Exodus 30:11-34:35

On Mount Sinai, Moses has been receiving instructions from the Eternal for the central sacred institutions of Israel.  These include components of the sanctuary including the priesthood and its official garments.  In last week’s Sedra Tetzaveh, one of the considerations was atonement made through the sacred foods of Aaron and his sons as well as for the altars.  In some contrast with corporate atonement, this week’s Sedra opens on the note of personal atonement although within the context of communal needs.  It then continues the description of components of the sanctuary with instructions regarding their execution, subject to Sabbath observance, and presents ultimately the dramatic and profound experience of the tablets of the covenant.

Denouement on Mount Sinai


The Eternal instructs Moses:  As you count (Ki Tisa) each head of the Children of Israel, every one of them shall tender a kofer (expiation) for himself to the Eternal as part of their being counted, and no harm will result for counting them.  Each person, twenty years and older, who is recorded, shall offer the terumah (sacred contribution) of the Eternal.  The kofer shall be a half-shekel, by the sacred weight, a shekel being the equivalent of 20 gerahs, a half-shekel terumah to the Eternal.  The amount of the terumah shall be the same for rich and for poor.  The money shall be used for the service of the tent of meeting, and it shall prompt the Eternal to provide expiation for your persons.


The Eternal instructs Moses: You shall make a brass laver (kiyor) and base for Aaron and his sons, and you shall place it between the tent of meeting and the altar and put water in it.   Aaron and his sons shall use it to wash their hands and feet when they enter the tent of meeting, so that they do not die.   When they approach the altar to perform their service of making a fire offering smoke to the Eternal, they must wash their hands and feet, so that they do not die.  This is an everlasting statute for Aaron and for his offspring throughout their generations.


You take the choicest of spices, by units of the sacred shekel: 500 of flowing myrrh, 250 of sweet cinnamon, 250 of calamus, 500 of cassia—and a hin of olive oil.  Make it holy anointing oil (shemen mishchat kodesh), an ointment mixture, the product of a compounder.  Use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the testimony, the table and all of its implements, the menorah and its implements, the incense altar, the burnt offering altar and all of its implements, and the laver and its base.  You shall sanctify them so that they become most holy: whatever touches them shall become holy.  You shall also anoint Aaron and his sons, and you shall sanctify them to be My priests.

Tell the Children of Israel that this is My holy anointing oil throughout your generations.  It may not be poured upon the flesh of any other person, nor shall you compound anything like it.  It is holy, and it shall be holy to you.  Whoever should compound anything like it or should put it upon others than Aaron and his sons shall be cut off from his people.


The Eternal says to Moses: You take spices—stacte, onycha, galbanum—and pure frankincense, in equal parts, and make it incense (ketoret), a mixture, the product of a compounder, salted, pure, it is holy.  Beat some of it finely and put some of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting, where I shall meet with you; it shall be most holy for you.  You shall not make incense for yourselves using the same proportions; it shall be holy for you to the Eternal.  One who makes a compound like it to create a scent shall be cut off from his people.


“See, I have identified by name Bezalel…” (Exodus 31:2)—the Eternal informs Moses of His appointment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and as his associate, Oholiav ben Achisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to execute all that the Eternal has commanded Moses: the tent of meeting, the ark for the testimony and the propitiatory upon it, all of the implements of the tent, the table and its implements, the pure menorah and all of its implements, the incense altar, the burnt offering altar and its implements, the laver and its base, the plaited garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons to serve as priests, the anointing oil, and the incense of spices for the sanctuary.  With respect to Bezalel, “I (the Eternal) am filling him with the divine spirit, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge, and with all aspects of workmanship, to devise plans for doing work in gold, silver and copper, for the cutting of stones to be set in place, and for the carving of wood to be done with all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 31:3-5) The Eternal declares that He has placed wisdom in the heart of the wise-hearted to accomplish all that He has commanded Moses.


The Eternal tells Moses to explain to the Children of Israel: However, you must observe my Sabbaths, for the Sabbath is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations to know that I, the Eternal, sanctify you.  For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Eternal and for you.  Those who profane it shall be put to death; the life of anyone who does work on it shall be cut off from its people.

“The Children of Israel shall preserve the Sabbath to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as an eternal covenant.  It is a sign between Me and the Children of Israel for ever that in six days the Eternal made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.” (Exodus 31:16-17)


“When He finishes speaking with him, He gives to Moses on Mount Sinai the two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, inscribed by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18; cf. Exodus 24:12).  Meanwhile, the people is under the impression that Moses has delayed coming down from the mountain.  Not knowing what has happened to him, they assemble against Aaron and demand that Aaron make for them “a god to lead them.” (Exodus 32:1)  Aaron responds, “Tear off the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me!” (Exodus 32:2) The people comply, and Aaron uses a graving tool to fashion from the material a molten calf, about which they say, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)  Aaron responds by building an altar before it and declaring for the morrow “a festival to the Eternal.” (Exodus 32:5)  Promptly the next morning the people offer up burnt offerings and present sacrifices of well-being.  They sit down to eat and to drink, and they rise up to celebrate.

