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Ki Tisa: The Breaking of the Tablets

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department

And it came to pass as he approached the camp And saw the calf and dancing, That Moses’ anger burned As he hurled the tablets from his hands And shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (32:19)

Our commentators dealt with many difficulties posed by this passage. We shall choose two of them: one relating to the first half, the other to the second.

Moses’ “anger burned.” He had just been engaged in a confrontation with god in an attempt to placate His anger, had questioned his very right to be angry and finally implored Him to “turn from Thy fierce anger”. Now he was angry. There is no contradiction. Moses’ duty as a prophet was to intercede for the people (cf. Gen. 20:7 “for he is a prophet and will pay for you”). But as the man of God it was his duty, too, to imitate God. What aroused His ire should displease him too.

But the real question is not why Moses was angry at all, but why he was angry at that particular moment, on approaching the camp and witnessing the scene. Surely it had all been depicted for him quite clearly by the Almighty:

Thy people have corrupted themselves … Thy have turned aside from the way … They have made themselves a molten calf Prostrated themselves to it Sacrificed to it And they have said: These are thy gods … (32:7-8).

What new thing had he witnessed? Why did his anger burn just now? This question is put in the mouth of God:

Moses descended from heavens holding the tablets. Whence that he did not break them until he actually saw them with his own eyes (what was happening)? From the text: “It came to pass that as he approached the camp and saw the calf,” That moment “Moses’ anger burned”. Said the Holy One Blessed be He: Moses, didn’t you take my word for it that they had made a calf? (Devarim Rabbah)

The answers given by the commentators to the problem can be said to represent one of two approaches. Some suggest that what Moses saw down below did not completely tally with what God had told him when he was still on top of the mountain. The “dancing” was an item missing from the earlier Divine “preview”. This fact would seem to be syntactically marked too.

The verb “saw” va-yar’ has two conjoined objects “calf’ and “dancing”. But oddly, the first is specified: “the calf” (ha-‘egel); the second is unspecified; u-meholot (and dancing). The deictive is not repeated in the second noun phrase as is normal in Hebrew usage. Ibn Ezra solves this characteristically by indicating that the second deictive is understood, the first one “carrying over to the other one as well”. Such a deletion or “extension of the first deictive to act for the second or even third” calls for no other exposition, in Ibn Ezra’s view.

But he fails to explain why the Torah chose to resort to this deletion or extension just here. Why did not the text repeat the definite article before the second object, as is more usual? The difficulty is at once resolved if we accept that it reflects the fact that the calf was known from God’s message to him on the mount. He saw the calf; the one that God had told him about beforehand. But he saw dancing for the first time.

Other commentators suggest that it was this discrepancy between what he had been told and what he saw there and then that sparked his anger, thus answering our question earlier.

The essence of Divine worship is to perform it with joy and a glad heart. By the same token, for those who transgress His will, hope remains for the one who sins and grieves over it, to repent and make amends. But he who revels in his iniquity, is, God forbid, a hopeless case. The Almighty did not tell Moses that they were in addition enjoying themselves. He was therefore not all that angry. But when he saw the calf and dancing–that they were actually enjoying it too – then his anger burned. (Alshikh)

Sforno put the same point more briefly:

“And the two tablets of testimony in his hand.” He thought that when he reached them they would have already repented of their deed, and if not, he would break the tablets in front of them in order to stir them to repentance. “And he saw the calf and dancing.. Then he saw that they were reveling in their iniquity cf.: “when thou doest evil, then thou rejoicest” despair of being able to remedy matters and spur them to repent and become worthy of the tablets.

