Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki-Tisa 5768/ February 23, 2008

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,



The Structure of Parashat Ki Tisa


Yosef Priel


Doctoral Student in the Department of Bible


Looking at the sixteen chapters [1] that deal with the Tabernacle (Ex. 25-40), we find that the sin of the golden calf falls exactly at the mid-point (chapters 32-34).  It seems that this placement was made with specific intent. This arrangement of the chapters fits well with the gemara’s comparison of the sin of the golden calf to a “bride who is unfaithful under her bridal canopy” (Shabbat 88b).  Chronologically, the bride (the Israelites) was unfaithful in the very place where the canopy of the Lord’s Presence had been forty days earlier—on Mount Sinai. Looking at the arrangement of the text, this unfaithfulness takes place at the mid-point (Terumah-Tetzaveh on one side, Vayakhel-Pekudei on the other) of the chapters describing the erection of her bridal canopy – the Tabernacle over which the Clouds of Glory would dwell. That is to say, both the mountain and the Tabernacle can be the subject of the Talmudic metaphor.

Although some commentators, such as Rashi and Sforno, [2] claim that the sin of the golden calf preceded the commandment to Moses to build the Tabernacle, [3] nevertheless even according to this approach we have to explain the current arrangement. One could say that the Torah did well not to write about the sin of the golden calf immediately after the giving of the Torah, but rather to place it between the chapters commanding the Tabernacle and the chapters describing its implementation, for three reasons: [4]

First, the memory of revelation at Mount Sinai would remain as a perfect and unique event, appearing in a continuum of well-constructed chapters (Ex. 19-24).  Had the sin of the golden calf appeared immediately after the chapters about giving the Torah, that would have aroused questions of faith regarding the might and veracity of the revelation on Mount Sinai, since the sin of the Golden Calf was an event that undermined the purpose of this revelation. [5]

Second, the juxtaposition of chapters that are so diametrically opposed – the sin of the golden calf coming on the heels of the Tabernacle of the Lord--   conveys a religious message. The golden calf reflected a misunderstanding of the proper approach to religious rites according to the Torah. The nation replaced the proper ritual with Egyptian rites of sacrifice, performed not out of spiritual closeness to G-d, but as an act of magic, [6] in the expectation of leadership from the calf.  In contrast, in the Tabernacle of the Lord that would be built, sacrifice would be performed as a sign of giving of one’s self, [7] done out of a sense of submission to the leadership of the Creator.

Third, the Holy One, blessed be He, wished to have the sin of the golden calf enveloped on either side by the sanctity of the Tabernacle, as if to convey non-verbally His response, “I have forgiven you,” which does not appear in the chapter after the sin (ch. 34). [8] The Tabernacle itself, commanded before and executed after, is indeed the proper counter-weight to a sin such as that of the golden calf and may be considered its repentance.

These three points help us understand the structure of this week’s reading.  The parasha begins with the census of the Israelites, which was said to be “as expiation for you persons,” since, according to Rashi, the census as well was a result of the sin of the golden calf. [9]   Following the census we read the command to make the laver (Ex. 30:18), the anointing oil (Ex. 30:23), and the incense (Ex. 30:34).

Ostensibly, these subjects should have been covered in Parashat Terumah or Parashat Tetzaveh, when the rest of the Tabernacle furnishings were commanded; however, in line with our approach, these subjects, too, belong to the surrounding atmosphere of purification that envelops the sin of the golden calf.

The purpose of the laver is clearly for purification, and the incense has purifying powers, as well, as proven by the service on the Day of Atonement, when incense is brought into the Holy of Holies in the rite of atonement. [10]   Anointing with the sacred oil is also a sort of purification rite. [11]  

Thus, according to this overall development of the text, we see clearly the envelope structure of the entire parasha:

  1. Subjects of atonement and purification done by human beings:   the census of the people, the laver, the sacred anointing oil, and the incense.
  2. The sin of the golden calf.
  3. Praying and asking for forgiveness (chapters 32-34).
  4. Carving a second set of tablets in a recapitulation of chapter 24, which belongs to the chapters of revelation at Mount Sinai, this being evidence of heavenly expiation for the sin of the golden calf.

