The Breaking of the Tablets

Rabbi Shlomo Brown is the Executive Director of  Midreshet Lindenbaum

Shlomo Brown e1430845825207The breaking of the luchot, the Tablets of the Law, is one of the most dramatic events in the Torah. 

The Torah ends with Moshe’s death and praises him in this manner:

“And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moshe, whom the Lord knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moshe wrought in the sight of all Israel” (Devarim 34, 10-12). 

Rashi explains thus on the words “in the sight of all Israel”:

“It was his heart’s desire to break the Tablets before their eyes.  As is written above (Devarim 9, 17) – ‘And I broke them before your eyes’.  And God was of the same mind.  As is written (Shemot 34, 1) – “… [the Tablets] which you broke” – well done to you for having broken them.”

Many explanations have been given over the generations in answer to the question of why Moshe broke the Tablets.  These can be divided into three main points of view:

  1. The Tablets fell out of Moshe’s hands

“It is told in the name of R’ Nechemia: ‘The writing [upon the Tablets] flew upwards.’  R’ Ezra in the name of R’ Yehuda son of Rabi Simon says: ‘The Tablets weighed forty se’ah [unit of measure], but the holy script upon them bore their weight.  However, the minute the letters flew upwards, they [the Tablets] weighted down upon Moshe’s hands, fell and broke” (Yerushalmi Talmud, tractate of Ta’anit). 

The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir) takes a similar approach and says: “‘And he [Moshe] cast the Tablets out of his hands’ – when Moshe saw the calf, his strength left him.  Hence, he cast them away from him to prevent them from falling on his feet and hurting him, as is usually the case when people let go of heavy burdens they can no longer carry.  I also saw mention of this in Pirkei DeRabi Eliezer, and this is the literal explanation.”

The exegetes who give similar commentary believe that when Moshe saw the golden calf, he was seized by weakness and no longer had the strength to hold the Tablets, which subsequently fell out of his hands.

  1. Moshe broke the Tablets as God commanded him

The Mishnah in Avot DeRabi Natan says: “Rabi Yehuda ben Beteira says: The only reason Moshe broke the Tablets was that he was instructed by the Almighty to do so.  As is written (Bemidbar 12, 8): ‘With him I do speak mouth to mouth’ – I [God] told him mouth to mouth:  ‘Break the Tablets!'”

The Mishnah later specifies a long list of Tana’im (Mishnaic scholars) who had all explained the verses in the same manner.  Although R’ Yehuda ben Beteira does not explain why God ordered Moshe to break the Tablets, his words seem to indicate that after the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, they were no longer deserving of the Tablets.  God wanted them to realize the consequences of their sin, and so He gave the Tablets to Moshe, and immediately ordered him to break them before the eyes of all of Israel.  It must be noted that the text itself does not support this interpretation, for nowhere in the verses is it written that God commanded Moshe to break the Tablets.  However, this commentary does serve to show how radical this action was. So severe was the breaking of the Tablets by Moshe, that our Sages went so far as to offer a commentary that has no foundation in the literal text – all in the purpose of conveying the message that it was an act carried out by God’s command. 

  1. Moshe broke the Tablets of his own will

This approach takes a few possible directions:

Possibility A:   When Moshe saw the calf, he became filled with anger; this anger led him to break the Tablets.  This is how Devarim Rabbah puts it:  “‘Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry; for anger rests in the bosom of fools’ [Kohelet 7, 9].  And who is he who was angry?  It was Moshe, as is written (Shemot, 32): ‘And Moshe’s anger waxed hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands…’.  The Blessed be He said unto him: Moshe, you have taken your anger and relieved it upon the Tablets of the Testimony.”

Moshe’s anger is understandable, and from the fact that he broke the Tablets we learn the extent of his anger…

Possibility BMoshe broke the Tablets with the aim of protecting the People of Israel.  This notion is expressed in Shemot Rabbah:  “Moshe saw that they had sinned and so he broke the Tablets.  To what is the situation likened?  To a minister who wishes to take a wife and writes her a ketubah and gives it to a messenger.  After some time, it becomes known that the woman has gone astray.  What does the messenger do?  He tears up the ketubah with the following thought in mind: ‘Better she be put to judgement as an unmarried woman than as the wife of another man.’  Moshe did the same – ‘If I do not break the Tablets, the People of Israel will have nothing to fall back on.'”

The Ibn Ezra offers a similar explanation:  “Moshe acted with great zealousness when he broke the Tablets, which were a deed of testimony.  It was much like tearing up the Terms of Marriage (shetar tena’im).  And he did so before the eyes of all Israel, as is written.”

Rashi, whom we quoted above, has a similar take on what happened:  “It was his [Moshe’s] heart’s desire to break the Tablets before their eyes.”  However, Rashi does not explain what made Moshe break them. 

Let us follow Rashi’s line of thought and explain the turn of events accordingly:

The breaking of the Tablets is described both in our portion of Ki-Tisa, as well as in the portion of Ekev in the book of Devarim.  If our portion leaves some room for doubt as to whether Moshe broke the Tablets deliberately or not, the description in Devarim is unequivocal:

“And I looked, and, behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God; you had made you a molten calf; you had turned aside quickly out of the way which the Lord had commanded you.  And I took hold of the two tablets, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them before your eyes” (Devarim 9: 16-17). 

And indeed, Moshe’s actions were carried out with full intent.  Moshe understood that the action of breaking the Tablets before the eyes of the People of Israel would serve as the most suitable atonement for their sin with the calf. 

In his book, HaKuzari (Discussion I), The Rihal (Rabi Yehuda HaLevi) gives a few reasons for the sin of the calf: 

“At that time, all the nations of the world were accustomed to worshipping images…the simple folk were not willing to learn any new doctrine without having some sort of tangible image which would be their point of reference.  And behold, the People of Israel were given a promise that something would descend from Heaven, something they could see and be guided by…. And Moshe ascended the mountain, with great anticipation to receive the written Tablets and bring these down to the people… And all they wished, was to have a tangible object of worship, something they could refer to when recounting the great wonders their God had done unto them.”

According to the Rihal, one of the main reasons for the sin of the calf was the Tablets themselves.  The Israelites had waited with great eagerness and anticipation for the Tablets to be giv
en to them, since they required a tangible object which would serve as a point of reference in their worship of God.  But when they saw that Moshe failed to return when he said he would, they turned to Aharon and asked him to create a substitute for the Tablets for which they had been waiting.  In other words, the sin of the calf was not a sin of typical idol worship; rather, it was a violation of the commandment not to create a physical image for the Divine.

Hence, according to the Rihal, one of the main reasons for the sin of the calf was the fact that the Israelites attributed such great significance to the Tablets.  This clarifies why Moshe had to break them.  Moshe’s action stemmed neither from anger nor weakness, nor was it some sort of punishment.  Rather, it was a premeditated action that wished to teach an important lesson: the physical Tablets are of little importance; but their content is paramount. 

For the sake of clarity, imagine a rabbi who takes a Torah scroll and throws it on the floor as an act of defiance against a misdeed done in the name of the Torah.  Clearly, nobody would get up and defend him. 

In our portion, Moshe breaks the Tablets, of which it is written:

“And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Shemot 32, 16).

“Woe to those who are gone and no longer with us”. If only we had such people with hands as mighty as Moshe’s, such people who would be brave enough to break the Tablets for the purpose of bringing about a greater rectification and reparation.     

Shabbat Shalom!


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