In other words, it was not the making of the calf that led to his anger – that was already known to him before – but the people’s attitude to the deed. It was their subsequent conduct, the revelry and the absence of any remorse which brought him to despair. Hirsch elaborates the same point of view, in his commentary to the Pentateuch:

So long as the false conceptions of idolatry are rooted merely in the intellect, they can be eradicated by enlightenment and instruction. Misconceptions can be corrected by the force of truth. The gates of repentance are thus still wide open. But when idolatrous concepts break through the bounds of the intellect and begin to demoralize the practical behavior of man, his uncontrollable passions becoming consecrated in a public cult on the altar of falsehood, then they develop and thrive to their heart’s content. As easy as it is to enlighten the intellectually misled, so it is difficult to recall to repentance the unruly mob demoralized by corrupt and immoral behavior. So long as Moses knew only of the sin of the golden calf and its deification, he felt that he could bring the people back to the path of the Torah. Consequently he brought down the two tablets. But as soon as he saw the calf and the dancing, he realized that the idolatrous poison had already wrought its havoc and given free reign to their evil passions, breaking all the bounds of moral conduct. He now realized that a new people would have to be created, capable of fulfilling this Torah. Without a moment’s forethought and hesitation he cast the tablets from his hands and broke them, indicating that the people were neither worthy nor capable of receiving the Torah he had brought them down.

Some commentators resort to a psychological explication. It was not any new information that prompted Moses’ anger but the impact of actually seeing something that he had previously only heard about. Arama suggests that in his second and probably more definitive answer:

I imagine that though Moses did not doubt for a moment that they had perpetrated a very serious transgression, he could not conceive that things had reached the pitch of actually making a molten calf. Perhaps they had done something disgraceful which was termed making a molten calf. Perhaps even if they had made one, not all were involved. Perhaps the Divine message of: “Thy people have corrupted themselves” implied nothing more than in Joshua’s case when He said: “Israel has sinned; even transgressed My covenant … what is more, they have taken of the forbidden thing, stolen too, and on top of that denied it and put it in their own vessels as well” (Joshua 7, 11). (Only one offender was actually involved–Achan). And even if they had sinned perhaps they had repented or some had protested. When he arrived he realized that the report was literally true.

His second answer:

This is not such a difficult problem when we remember that seeing is a much more vivid experience than hearing, even though we have no doubt whatsoever of the truth of what we have heard.

Even Moses, the master of prophetic vision, in spite of hearing the information regarding the golden calf direct from the Almighty, could not visualise the scene of idolatrous worship as vividly as if he had actually seen it with his own eyes. Only when the ugly scene stared him in the face, did his anger well up.

A much more difficult problem is posed by the second half of our verse – the act of breaking the tablets. What did Moses hope to achieve thereby and who authorised him to do it?

The following proposal of Rasbam (s.v va-yeshlakh mi-yado (“he hurled from his hands”) is implausible:

When he beheld the calf, all his vitality ebbed away from him and he just managed to push the tablets far enough away so as not to fall on his feet, like a person for who the burden becomes too much. So have I seen in Pirkei Derabbi Eliezer (“Moses could not carry himself nor the tablets and cast them from his hands and they broke”). That is its plain sense.

Rashbam similarly notes in Deuteronomy that “I broke them” implies: “I could not muster enough strength”.

Apparently, Rashbam a literalist par excellence veers far from the plain sense here. There is no clue in the text for his interpretation that Moses’ physical strength had ebbed away. On the contrary, it emphasises his positive and energetic action:

“I grasped hold of the two Tablets, I cast from my hands And I broke them.”

Not that they broke of their own accord.

Our original question thus remains unanswered. What did Moses hope to achieve by this deliberate act of destruction? Be’er Yizhak’s formulation is even more pointed:

The action of breaking the tablets appears strange and astonishing, prompted seemingly by anger. Yet we know that it is forbidden to break even the smallest vessel, how much more so an object as sacred and precious as this!

The answers suggested are many and varied. Some of our sages regard Moses’ action as a part of his program of intercession and extenuation of Israel’s sin, an attempt to share some of the blame with them:

“Therefore He said He would destroy them, had not Moses His chosen stood before Him in the breach (psalms 106:23)”.