Taking yet a broader view of the book of Exodus, we have the following “envelope structure” of the chapters surrounding the sin of the golden calf:

  1. Moses is commanded regarding the Tabernacle (chapters 25-31).
  2. The people sin with the golden calf and are punished for it (chapter 32).
  3. Moses prays and requests forgiveness, and G-d hints that forgiveness was granted (chapters 32-34).
  4. The command to build the Tabernacle is relayed to the people, executed, and the Tabernacle is finally erected (chapters 35-40).

[1] We have used the Christian division into chapters, since in practice this division has come to be accepted by scholars everywhere.   If we were to follow the Masoretic division into parashot  and sedarim (for example, as given in the Koren edition of the Torah), the division would be as follows:  seder 18 through the middle of seder 24:  the chapters commanding erection of the Tabernacle; mid-24 through mid-26:  the chapters dealing with the sin of the golden calf; mid-26 through the end of 29:   the chapters dealing with implementation of the commands, bringing the materials and erecting the Tabernacle.

[2] Based on Tanhuma Ki Tisa 31.   It is interesting that in many editions of Rashi’s commentary there is a parenthetical remark that changes his interpretation.  We hope to publish an article clarifying this matter.

[3] See Rashi on Ex. 33:11, where he implies something somewhat different (depending on the textual variant).  Be that as it may, Re’em on Ex. 31:18 says that Rashi’s intentions were the same.

[4] Some try explain that Rashi himself held that had it not been for the sin of the golden calf, the command to build the Tabernacle would never have been given;  rather, the Lord would have been worshipped anywhere.  Supporting evidence for this can be found in Exodus Rabbah 33.3:   Bring Me gifts – that is, as it is said, ‘I was asleep, but my heart was wakeful’ (Song 5:2); I was asleep from the sin of the golden calf but my heart was awake and the Holy One, blessed be He was  spellbound over me,’ thus it was said, ‘Bring Me gifts.’”  Likewise, Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 2: “This is what [they] shall pay – notice how beloved Israel was, that their transgressions led them to great virtues.  If that was so for their transgressions, then all the more so for their meritorious deeds.  Even here, why, in the passage on the census, did the members of the tribes each pay expiation for their persons?  It was because of the sin of the golden calf.  If the great sin that they committed led to a good deed and merit, then all the more so for their good deeds.”  However, it should be noted with regard to this point of view that the very length of the chapters concerning the Tabernacle and the fact that the expression, “as the Lord had commanded Moses” appears twenty times in the course of these chapters create an atmosphere of a deliberately planned course of action and not something done after the fact.  For further reading on this, see Menahem ben-Yashar’s article on Parashat Terumah (Weekly Torah Studies no. 642).

[5] The first three commandments deal with monotheism and the prohibition against idolatry, and verse 20:19 reiterates this prohibition.

[6] See the description of the magic in Rashi 32:4, based on Tanhuma, Ki Tisa 19.

[7] Nahmanides notes in his preface to the laws of sacrifice (Lev. 1:9), that it is actually the ideal that persons offer themselves, and that sacrifices were instituted as a substitute.

[8] Only with regard to the sin of the spies did G-d say, “I pardon, as you have asked” (Num. 14:20), but there the forgiveness was extremely limited, for the very next verse begins to spell out their punishment:  “none of the men … none of those who spurn Me shall see it.”   In the case at hand there are only hints of forgiveness, such as the expression, “and the Lord renounced” (Ex. 32:14), the thirteen attributes of G-d (Ex. 34:6), and the command given Moses to fashion new tablets (Ex. 34:1).

[9] Rashi, on Exodus 30:16, again basing his commentary on Midrash Tanhuma 9.

[10] Lev. 16:12-16.

[11] In the description of anointment of the priests at the beginning of the days of consecration, Leviticus chapter 8, anointing the high priest is done in conjunction with the sin offering (verses 12-14), thus providing foundation for this assumption.