The word perush comes from the root paras, “to spread forth” (see Isaiah 25:11). This form of analysis is less risky, since it limits itself to the material at hand.
Letterforms for the Times
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) states that Ezra was a scholar of such stature that the Torah could have been given to Israel through him. While this did not occur, Ezra nonetheless made a revolutionary change in the Torah, by switching the writing in the Torah from the ancient Hebrew script to the square Assyrian script. Why did Ezra make this change in the letterforms?
The two scripts reflect different needs of the nation. During the First Temple period, there was little interaction with other nations, and the Torah did not openly influence the world. The Jewish people dwelled in their own land, and the kohanim and the Levites were available to inspect the text of the Torah scrolls and guard them from any scribal errors. When Moses gave the Torah to the Jewish people, a clear script not given to mistakes in transmission was not of paramount importance. The problem of similar-looking letterforms in the ancient Hebrew script was not an issue during the relatively stable era of the First Temple period.
Ezra lived at the beginning of the Second Temple period. This era was essentially a time for the Jewish people to prepare themselves for the long and difficult exile that would follow. Retaining the difficult ancient letterforms would have made it impossible to safeguard the accuracy of the Torah’s text. In the centuries of exile and wanderings from country to country, the original Hebrew script would have lead to many mistakes and uncertainties. The sages of the beginning of the Second Temple period, aware of the long exile to come, worked to fortify the spiritual state of the people, despite the future loss of the nation’s unifying institutions, such as the Temple, the Sanhedrin, and the monarchy. One of the initiatives of that era was Ezra’s decision to switch the script to the clear Assyrian script, whose unambiguous letters would prevent confusing similar letters in the text of the Torah.
A Fence for the Torah
The sages of that era made other preparations for the future exile, establishing protective decrees to guard the Torah’s laws. “Make a fence for the Torah” (Avot 1:1) was the motto of the Great Assembly.
Even though these changes came about due to the needs of the hour, the Jewish people recognized the value and benefits of these decrees. As the nation adopted these holy paths, pure deeds and worthy customs, a net of eternal love spread over them, and they acquired a permanent place in the spiritual life of the nation.
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 291-293. Adapted from the Introduction to Ein Eyah vol. I, pp. 14-17)