R. Samuuel b. R. Nahman said; When Israel were engaged in that deed, the Holy One Blessed be He sat in judgment upon them to condemn them, as it is said “Now let Me alone that I may destroy them” … He came to pass final sentence, as it is said: “He that sacrificeth to the gods, save unto the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed”. What did Moses do? He took the tablets from the Almighty’s hand in order to assuage His wrath. To what may this be compared? To a prince who sent a marriage-broker to betroth a woman on his behalf. He went but she had compromised herself in the meantime with another. What did he do? He took the marriage deed which the prince had given him wherewith to betroth her and tore it up. He said: Better she should be judged as unmarried woman than a married one. Moses did likewise. As soon as Israel perpetrated that deed, he too took the tablets and broke them.

Moses further said: Far better they be judged as inadvertent sinners than as deliberate ones, as if to say, had they seen their punishment they would not have sinned. (Shemot Rabbah 43:1)

Moses is pictured here as the pleader of Israel’s cause, trying to extenuate their wrongdoing. A similar approach but with a more optimistic ending is outlined in Avot De Rabbi Natan:

” … He (Moses) took them (the tablets) and joyfully made his way down (the mountain). As soon as he beheld the abhorrent spectacle of the worship of the calf, he said: How can I give them the tablets? I shall be involving them in serious breaches of the commandments rendering them from liable to death at the hand of Heaven, since it is written thereon: “Thou shalt have no other God besides Me” … R. Yose the Galilean said: Let me tell you a parable. To what can it be compared? To asking of flesh and blood who said to his steward; Go and betroth for me a damsel, comely and chaste, of seemly conduct. The steward went and betrothed her. After he had betrothed her, he discovered that she had played the harlot with another man.

He immediately reasoned thus with himself: If I give her the marriage document now, I shall be condemning her to death, but I shall tear it up and separate her from her master forever.
Moses the righteous one argued in similar vein. How can I give Israel these tablets? I shall thereby be involving them in serious breaches of the commandments rendering them liable to the death penalty. For thus it is written: “He that sacrificeth to the gods save to the Lord only, shall be utterly destroyed.” Instead I shall break them and reform the people. Moses’ action net with the approval of the Omnipotent, as it is stated: “The tablets, which thou didst break” implying: “More power to thee for having broken them!”

The following Midrash underlines to an even greater degree the self-sacrifice of Moses the faithful shepherd:

“And I saw and behold you had sinned against the Lord your god’ (Duet. 9, 16). When he saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets, and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if thou wilt forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou dost not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray Thee from Thy book which thou hast written.” (Shemot Rabbah)

According to the above three Midrashim, Moses’ motive in breaking the tablets was in defense of Israel, to provide an extenuation for their sin, to throw his lot in with theirs. But Rashi found this explication unacceptable. It was too far removed from the plain sense of the text according to which Moses’ action was sparked off by his anger:

“Moses’ anger burned”. Rashi only felt obliged to incorporate those Midrashic explanations which kept as close as possible to the context. Rashi, accordingly, adopted the reading of the Talmud (Shabbat 87a), in his comment to the text: “he hurled the tablets from his hands”:

If with regard to the Passover which is but one of the commandments, the Torah ordained that “no apostate may partake thereof” (Ex. 12:43), where the whole Torah is involved and all Israel are apostates, how mush more so!

According to the foregoing, Moses wished to punish the Israelites severely, when he beheld that they were unworthy of the precious gift he carried. By their rash deed they had broken the covenant between them and their Father in heaven. He therefore broke them at the foot of the mount in front of them.

Abarvanel observes:

I imagine that Moses broke them at the place where he built the altar beneath the mountain on the day of the giving of the law, just as one tears up a legal document that has been dishonored. He did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people, and then break them before their very eyes.

Isaac Arama propounds yet another view, though he, likewise, starts from the assumption that Moses meant to shock them:

Perhaps he saw fit to do it in order to teach them a lesson and shock them, as our Sages say (Shabbat 105b) in the name of R. Yohanan b. Nuri: “He who wears his garments in anger and breaks vessels in anger and scatters his money in anger shall be accounted in your eyes as one who worshipped idols, for such are the workings of the Evil Inclination. Today it says to him, Do this! And tomorrow it says to him, do that! Till it eventually prompts him to worship idols and he goes along and does it”.

