Parshat Ki Tissa: Tablets and Fragments

Did Moses break the tablets because he was shocked by the Golden Calf, or was it premeditated?

Rabbi Shlomo Brown, Executive Director of Midreshet Lindenbaum 

“As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 32:19)

This is how the Torah recapitulates Moses’ greatness:

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses—whom Hashem singled out, face to face. for the various signs and miracles that Hashem sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the mighty hand and awesome power that Moses displayed before the eyes of all of Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)

Rashi offers the following commentary on these verses:

Before the eyes of all of Israel — This refers to the fact that his heart inspired him to shatter the Tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “And I broke them before your eyes”, and the opinion of the Holy One, blessed be He, regarding this action agreed with his opinion, as it is stated that God said of the Tablets, “Which you have broken” – You have done well by having broken them. In other words, the “mighty hand” is the same hand that shattered the tablets. Moses broke the tablets of his own initiative, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He concurred with Moses’ choice and the breaking of the tablets in hindsight.

The breaking of the tablets, a dramatic event by all accounts, is described in this week’s Parasha and in Parashat Ekev. In this Parasha, it is unclear whether this was an act that followed forethought and planning, but the description in the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 9, verses 16-17) leaves no room for doubt:

I saw how you had sinned against Hashem your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that Hashem had enjoined upon you. Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes.

Moses saw the calf, whereupon he grabbed the tablets and hurled them, shattering them in full view of the entire nation of Israel. Thus, it turns out that Moses thought before he acted. He understood that by shattering the tablets as the people looked on, he had brought about the right tikkun, or rectification, of the Sin of the Golden Calf. How come?

In the first article of his book, Sefer Hakuzari, Rabbi Judah Halevi explains what had caused the Sin of the Golden Calf:

In those days, all of the nations had worshipped graven images… Similarly, the masses wouldn’t accept any Torah if it wasn’t somehow associated, in their minds, with a tangible image that they could focus on. The people of Israel were promised that something would descend to them from their Heavenly Father, something they would see, something they could focus their gaze on. Indeed, Moses ascended the mountain, expecting to receive etched tablets that he would take back down to the people. They had only asked that they would always have something tangible, which could be worshipped, something they could hint to when referring to the wonders of their G-d from their book.

According to Rabbi Judah Halevi, one of the main factors behind this sin was the tablets themselves. The Children of Israel had anxiously awaited their arrival, because they needed a tangible object they could look to when worshipping Hashem. When they realized that Moses wasn’t coming back when he had said he would, they turned to Aaron and asked him to create something to substitute for the tablets. In other words, the Sin of the Golden Calf was not idol-worship per se, rather a transgression against the prohibition of creating idols. According to this explanation, one of the main causes of this sin was the importance that the Children of Israel attached to the tablets, and with that in mind, it’s obvious why Moses had broken them. This wasn’t an act driven by rage. It was well-calculated. Rather than being a punishment, it was an educational act of the highest degree, which aimed to convey a message – the content of the tablets is what’s important, not the tablets themselves.

It’s rather easy for us to find modern-day parallels involving great evil driven by good intentions, but “alas, for those that are gone and are no more to be found”, those with hands as mighty as Moses’, which can break the tablets, and by doing so, produce about a major rectification.


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