The Eternal speaks to Moses on the Mount: “Go, descend!  For your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has corrupted.” (Exodus 32:7) They have veered recklessly from the path that I commanded them.  They have made a molten calf, bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and heralded it as the god who brought Israel up from the land of Egypt.  I have seen that this is a stiff-necked people: My anger prompts Me to destroy them and make you instead into a great nation.  But Moses entreats the Eternal his God to reconsider, in view of the strength and the power that He displayed in bringing His people out of Egypt: why should the Egyptians say that the Eternal so acted out of bad intent, only to destroy them from off the face of the earth?  Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants—Moses continues—to make their offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and to give them all of this Land that You promised them for ever.  “Then the Eternal repents of the harm which He had promised to inflict upon His people.” (Exodus 32:14)

Moses turns and descends from the mountain—in his hand the two tablets of testimony, the tablets themselves the work of God and the writing graven upon them from both sides the writing of God.  Both Moses and Joshua hear the shouting of the people below.  Joshua relates it to Moses as the sound of war in the camp.  But Moses says, “The sound I hear is neither the singing of victory nor the singing of defeat; it is the singing of song!” (Exodus 32:18) Indeed, as he approaches the camp, he sees the calf and the dancing, and, his anger blazing, Moses casts the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.  He then takes the calf which they had made and consigns it to the fire, grinding it into fine ash, which he strews upon the water and makes the Children of Israel drink.

Moses questions Aaron: What did the people do to you to make you bring upon it such an immense sin?  Aaron responds: Be not angry, my master, for you already know that this people is inclined to evil.  Aaron recounts to him the events that led up to the calf and adds: I threw the gold into the fire, “and this calf came out!” (Exodus 32:24) But Moses judges that Aaron enabled the people to earn the derision of their enemies, so, standing at the gate of the camp, he announces, “Whoever is for the Eternal, let him follow me!” (Exodus 32:26)  All of the sons of Levi answer his call and wield their swords from gate to gate throughout the camp, against family and friends, striking down some 3,000 men.  Moses calls upon them to be consecrated to the Eternal for the sacrifice of sons and brothers that they have made and that the Eternal “would bestow upon you this day a blessing.” (Exodus 32:29)


On the morrow Moses announces to the people that, notwithstanding their monumental transgression, he will go up to the Eternal and seek to obtain atonement on their behalf.  Moses returns to the Eternal and acknowledges their sin of “making for themselves a god of gold.” (Exodus 32:31)  His words fail to complete the presumption that the Eternal could forgive such a sin—“And now if You would forgive their sin” . . . [The thought is broken; the conditional sentence is incomplete as no apodosis follows]—but he asserts his own demand that if the Eternal does not spare the people, then He should erase him, Moses, too, “from Your book that You have written” (Exodus 32:32).  To this the Eternal responds that only the one who has sinned against Him will be removed from His book: Moses should continue to lead the people to the stated destination, which He promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give to their offspring, “but now My angel shall go before you” (Exodus 32:34) (presumably instead of the Eternal in their midst; cf. Exodus 33:3 below).  The time will yet come when He will visit their sin upon them and the Eternal will strike down the people “for making the calf which Aaron made” (Exodus 32:35).  In the meantime, the Eternal promises to expel the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and to deliver the people “to a land flowing with milk and honey,” but “I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3). When the people hear these tidings, they go into mourning, and they remove their personal ornaments, in accordance with the prescription of the Eternal, from Mount Horeb onwards.


Moses would pitch a tent far outside of the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting.  Whoever sought the Eternal would have to go out to the tent of meeting outside of the camp.  When Moses himself would go out to the tent, everyone would stand at the entrance of his own tent and watch Moses until he arrived at the tent of meeting.  There a pillar of cloud would descend at its entrance, and the Eternal would speak with Moses.  When the people saw the cloud, everyone would bow at the entrance of his tent.  The Eternal spoke with Moses face to face, as one person would speak with another.  When Moses returned to the camp, his young minister Joshua son of Nun would not depart from the tent.


As the Eternal had told Moses, “I shall not go up in your midst” (Exodus 33:3), “but now My angel shall go before you” (Exodus 32:34), Moses asks (cf. Exodus 33:7-11), in effect: Then whom will You send with me to bring up this people (Exodus 33:12a; cf. Exodus 33:2)?  Moses acknowledges that the Eternal has confirmed revelation of His name to him (Exodus 33:12b; cf. Exodus 6:2ff.) and that he has found favor in His sight (Exodus 33:12c), but he implores the Eternal: “Make known to me Your plan so that I may continue to know you and thereby continue to find favor in Your sight” (Exodus 33:13a)!