The Talmud continues its discussion on this subject, making one reservation. Anger not prompted by selfish motives but by the desire to discipline one’s household is not tantamount to idolatry. If a man wishes merely to impress on the members of his household his shock and disappointment at their misconduct, in order to correct them, he is inspired by educational motives. Isaac Arama applies this principle to our case:

When Moses approached them he saw that the calf the Lord had referred to was literally a calf, neither more nor less, and that the tumult he had heard was the sound not of pain but of uninhibited idolatrous revelry. “Moses’ anger burned and he cast from his hands the Tablets and broke them beneath the Mount”, to draw attention and shame them.

The text in Deuteronomy aptly fits this interpretation: “When I turned and went down the mountain I saw and behold that you had sinned against the Lord your God, you had made for yourselves a molten calf, you had quickly turned aside from the way the Lord had commanded you, then I grasped hold of the two tablets and cast them from my two hands and broke them before your eyes.”

In other words, Moses saw no other way of bringing the Israelites to their senses than by breaking the very Tablets he had received at the hand of God at Sinai, before their very eyes.

The Neziv gives a similar interpretation in Ha’amek Davar:

The text describes the greatness of Moses, how he took the calf and burned it and no man resisted him, whereas they had forced Aaron to make it. This was because Moses, with deep psychological insight had not broken the Tablets on the mount, but resolved to bide his time in order to do it when it would make the greatest impact on them, shocking them and grieving them to such an extent, that they would not have the heart to resist his harsh corrective measures. He broke a unique treasure before their eyes.

But was Moses’ action as deliberately geared to an educational aim as these commentators have made out? Did he really, as Neziv suggests, “bide his time” till the psychological moment arrived? Such a picture does not emerge from the text. It implies quite the contrary:

It came to pass as He approached the camp and saw … Moses’ anger burned and he hurled …

It was not a premeditated act but a spontaneous reaction sparked off by indignation. Rambam therefore adopted an entirely different approach answering not the question what purpose Moses had in mind but what caused him to act:

Moses did not hesitate to break them because his anger was roused at the sight of their evil conduct. He could not control himself … (on 32:16). When I saw you dancing in front of the calf I could not control myself and I broke the tablets … (on Deut 9:17).

Rambam could not envisage that Moses whose heart was certainly full of love of God, Israel and the Torah could have possessed at that moment enough sang-froid to plan anything deliberate, either with a view to lightening their punishment or shocking them out of their complacency when he broke the tablets. What happened was quite unplanned. In Rambam’s view it was not physical but spiritual weakness that overcame him, anger and mental anguish at what they had done: “He could not control himself”. Admittedly it is difficult to accept the idea that Moses deliberately planned to break the tablets. But the alternative–that it happened in a spontaneous fit of anger without any thought at all is equally implausible. A recent commentator has proposed an explication which appears to capture both aspects–the indignation and pain that overcame him at that moment and the educative aim of combating idolatry in his day and for all time that informed his action. We quote here the relevant extracts from Meshech Hokhma (s.v. va-yehi ka-asher karav el ha-mahaneh “it came to pass as he approached the camp”):

Torah and faith are the essentials of the Jewish nation. All the sanctities – The Holy Land, Jerusalem etc., are secondary and subordinate entities hallowed in virtue of the Torah. Time and space therefore are no limiting factors in the Torah context. Its observances and duties apply to every man from the highest – Like Moses the man of God – to the lowest, and in all countries, both in Eretz Israel and outside (except for those precepts connected with the soil of the Holy Land).

The author repeatedly emphasizes that there is only one source of holiness. No intrinsic holiness resides in places, houses or vessels, not even in the greatest of men. Even Moses himself was termed by our Sages – the “go-between” – the messenger who brought the Torah from on high to earth. But it was not his Torah. This conception of holiness is too refined to be grasped by man who is the slave of his senses and who can only perceive things through them.

