Ibn Ezra’s “Secret of the Twelve”[1]


The Torah’s final chapter presents a serious theological dilemma. The following is a brief history of how some scholars handled this dilemma.



  1. Did Moses write the entire Torah?
  2. Do traditional Jewish commentators differ on the subject?


Who wrote the story of the death of Moses?

The twelve verses of Deuteronomy chapter 34, at the end of the Five Books of Moses, tell the story of the death of Moses. The introductory four verses narrate how God told Moses to ascend Mount Nebo. God showed Moses the land God had promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that God would give to their descendants. The final eight verses begin with the statement that Moses died there and continues with facts that occurred after his death. He was buried there after living 120 years, the Israelites mourned him for thirty days, Joshua succeeded him, and no prophet arose after him that was like him.


Is it a principle of Jewish belief that Moses wrote the entire Torah?

The usual understanding of Jewish tradition is that Moses wrote the entire Torah. In his Introduction to Chelek, Maimonides (1138–1204) lists thirteen fundamental principles of Judaism. The eighth is that the entire Torah that we possess today was given by God to Moses. It is true that many Maimonidean scholars such as Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in his series of books on the Guide of the Perplexed, claims that Maimonides himself did not believe this principle and most of the other thirteen. He writes that Maimonides included this idea for the sake of the masses, just as he included many other statements in his writings for this purpose.[2] Be this as it may, traditional Jews, even as Leibowitz admits, believe that the entire Torah was given to the Israelites by God through Moses. But since chapter 34 deals with Moses’ death and its aftermath, how could Moses write about his death and what occurred afterwards?


Rashi quotes the Talmud and Midrash

The question is an old one. Rashi, the foremost Bible commentator of the eleventh century, summarizes the responses contained in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 15a, Menachot 30a, and Midrash Sifrei.

Is it possible that Moses wrote “and Moses died there”? But, Moses wrote until this verse (verse 5) and afterwards Joshua wrote. (This was the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda or Rabbi Nehemiah. However, Rabbi Meyer felt that Moses wrote the entire Torah.)… The Holy One, blessed be He, spoke, and Moses wrote with tears.


Abraham ibn Ezra

The first opinion, that Moses did not write the entire Torah opened a Pandora’s Box. Realizing that Moses was on top of the mountain where he died and did not descend to report what happened there even before he died, the twelfth century commentator Abraham ibn Ezra states that Moses did not write all twelve passages in this chapter. He suggests that the chapter was written by Joshua who knew what occurred through prophecy.

While this seems innocuous, it is actually part of a general concept of ibn Ezra that he calls the “secret of the twelve.” He seems to contend that just as these twelve verses were not written by Moses, so too there are other passages that Moses did not write. Since most people could not or would not accept this idea, he decided to keep it a secret.

Ibn Ezra is one of the foremost traditional Bible commentators. His commentary is printed with those of other traditional Bible commentators in the “Rabbinic Bibles” and is frequently quoted from synagogue pulpits. Yet, he is one of the most rationalistic Bible commentators and many who read his views for the first time are surprised at its content.


Ibn Ezra’s secret of the twelve

Ibn Ezra mentions his “secret of the twelve” in his commentary to Deuteronomy 1:2. The “secret” is not spelled out in any detail, probably because of his fear of offending those with a contrary view. It is explained by ibn Ezra’s super commentator Josef Bonfils in his Zophnat Panei’ach, which he wrote in 1370. Ibn Ezra lists six biblical passages that he felt could not have been composed by Moses.

  1. Deuteronomy 1:1 relates that God spoke to Moses on the “other side of the Jordan.” This implies that the writer wrote from the eastern side of the Jordan, but Moses never crossed the Jordan.
  2. Deuteronomy 31:9 uses the third person “and Moses wrote.” This seems to indicate that some other writer is narrating the deeds and writings of Moses.
  3. Genesis 12:6 recites that Abraham traveled throughout the land of Canaan. It adds “and the Canaanite was then in the land.” The statement appears to exclude the time when the passage was written when Canaanites were no longer in the land. Therefore it must have been composed after Moses’ death.
  4. Genesis 22:14 calls Mount Moriah the mount of God. Since the mountain probably did not acquire this name until after the building of the temple on this site, the choice of the temple site was not made during Moses’ lifetime, and Moses did not indicate any spot chosen by God, the phrase must have been composed many years after Moses’ death.
  5. Deuteronomy 3:11 states that the bed of Og, king of Bashan, was nine cubits long and four cubits wide. Since the bed was probably not discovered until the city of Rabbath, where it was located, was conquered by David, it could not have been written before the Davidic era.
  6. Deuteronomy 27:1 reports that the entire Torah was written on stones and the rabbis explain that there were twelve stones. Ibn Ezra remarks, if Moses wrote all of the material that we consider the Torah today, it could not be placed on only twelve stones.

It is of course true that one could explain each of the half dozen passages mentioned by ibn Ezra and show that they do not necessarily imply that Moses did not write them. Indeed, the Talmuds address and answer these and similar problems and many later Torah scholars wrote explanations.

However, ibn Ezra himself felt that they prove that Moses did not write the entire Torah.


Baruch Spinoza

In 1670, Baruch de Spinoza (1634–1677) – who was excommunicated for his beliefs – published his Tractatus Theologico-Publicus and took the expected next step. He mentions the passages that ibn Ezra noted and writes that while the “secret of the twelve” could refer to the last twelve verses of the Pentateuch, it could also refer to the twelve stone tablets, which suggest that Moses’ Torah was far smaller than the Pentateuch we have today. He contends that ibn Ezra must have noted many more passages that show that Moses did not compose them. He lists about another half dozen passages of this type and concludes: “From what has been said, it is clearer than the sun at noonday that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived long after him.”



The story of the death of Moses raises the question, did Moses write the entire Pentateuch? The Talmud and Midrash have two opinions, yes and no.

Maimonides is obscure and can be interpreted both ways. Ibn Ezra clearly did not believe that the entire Torah was written by Moses, although he does not state his opinion openly. He mentions about a half dozen verses that indicate to him that they could not have been authored while Moses was alive. Spinoza insisted that ibn Ezra would agree with his own view that more verses than he mentioned were also not composed by Moses.


[1] This is based on the final chapter of my book: “A Rational Approach to Judaism and Torah Commentary,” published by Urim Publications.

[2] This idea that scholars need to teach the general population untruths for their own benefit, such as God becomes angry at people who disobey divine laws for this frightens people and prompts them to act properly, is found in Plato’s writings, and them calls them “noble lies.” Maimonides called them “essential truths.” See Guide of the Perplexed 3:28.