Then Moses adds a rejoinder to earlier words of the Eternal.  When the Eternal disclosed to Moses the sin of the golden calf, He said to him, “Go, descend, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has corrupted” (Exodus 32:7).  Now Moses concludes his request for divine clarification by insisting, notwithstanding, “And see that this nation is Your people” (Exodus 33:13b)!

Thereupon the Eternal reassures Moses on both points, “My face shall go, and I grant it to you” (Exodus 33:14).  Moses responds that only if Your face shall go, should He bring them up from their current place (Exodus 33:15).  Moreover, it would be known thereby that both “I and Your people” have found favor in Your sight, for “when You go with us,” we—”I and Your people”—are thereby distinguished “from every other people that is upon the face of the earth” (Exodus 33:16)!


Continued Colloquy

The Eternal again assures Moses that He will grant him his wish and that he retains divine favor and acquaintance (Exodus 33:17).  Moses responds, “Show me Your grave presence” (Exodus 33:18).  “I can show you My goodness, I can declare to you My name (referred to herein as ‘the Eternal’), and I can demonstrate My favor by compassion, but no living person can see ‘My face’” (Exodus 33:19-20).  The Eternal explains: You can take your place “with Me” in the cleft of a rock, and as “My grave presence passes by…I shall put My hand over you…then, when I remove My hand, you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23).

Moses Ascends

The Eternal tells Moses to “carve two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I shall write upon the tablets the words which were on the first tablets that you shattered.” (Exodus 34:1) Then, in the morning, you shall go up to Mount Sinai and be present to Me there upon the top of the mountain.  Let no one else come up with you, not even be seen in all the mountain, and let no flock or herd be pastured at the foot of the mountain.  So does Moses, taking up with him the two tablets of stone in his hand.

The Eternal Descends

The Eternal descends in the cloud and stands with him there, proclaiming the name of the Eternal.  The Eternal passes over his face and declares, “The Eternal, the Eternal, God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for the thousandth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, but without acquitting, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children and upon children’s children to the third generation and to the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7; cf. Exodus 33:18-23)

Moses Requests Divine Presence

Moses quickly bows down to the ground and prays, “If indeed I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, let the Lord go in our midst,” then offering the very reason of the Eternal’s previous demurral as cause to grant his request for reconsideration, “for it is a stiff-necked people,” and therefore he asks directly, “forgive our iniquity and our sin, and accept us as an inheritance.” (Exodus 34:9; cf. Exodus 33:3)

The Eternal Outlines His Covenant

He says: I hereby make a covenant.  I shall perform before the people, in whose midst you are, awesome wonders that have not been created before.  Observe well what I command you this day!  (Exodus 34:10-11a)

Do not make a molten god.  I am expelling from before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  Do not worship another, for the Eternal is a jealous God.  Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the Land that you may encounter, but break down their altars, shatter their pillars, and cut down their idols, lest they become a snare in your midst and you make a covenant with them and sacrifice to their gods and accept their invitation to eat of their sacrifices, or you marry your sons to their daughters and your sons are drawn to their wives’ gods.  (Exodus 34:11b-17)

Observe the festival of Pesach.  For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, for the festival of the month of Aviv, as in that month you went out from Egypt.  (Exodus 34:18)

All that opens the womb is Mine.  Sanctify the firstborn males of ox and sheep.  Redeem with a lamb the firstborn of an ass, otherwise break its neck.  Redeem every firstborn of your sons.  Let them not appear before Me empty-handed.  (Exodus 34:19-20)

Six days shall you work.  On the seventh day shall you rest.  You shall rest in ploughing and in harvest.  (Exodus 34:21)

Observe for yourself the festival of Weeks, first fruit of the wheat harvest.  (Exodus 34:22a)

Observe the festival of Ingathering, at the completion of the year.  (Exodus 34:22b)

Three times in the year shall all of your males appear before the Lord, the Eternal, the God of Israel.  For I will drive out nations from before you and expand your territory, so that no one will covet your property when you go up to appear before the Eternal your God.  (Exodus 34:23-24)

You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice when leavened bread is there, and the sacrifice of the festival of Pesach shall not remain overnight until morning.  (Exodus 34:25)

The prime quality of the first fruits of your Land shall you bring to the house of the Eternal your God.  (Exodus 34:26a)

Do not boil a kid in the milk of its mother.  (Exodus 34:26b)

Words Are Written

The Eternal instructs Moses to write these words, as they constitute the covenant that He is making with Moses and Israel.  Moses remains there with the Eternal for forty days and forty nights.  He has nothing to eat or drink.  He writes upon the tablets the words of the covenant, “the ten commandments” (Exodus 34:28; cf. Exodus 34:1).