The people therefore sought for ways and means of materializing their conceptions, and when they saw that Moses was delayed, their faith was undermined and they sought to make a calf. It was this that Moses condemned, that they should imagine he was unique, and that there existed any intrinsic holiness outside God Himself, his absence prompting them to make a calf. “I am a man just like yourselves and the Torah is not dependent on me and even had I not reappeared, the Torah would persist without any change.”

Do not imagine that the temple and Tabernacle are intrinsically holy. Far be it! The Almighty dwells amidst His children and if they transgress His covenant these structures become divested of all their holiness. Violent men came and profaned the Temple; Titus entered the Holy of Holies together with a harlot and no harm befell them, since its holiness had lapsed. Even the Tablets–”the writing of God”–were not intrinsically holy, but only so on account of you. The moment Israel sinned and transgressed that was written thereon, they became mere bric a brac devoid of sanctity.

To sum up, there is nothing intrinsically holy in the world save the Lord Blessed be He, to whom alone reverence, praise and homage is due. The holy comes into being in response to specific Divine commandments, as for example those calling on us to build Him a house of worship or sacrifice offerings to Him. Now we may understand why Moses on perceiving the physical and mental state of the people promptly broke the Tablets. He feared they would deify them as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the Tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf and not reformed their ways. But now that he had broken the Tablets, they realised how far they had fallen short of true faith.

For this reason God approved of Moses’ action and said “More power to thee for having broken them.” By this he had demonstrated that the Tablets themselves possessed no intrinsic holiness.

R. Meir Simha now proceeds to explain the reason for the broken pieces being placed in the Ark:

It was the first Tablets which were the work of God–that were broken, not the Tablets hewn by Moses, which remained whole; demonstrating that no holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah in accordance with the will of the creator and His holy name.

The allusion is to the Talmud (Shabbat 87a):

We have learnt in a Baraita: Three things did Moses so of his own mind and the Holy One Blessed be He gave it His blessing … he broke the tablets … whence that the Holy One Blessed be He gave it His blessing? From the text (34, 1) asher shi-barta (which thou didst break) yishar kohakha she-shibarta (more power to thee for having broken them).

The play on words is rather puzzling. Rashba asks:

What cue is there in the wording of the text to warrant their association of the Hebrew relative: asher with the verb: asher (“confirm”)?

The classic commentaries on Rabbinic homiletic exposition have proposed the following explanations:

The text should have read simply: al ha-luhot ha-shevurim “on the broken tablets”: Why asher shibarta “which thou didst break”? What difference does it make who broke them? But the text gave him credit for it, approved his breaking of them and ruled out punishment for it. (Me’or Enayim)

It should have read she-shibarta (assimilating the relative to the verb in the form of a prefix). Alternatively, the whole relative clause: “which thou didst break” is superfluous. It would have been adequate to end the verb with: “the first tablets”, as in (34:4): “He hewed two tablets of stone like the first ones”. These were the holy ones he had broken. (Maharsha)

I have heard in explanation reference made to the text (Deut. 10:2): “which were on the first tablets which thou didst break and put (them) in the ark”. Both sets of tablets, the whole and broken ones were placed in the ark. Had their breaking constituted a sin, the accuser (i.e. the first tablets) could not have been put together with the defender (i.e. the second tablets). We must conclude then that the breaking was valued by him. (Rashba)

The latter explanation of the Midrash asher = yishar kohakha depends on other homiletic sources which in turn hinge on allusions and nuances of other biblical texts. It is far from elegant to find the cue for the explanation in the wording of the text itself. On this account alone the proposal outlined in Torah Temimah is far more satisfying:

It is not usually considered decent to remind a person of something he had done in anger or on the spur of the moment. It can only embarrass and aggravate him. Accordingly, had God disapproved of Moses’ breaking the tablets it would not have been right to add the words “which thou didst break” when referring to the first tablets. It would only have aggravated him, especially as there was absolutely no necessity to refer to it. The “like the two first tablets” would have done. Since the text does add: “which thou didst break” the expositor concluded that, on the contrary, God had approved of the breaking. What is more, He said to him “More power to thee for doing it.”