Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tissa 5769/ March 14, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Why did Moses Break the Tablets?

Menahem Ben-Yashar

The Institute for Jewish Bible Interpretation, Bar Ilan University

Ashkelon College


One of Abarbanel’s prefatory questions in his commentary on the sin of the golden calf is as follows:

Why did Moses bring the tablets down from the mountain when he heard how the Israelites had sinned and break them in the camp or as he was coming down the mountain?   It would have been more fitting if, immediately upon hearing of Israel’s base actions, while he was still on the mountain, he had not taken them in his hands but had left them there, or broken them where he received them, for the offending people were not worthy of receiving them.  What use was there in bringing them down from the mountain, if in the end he was going to smash them bitterly at the foot of the mountain?

Indeed, several commentators address this question. [1]   Earlier, on Mount Sinai, God had informed Moses that the Israelites were worshipping a molten calf (Ex. 32:7-14), and He even threatened to destroy the Israelites, but Moses prevented this by his prayer.  Immediately afterwards we read that Moses descended to the people, carrying the two tablets of the Pact in his hands (Ex. 32:15).

In Midrash Rabbah on Exodus (41.5) the Rabbis express the view that if the Israelites had made the golden calf prior to the Lord giving Moses the tablets, the tablets would not have been brought down in his hands.  This means that once the tablets had been given to Moses, he had no option other than to bring them down.   Nevertheless, Abarbanel’s question remains, why did he not leave them there or break them on the mountain?

Various Answers

Several answers have been given in biblical commentaries:  1) Moses was enraged when he actually saw what was going on, since seeing is not like hearing, and in his great anger he broke them. [2]   The retort to this argument is that it ill-befit a man of Moses’ stature to be swayed by his emotions, especially with regard to the most sacred of objects. [3]    2) It was a demonstrative action directed at Israel.   He did so in order to make them realize the gravity of their sin and the great extent of their loss. [4]   3) In destroying the writ of the contractual pact, Moses was protecting the unfaithful people from the wrath of the Lord who had been betrayed. [5]   4) The same idea, taken in a different direction:  Moses brought the tablets down from the mountain where the Divine Presence was, as if removing them from the sight of the Holy One, blessed be He, so that the Lord would not look at what was written on them – the prohibition against making a sculptured image – and would not become angrier at Israel. [6]   5) An explanation given by Sforno that evokes wonderment:   Moses hoped that the people, upon seeing him descending with the tablets of the Pact, would repent.  One wonders when the people would have had such a chance to repent, given that he broke the tablets as soon as he approached the camp.


Replacement for Moses

Yet another theory can be suggested in answer to Abarbanel’s question.   The people had indeed violated the proscription, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Ex. 20:4), but it is not clear that they necessarily violated the commandment, “You shall have no other gods besides Me” (Ex. 20:3), since they sought to have the calf not as a substitute for the G-d of Israel, but as a substitute for “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Ex. 32:1).  Without the man, G- d’s emissary, who thus far had been leading them through the wilderness, they were seized by true despair.   Thus the golden calf was not made with the intention of replacing the deity Himself.  According to several views, it was intended as a sculptured likeness of the deity, [7] or an emissary of the deity, [8] or a pedestal for the deity’s throne. [9]   Clearly the distance is short between this and the danger of making the golden calf into the deity Himself, and this danger is one of the bases for the prohibition against making ritual sculptured images or likenesses arbitrarily designed by human beings.

Be that as it may, the act of making the golden calf was not in itself a violation of the covenant between the people and God, certainly not in the eyes of most of the people involved in making the golden calf.  It was an understandable error for the people to make, as they were living in an entirely pagan world and had just recently left Egypt with its extensive pantheon of gods.  Moses may therefore have thought that just as his prayers had made the Lord repent of His intention to destroy Israel (Ex. 32:11-14), so too, his guidance of the people in the proper way to worship the Lord in order to renew the covenant to which the tablets were witness would also be efficacious.

If so, what led Moses to despair of the people and break the tablets of the Pact?  There is another factor at play relating to the ritual aspect of the golden calf.  In describing the celebrations dedicating the golden calf it says, “the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance (le-tzahek)” (Ex. 32:6).  Both in the legends of the Sages [10] as well as in modern Bible scholarship [11] the word le-tzahek is viewed as having connotations of sexual licentiousness, [12] which indeed accompanied religious celebrations in the ancient Middle East, especially in fertility rites, and the figure of a calf/bull, as its name implies, represented fertility in nature.