When Moses descends from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, he is unaware that the skin of his face is casting beams “from His speaking with him” (Exodus 34:29).  But Aaron and the Children of Israel see and at first fear drawing close to him, until he confers with Aaron and all the leaders of the community.

Afterwards all the Children of Israel draw near, and Moses imparts to them all that the Eternal has told him on Mount Sinai.  When Moses finishes speaking with them, he places a veil over his face, which he would remove henceforth only when speaking with the Eternal.

Maftir for Shabbat Parah
Third of the Four Special Parashiyot
Numbers 19:1-22

Relief from Defilement

The Eternal communicates a statute of the Torah (chukat hatorah) to Moses and Aaron:

The Children of Israel should bring you an entirely red cow (parah adumah) without blemish and on which no yoke has been put.  You shall give it to Elazar the priest, who shall have it slaughtered in his presence outside of the camp.  Elazar the priest shall sprinkle some of its blood seven times towards the front of the tent of meeting.  The cow shall be burned entirely, in his presence.  The priest shall add cedar wood, hyssop and crimson to the burning.

The priest and the one who burns it shall wash their clothing and bathe in water before re-entering the camp, and they remain impure until the evening.

A ritually pure person collects the ashes and leaves them outside of the camp in a ritually pure place for the Israelite community, both Children of Israel and the sojourner.  The ashes of the red cow shall be used for water that removes impurity, as a statute for all time.  The collector of the ashes shall wash his clothes and remain impure until the evening.

Whoever touches a human corpse becomes impure for seven days.  In that state he would defile the tabernacle of the Eternal and be cut off from Israel.  He must instead have the water that removes impurity thrown upon him on the third day and on the seventh day of his impurity, after which he must wash his clothes and bathe in water, becoming pure again in the evening.

Anyone who touches a human corpse or bone or grave outside becomes ritually impure for seven days.

If a person dies in a tent, everyone else in the tent becomes ritually impure for seven days, and any open vessel in the same tent becomes ritually impure.

The procedure for purification requires the taking of some of the ashes and adding to them fresh water in a vessel.  A ritually pure person dips some hyssop in the water and sprinkles it on the person who became ritually impure, on the third day and on the seventh day of his impurity.  For a tent and its open vessels, he sprinkles the water also on the tent and on all the vessels that were in the tent.

The one who sprinkles the water must wash his clothes.

Whoever touches the water shall be impure until the evening.

Whatever the ritually impure person touches becomes ritually impure, and the person who touches him shall be ritually impure until the evening.


Haftarah for Shabbat Parah
Ezekiel 36:16-38

Purification of Israel from Exile

The word of the Eternal to the prophet: Son of man, the House of Israel dwell upon their Land,  defiling it by their way, which is like the impurity of a woman.  I therefore pour out My anger upon them for the blood that they have spilled upon the Land and for the idols that they have worshipped.  I am scattering them among the nations, but even there they will profane My name by their very presence as “the people of the Eternal” (Ezekiel 36:20) who “went out from His Land” (ibid.).

Now I am showing compassion for My holy name which the House of Israel have profaned among the nations to which they have come.  I am removing you from them, taking you back to your own Land.  “I am sprinkling pure water upon you, that you may be clean; from all of your idols I shall purify you.” (Ezekiel 36:25)

I give you a new heart and take away the heart of stone from your flesh.  I place My spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances.  I will increase for you the vegetables and the fruit of the Land so that you will not be associated with famine among the nations.

Then you shall recall your evil ways, and you shall loathe yourselves for the iniquities and abominations that you have committed.  I do this not for your sake.  Be ashamed and embarrassed for your ways, O House of Israel!  When I cause your desolate cities to be inhabited, the nations around you shall see that I, the Eternal, can turn what is ruined into the Garden of Eden.  I shall increase your number, O House of Israel, as greatly as were the number of people and of sacrificial animals in Jerusalem at the festive seasons.


Exodus Rabbah 40:1
God prepared; so should we!

See, I have identified by name Bezalel…” (Exodus 31:2)—
so did Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba open his discourse
with the words:
“He saw it,
He went over it,
He prepared it,
and He delved into it…”
(Job 28:27)

He saw it and went over it at Sinai,
He prepared it in the Tent of Meeting,
and He delved into it at the plains of Moab
in the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Rabbis said that one should learn a lesson from these words regarding any public discourse that one presents.  He should not think: I know this material so well that I can just start speaking without special preparation.

Rabbi Acha said:  One should take a lesson from God!  Before He declared Torah to Israel, He reviewed it four times.  Only then did “He say it to man!” (Job 28:28)

The Rabbis related:  Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta once approached Rabbi Akiba, asking him to read from the Torah.  “But I haven’t reviewed the portion!” he responded.  For this the Sages praised him.

Rabbi Hoshaya taught:  If one knows the material but lacks fear of sin, he has nothing.  Any carpenter who does not have his tools is not a carpenter.  How so?  The fear of sin is a padlock that secures the Torah, as was said: “Fear of the Eternal constitutes its treasure!” (Isaiah 33:6)

Exodus Rabbah 41:5
Moses received the tablets after Israel sinned

“He gives to Moses
when He finishes speaking
with him on Mount Sinai,
the two tablets of testimony…”
(Exodus 31:18)

The Rabbis say:  If Israel had committed the sin (of the golden calf) before the tablets were given to Moses, the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have given Moses the tablets.  But Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Moses the tablets after Israel committed the sin, as is written: “He gives to Moses when He finishes speaking with him…” (that is, at the completion of the forty days (cf. Exodus 24:18), during which time Israel had committed idolatry).

Exodus Rabbah 41:1
The Generosity and Forbearance of God

When He finishes speaking with him,
He gives to Moses on Mount Sinai
the two tablets of testimony…”
(Exodus 31:18)

This inspired Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba
to open his discourse with the words:
“Yours, O Lord is the right,
and ours is the shame…”
(Daniel 9:7)

Rabbi Nechemia taught:  Even when we consider our compliance with your law, our deeds which we consider righteous, we cannot help but feel ashamed.  For example, it is general practice that tenant farmers receive land, seed and stock, from their lords and divide the produce with them in equal shares.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, may His name be praised and His remembrance be held high, is different.  The world and all that is in it is His, as we say, “The Eternal’s is the earth and all that is in it” (Psalms 24:1): the earth is His, the produce is His—He brings down the rains and brings up the dews to make them grow—and He protects them.  He does everything, yet the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: I require of you only one-tenth for tithing, only one-fiftieth for terumah.  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…”!

Rabbi Judah offers an example from the Red Sea:  Israel crosses the Sea along with the idol of Micah, as was said: “A rival to God crossed the Sea…” (Zechariah 10:11).*  Still, the Sea was divided before them!  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…!”

*The peshat (contextual meaning) there is that the redeemed of Judah and Israel will be so great in number that they will be tsarah, “pressed together,” in crossing over the sea on their return to the Land.  Here, the derash (interpretive meaning) is based on the fact that tsarah can also mean “rival wife,” as in I Samuel 1:6.  For the derash proposed by Rabbi Eliezer, identifying the “rival” of God at the (Red) Sea anachronistically with the idol of Micah, cf. Judges 17:4 ff., see Mechilta Pischa 14.

Said Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman:  It was good of our fathers to accept the Torah and to say, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hearken!” (Exodus 24:7), but was it good of them to say, “This is your god, O Israel!” (referring to the golden calf) (Exodus 32:4)?  At that very time Moses was coming down from the heights and Joshua said to him, “There is the sound of war in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17)  Moses replied, “The sound is not the singing of victory” (Exodus 32:18) as “When Moses raised his hand and Israel prevailed” (against Amalek) (Exodus 17:11), “nor is the sound the singing of defeat” (Exodus 32:18) as “when Joshua was weakened” (by Amalek) (Exodus 17:13).  What is “the sound of singing that I hear” (Exodus 32:18)?  It is not the sound of victory or defeat, but the sound of blasphemy and reviling is what I hear!  The Men of the Great Assembly went on to explain these words: “Even though they made for themselves a molten calf, and they said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up from Egypt’” (Nehemiah 9:18), was all lost?!  What is the meaning of, “They made great expressions of contempt” (ibid.)?  The expressions of blasphemy and reviling that went on there, after which there should not have been any more manna!  Yet, “You did not withhold your manna from their mouth” (ibid. 20)!  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…!”

Said Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Shalom:  If this were not enough, not only did the Holy One, blessed be He, continue to provide them with manna after they had blasphemed and reviled Him, but then they took some of the manna and offered it in worship of idols, as was said, “The food that I gave you…and fed to you, you gave to them for a pleasing aroma” (Ezekiel 16:19), yet the manna comes down for yet another day!  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…!”

Said Rabbi Levi:  Israel stands below, carving out an idol to incense their Maker, as is written, Aaron “takes (the gold from the people) and uses a sculpting tool to fashion it into a molten calf” (Exodus 32:4), while the Holy One, blessed be He, sits above, carving tablets for them, in order to provide them with life, as was said, “When He finishes speaking with him, He gives to Moses on Mount Sinai the two tablets of testimony….”  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right…!”

Exodus Rabbah 42:1
How Moses sought mercy for Israel

“The Eternal speaks to Moses:
Go, descend!
For your people,
whom you brought up
from the land of Egypt,
has corrupted.”
(Exodus 32:7) 

Rabbi Yochanan taught:  At that moment Moses saw that the ministering angels were prepared to destroy Israel, in accordance with the divine harsh words.  Moses thought: If I abandon Israel and just descend, they will have no hope of survival, so let me not move from here until I have sought mercy for them.  Immediately he began to offer arguments in their defense.