They Rose to Dance

This is what Moses beheld as he came down the mountain.  Joshua, Moses’ assistant, meeting his master on the mountain slope, heard cries from the camp and interpreted them in line with his previous experience:   “There is a cry of war in the camp.” [13]   Moses corrected him:   “It is not the sound of the tune (' anot) of triumph, or the sound of the tune (' anot) of defeat; it is the sound of humiliation (' annot) that I hear.”  The first two occurrences of the word 'anot in this verse are in the kal form and refer to raising one’s voice in speech or song, whereas the last occurrence of annot is in piel, from the root ‘-n-h, meaning humiliation. [14]   Several scholars believe that this includes humiliation of a person being sexually abused. [15]   That was what Moses witnessed as he approached the camp – “the calf and dancing” (Ex. 32:19).   Moses saw the calf, about which he already knew, and dancing, of which he had not known for it was just starting up before his eyes.  These were the orgiastic dances of sexual licentiousness and it was they that caused him to break the tablets. [16]   He discovered not only theological waywardness among the Israelites, but also corrupt sexual behavior that went along with it.

We can understand the people:   a nation of slaves that had been freed from the yoke of hard labor and been promised a celebration in the wilderness was now making itself a celebration of gluttonous eating and drinking and utter licentiousness.  This broke Moses and also caused the tablets of the Pact that had been made with G-d to be broken.

The Sages [17] compared the act of making the sinners drink water mixed with the ashes of the burned calf (Ex. 32:20), commanded by Moses, with the ritual of a wayward woman (Sotah): the woman was unfaithful to her husband, the Israelites to their G-d.  In addition, both have an underlying element of sexual licentiousness. [18]   Moses now needed another forty days of supplication (Deut. 9:18-19) to request expiation for this double sin.



[1] Classical Bible criticism attempts to resolve this difficulty as well.   See H. Holzinger, Exodus (KHCAT), Tübingen 1900, p. 108.   Opposing this approach is B. S. Childs, Exodus (OTL) 1974, p. 567.

[2] Rashbam and Maimonides.

[3] See N. Leibowitz, Iyyunim Hadashim be-Sefer Shemot, Jerusalem 1970, p. 433.

[4] The author of Akedat Yitzhak; Abarbanel.

[5] Exodus Rabbah 43.11; 46.1, Tanhuma Tissa 30, Ekev 11; Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, version A, 2.

[6] Hizkuni, loc. sit.

[7] Nahmanides, Ex. 30-32:1.

[8] Rabbi Judah Halevy, Kuzari, Even- Shmuel edition, Tel Aviv 1973.

[9] M. D. Cassuto, Perush al Sefer Shemot, Jerusalem 1952, pp. 284-285.

[10] Exodus Rabbah 42.1; Tanhuma Tissa 20.

[11]   J. Fleishmann, “The Reason for the Expulsion of Ishma’el,” Dinei Israel 19, 1997-1998, pp. 75-100.

[12] For the Rabbis, le- tzahek also connoted bloodshed.

[13] In Exodus 17:8-10 Joshua had spent time with Moses at Mount Sinai (see loc. sit. 6), while a battle was being fought against the distant Israelite camp (loc. sit. 1).   Also see Exodus Rabbah 41.1.

[14] [Ed. note: This is not how it was understood in the JPS translation, which renders "it is the sound of song that I hear"]. Only in Isa. 27:2 does the root ‘-n-h in the pual form mean song.  As for 'annot (in the piel) in the title of Psalm 88:1, there is a difference of opinion as to whether it refers to song or affliction, for later in the psalm we have the beseeching of   a helpless man, using the expression “ inita = You afflict me.”   Likewise in Midrash Tehillim 88.1, as well as the commentaries of Rashi, Radak, and Ha- Meiri on this passage, and the translations of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and the German translation according to Luther (Berlin 1954).  Kol' annot in our verse is interpreted as pertaining to affliction in Exodus Rabbah 41.1, and following this source, also in Rashi.

[15] See J. Fleishmann, Hebetim Hevratiyim u-Mishpatiyim be-Farashat Shechem ve-Dina (Gen. 34),” Shnaton; An Annual for Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies (2002), pp. 141-156, especially p.153.   It is also possible that both Psalms 88 as well as Exodus 32 mean to use this expression ambiguously: sounds of affliction/responsive song.  See D. Yellin, “Mishneh Hora’ah ba-Tanakh,” Tarbiz 5 (1942) p. 1-17=   Mikra’ah be-Heker Leshon ha- Mikra , ed. A. Hurvitz,  Jerusalem 1983, pp. 3-19.

[16] Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch takes this approach.

[17] Avodah Zarah 44b.

[18] Cf. H. Beinart, “Egel ha- Zahav,” Encyclopedia Mikrait, 1971, pp. 74-77.