To the Holy One, blessed be He, he said: Do You remember, when You offered the Torah to the children of Esau and they refused it, that Israel accepted it?  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: But they have reversed that act: “They have veered wrecklessly from the path that I commanded them!” (Exodus 32:8)

Said Moses: Do You remember, when I went to Egypt on Your behalf and announced to them Your name, they believed and bowed down to Your name? (Exodus 4:31)  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: They have undone their bowing down, as was said, “They have made a molten calf and bowed down to it!” (Exodus 32:18)

Said Moses: Do You remember their young men whom I sent to offer sacrifices before You? (Exodus 24:5)  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: They have regressed on the sacrificing, as was said: “They have made a molten calf…and they have sacrificed to it!” (Exodus 32:8)

Said Moses: Then please remember what You said to them at Sinai, “I, the Eternal, am your God!” (Exodus 20:2)  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: They have contradicted that one, too, as was said, “They said: This (the golden calf) is your god!” (Exodus 32:8)

Withal Moses prevented the punishment, but how so?  Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba considered relevant here these verses: “A man who gives praise for a false gift is like vapors and winds without rain; but by length of suffering may a prince be persuaded, and a soft tongue may break the bone.” (Proverbs 25:14-15)

Exodus Rabbah 46:1
Why Moses shattered the tablets


When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Go, descend, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has corrupted” (Exodus 32:7), Moses was holding on to the tablets and could not believe that Israel had sinned.  He said: If I do not see it, I do not believe it, as was said, “As he drew near to the camp and saw the calf…” (Exodus 32:19): He did not shatter the tablets until he saw it with his own eyes.  Granted that human beings may testify unreliably to facts that they have not seen, but is it possible that Moses would not believe the Holy One, blessed be He, when He says, “For your people has corrupted?” (Exodus 32:7) Here Moses is teaching an important principle to Israel: Even if a person should hear a thing from a trusted individual, it is forbidden to accept his testimony and act upon it if he has not been an eyewitness.


When Moses later reviews the events, he recounts, “I saw that you sinned against the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 9:16).  Yet neither Moses nor Joshua was an eyewitness to the people’s worship of the calf, only that they were singing and dancing.  But as they approached the camp, Moses saw that the writing flew off from the tablets; therefore Moses shattered them, as was said, “I saw [in the flying off of the writing] that their sin was to the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 9:16)!  This may be likened to a man who marries a woman and writes her a ketubah, which he deposits with a trustee.  Some time later, a bad report is heard about her.  What does the trustee do?  He tears up the ketubah, thinking: better she should be judged as an unmarried woman than as an adulterous wife.  Thus thought Moses: If I do not shatter the tablets, Israel has no defense, as was said, “One who sacrifices to any but the Eternal shall be completely destroyed.” (Exodus 22:19; cf. Exodus 20:3-6)  So he shattered them and told the Eternal: They knew not what was written in them!


“I saw that you sinned to the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 9:16):  Moses saw that Israel had no defense, so he bound himself with them and shattered the tablets, saying to the Holy One, blessed be He: They sinned by worshipping the calf, and I sinned by breaking the tablets; if You pardon them, pardon me along with them!  These his words, “Pardon me along with them,” were left out of his plea in Scripture: “And now, if You pardon their sin . . . and if not, erase me from Your book which You have written!” (Exodus 32:32) and were intended as an incentive for God to pardon Israel.

Tanchuma Ki Tisa 26,30
More reasons why Moses shattered the tablets

“An ox knows its owner,
and an ass, the trough of its master,
but Israel does not know,
My people does not understand!”
(Isaiah 1:3)

When Israel made the calf, the Holy One, blessed be He, chose His words to Moses: “Go down, for your people has corrupted” (Exodus 32:7)!  Moses responded: “They are Your people and Your inheritance” (cf. Exodus 33:13b; Deuteronomy 9:26)!  The Holy One, blessed be He, demonstrated that “a beast knows its maker” (Isaiah 1:3a) by asking the calf, “Who made you?”  “’An ass’” (ibid.), by which it meant the mixed multitude which went out from Egypt along with Israel (cf. Exodus 12:38), about which the prophet said, “their genital is the flesh of asses” (Ezekiel 23:20).  The Holy One, blessed be He: Did I not say to you, “Go down, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has corrupted in making the calf” (Exodus 32:7)?  But My people did not, as the prophet said, “But Israel does not know, My people does not understand” (Isaiah 1:3b)!

Then Moses seized upon His words in defense of Israel: “My Lord, God, do not destroy Your people whom You redeemed in Your greatness” (Deuteronomy 9:26)!  He then stood up and destroyed the tablets!  Thus placated, the Holy One, blessed be He, allowed Moses, “Carve two tablets of stone…” (Exodus 34:1).

Other opinions:

Rabbi Ishmael thought that Moses drew a kal vachomer inference:  If Pesach, which constitutes only one mitzvah out of the entire Torah, is not permitted to idolators, as is written, “No foreigner shall eat of it” (Exodus 12:43), then it follows that the entire Torah is surely not permitted to idolators!  Therefore he shattered them.

Rabbi Akiba taught:  The Holy One, blessed be He, told him to break them.

The Rabbis explained it as follows:  For as long as the writing was upon the tablets, Moses did not feel their weight.  They carried themselves.  But when Israel made the calf and Moses descended from the mountain, approached the camp, and saw the calf which they had made, the writing flew off of the tablets whereupon they became too heavy for him to hold, so he threw them down and they shattered!  Alternatively, notwithstanding their newly-felt weight, Moses in his anger over the people’s idolatry (and in his great strength!) thrust them from his hands.

Exodus Rabbah 44:1
Israel uprooted and rooted

Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba
opened with this verse:
“Tear out a vine from Egypt;
expel nations and plant it.”
(Psalms 80:9)

Why is the vine a metaphor for Israel?

When the vintner wants to improve his vine, what does he do?  He uproots it from its place and replants it in another place, where it thrives and improves.  Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, came to make Israel known to the world, what did He do?  He uprooted them from Egypt and brought them to the wilderness.  There they began to improve, and they began receiving the Torah and saying, “All that the Eternal has spoken, we shall do and we shall hearken!” (Exodus 24:7), as was said, “You made a name for yourself among the nations in your beauty…” (Ezekiel 16:14).

Finally you may interpret it as follows:  Just as the vine is alive and depends upon dead trees, so are Israel living and enduring and depending upon the dead, which are the patriarchs.  Thus you find that Elijah offered several prayers on Mount Carmel that fire should come down, such as, “Answer me, O Eternal, answer me!” (I Kings 18:37) and he was not answered.  But because he mentioned the dead and said, “O Eternal One, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel” (Ibid. 36), he was answered immediately.  What is written?  “Thereupon the fire of the Eternal comes down…” (Ibid. 38).  So also Moses, when Israel committed that act (of worshipping the golden calf), stood up and defended their virtue for forty days and forty nights (cf. Exodus 32:11-12,30-32; 33:12-13; 34:28) and was not answered.  But when he mentioned the dead, he was answered immediately, as was said, “Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel!” (Exodus 32:13) What is written?  “Then the Eternal repented of the harm…” (ibid. 14).  So it is: Just as that vine is alive and depends upon dead trees, so are Israel living and depending upon the patriarchs when they are dead.  That is the import of: “Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel” (ibid. 13)!   

Exodus Rabbah 47:2
Who wrote the words of the second set of tablets?

“The Eternal says to Moses:
Write for yourself these words,
for in accordance with these words
do I make a covenant
with you and with Israel.”
(Exodus 34:27)

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses:  The first set of tablets—I wrote, as is written, “Written by the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:10).  But the second set, you write, “write for yourself these words” (Exodus 34:27). Then why did Moses later recount, “The Eternal said to me…‘and I shall write upon the tablets the words which were upon the first tablets which you broke’” (Deuteronomy 10:2)? This may be compared to a king who married a woman and wrote her a marriage contract himself.  After some time she proved unworthy and he drove her from his house.  Her representative came to the king and secured her pardon by the king.  The king said to her representative: I am reconciled to her, but you should write a new marriage contract and hopefully I will add my hand to it.  Here, too, the Holy One, blessed be He, was saying to Moses: You write for yourself these words, and hopefully I shall add My hand to it!

Pesikta Rabbati 14:65a
Why the Parah Adumah?

A gentile once asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai:  The things that you do with the parah adumah (cf. Numbers19:1-22) seem like magic.  You obtain a cow, burn it, crush it, and pour water over its ashes.  If one of you is defiled by a human corpse, you sprinkle two or three drops and declare, “You are pure!”

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the gentile:  Have you ever been invaded by a bad spirit?  No, said the gentile.  Well, then, asked the Rabbi, have you ever seen what they do to one who has been?  The gentile answered: They turn roots into smoke under him, pour water upon him, and the bad spirit goes away.  Said the Rabbi: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?  The bad spirit is the spirit of impurity, as is written: “I shall also make the false prophets and the impure spirit pass away from the Land.” (Zechariah 13:2)

When the gentile left, his students said to him: Rabbi, you refuted him with a reed, but how would you answer us?  The Rabbi said to them:  A corpse does not defile, and water does not purify.  Rather, it is simply a statute of God.  The Holy One, blessed be He, said:  I have made a statute, issued a decree, which you are not permitted to transgress—“This is a statute of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded…!” (Numbers 19:2)

Another question about parah adumah:  While all the other offerings are male, why is this one female?  Said Rabbi Ayvu:  It may be likened to a handmaiden’s child who soils the palace of the king. Says the king: Let the mother come and clean up her child’s mess.  Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: Let the red cow come and atone for the incident of the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32)!

Pesikta Rabbati Parah 14
Torah of a cow

Our Rabbis told the story of a Jew who owned a cow that was used for ploughing.  His circumstances became strained, so he sold the cow.  It was purchased by a gentile.  The gentile also used the cow for ploughing, and for six days out of the week there was no problem.  However, when he tried to make the cow plough on Saturday, the cow would only lie down under the yoke.  Even when the gentile beat the cow to get her to move, she would not budge.  So he went and found the Jew who had sold him the cow and demanded, “Take your cow back, as there seems to be something wrong with her: as much as I beat her, she does not move!”  The Jew immediately understood what the “problem” was: she was accustomed to rest on Shabbat.

So the Jew said to the gentile, “Come and I will get her up.”  When the Jew came to the cow, he whispered in her ear, “O cow, O cow, you know that when you were owned by me, you would plough on weekdays, and on Shabbat you would rest.  Since now, because of my sins, you are owned by a gentile, I would request that you stand up and plough,” whereupon she immediately got up and ploughed.

The gentile said to the Jew, “As I said before, you will have to take back your cow, because I cannot run after you to get her up every time I need her to plough.  I tired myself out and beat her, yet she would not get up.  I won’t let you go until you tell me what you whispered in her ear!”  The Jew began by trying to pacify him and then said to him, “I used no magic or sorcery but simply whispered such-and-such in her ear whereupon she got up and ploughed.”

Then the gentile became frightened, thinking: If a cow, who cannot speak or reason, recognizes her Creator, then how can I, whom my Creator has fashioned in His image and given reason, not go and recognize Him!  Immediately he went and became a Jew.  He learned and became a worthy student of Torah, whom they called Yochanan ben Torta.  “Torta” can be read as Toratah, “her Torah,” meaning Yochanan son of her Torah!  To this day our Rabbis cite halacha in his name.

Now if you are surprised that one person took refuge under the wings of the Shechinah because of a cow, it is also because of a cow that all of Israel can achieve purification, as we learn from the reading of the statute of Torah (chukat hatorah): the “red cow” (parah adumah)! (Numbers 19:2)

Talmud Yoma 86a
Yerushalmi Bava Metziah 2:5
Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3
Agents of Heaven

“The House of Israel dwell upon their Land,
defiling it by their way…
I am scattering them among the nations,
but even there they will profane My name
by their very presence as the people of the Eternal
who went out from His Land.”
(Ezekiel 36:16,19-20)

Abaye taught that if one studies the oral and written Torah, attends scholars dutifully, yet conducts his business dishonestly and treats others unpleasantly, of him shall they say: Woe unto him who studies Torah and woe unto his father and his rabbi who teach him Torah; see how corrupt are his acts and how ugly are his ways; and it is about him that the prophet said, “They profane My name, these are the people of the Eternal who went out from His Land” (Ezekiel 36:20)!

“You shall love the Eternal your God.”
(Deuteronomy 6:5)

Abaye cited the baraitha:  This means not only that you should love the Eternal, but that the name of Heaven should be loved by others by virtue of your faithful treatment of them.

Shimon ben Shetach was a purveyor of flax.  His students said to him: Rabbi, reduce your labor,  let us acquire a donkey for you so that you will not have to carry the flax yourself!  They went and purchased a donkey for him from an Arab, and it turned out that a precious stone was hanging from the neck of the animal.  So his students said to Shimon ben Shetach: Rabbi, from this time forth you will not have to work at all!  Why? he asked.  “A blessing from the Eternal makes rich!” (Proverbs 10:22) they quoted, and they explained: We bought you a donkey from an Arab, and a gem was attached to it.  Did the man know this? he asked.  No, they said.  Go back and return it, he instructed them.  But is it not true—argued his students—that even those rabbis who believe that property stolen from a gentile must be returned are of the opinion that what a gentile loses can be kept?  Do you think, answered Shimon ben Shetach, that I am a barbarian?  I bought a donkey, not a gem.  I would rather hear, “Blessed is the God of the Jews!” than possess all of the wealth that is in the world.  As it turned out, when the jewel was returned to its rightful owner, that Arab proclaimed, “Blessed is the Eternal, the God of Shimon ben Shetach!”

From the faithfulness of flesh and blood do we know the faithfulness of the Holy One, blessed be He!


Copyright © 2021 Eric H. Hoffman

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