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Parashat Teruma: An Aggadic Example of “Mekalkel Al Menat LeTaken” by Yaakov Bieler

February 21, 2012 by  
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An Aggadic Example of “Mekalkel Al Menat LeTaken”  – Destroying in order to Repair (Mishna Shabbat 13:3) 

Biblical terms referring to the Tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were inscribed.

The first holy artifact described in Parashat Teruma with respect to the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) is the Aron (Ark) in which, among other things,[2]  the Tablets upon which the Ten Commandments are inscribed (see Shemot 32:15-16, 19; 34:1-4, 27-29), are to be placed. Although the specific term Luchot (tablets) appears  in a number of the verses cited above,[3] the first time the intended contents of the Aron are referred to in the Bible, a different word is used, i.e., (25:15) EIDUT (testimony). In what manner are these Tablets to be understood as constituting a “testimony”?

The term “Eidut” and its relationship to the eventual destruction of the first Tablets.

                Da’at Mikra interprets Eidut as referring to the role played by the Luchot as EVIDENCE that a covenant was entered into between HaShem and the Jewish people. Such an approach appears to underlie the Midrashic and Rabbinic presumption that Moshe’s destruction of the Luchot (32:19) as soon as he saw the people’s worship of the Golden Calf was a deliberate attempt to obliterate this particular piece of testimony/evidence, and thereby, at least technically, call into question whether such a covenant ever existed.


 Shemot Rabba 46:1

…Another interpretation: The letters flew up from upon the Tablets and for this reason[4] he[5] broke them, as it is written (Devarim 9:16) “And I saw and behold you have sinned against the Lord, Your God.” Moshe saw that they had sinned and he destroyed the Tablets.

A parable: An important official married a woman, wrote her a Ketuba (marriage document). She entrusted it (the document) to one of the attendants.[6] After some time, a rumor attacking her virtuous reputation circulated. What did the attendant do? He tore up the Ketuba. He said, “It is better that her dowry will amount to only what a commoner is given, as opposed to that of a married woman (to a high official).”[7]   

In this manner, Moshe proceeded to act. He said, “If I don’t destroy the Tablets, the Jews will not have a defense, since it is written, (Shemot 22:19) “One who sacrifices to other gods will be ostracized…” What did he do? He destroyed them (the Tablets). He said to HaShem, “They never knew what was written on them!”[8]   

Expanding upon the Rabbinic hypothesis that Moshe deliberately destroyed the Luchot.

The biblical commentator RaShI appears to accept Midrash Rabba’s basic premise concerning the destruction of the Tablets, but adds additional detail found in Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Ki Tisa, #30, that sharpen the parallels between the parable and the account of the incident recorded in Shemot 32.

RaShI on Shemot 34:1

…A parable: A king went on an overseas voyage and left his Arusa (his betrothed)[9] [10] in the company of the female servants. Because of the improper behavior of the female servants,[11]  the reputation of the royal fiancée also became impugned. Her attendant arose and destroyed her Ketuba. He said, “If the king gives the order to kill her, I will say to him, ‘There is no evidence that she is your wife.’” During the interim (between accusations and defenses) the king conducted an investigation and found that the improper behavior was confined to the maidservants alone. He was reconciled with his fiancée. Her attendant told the king to write his wife-to-be a new Ketuba since the first one was destroyed. The king replied, “You tore it up, therefore you must acquire the fresh paper required, and I will write the new document in my own hand.” The king is HaShem; the female servants are the Eiruv Rav (see fn. 11 above). The attendant is Moshe. The fiancée of HaShem is Israel. For this reason, it is said (to Moshe) “Form by yourself (new tablets to replace the ones that you destroyed)…”

According to one Rabbinic view, Moshe’s conscious action meets with Divine Approval.

The Midrash and RaShI’s comment are clearly in consonance with the Talmudic view that Moshe’s decision to destroy the Tablets was his and his alone and one reason for the implied Divine Approval of Moshe’s action.[12]   

Shabbat 87a

It is taught in a Baraita: There are three things that Moshe did due to his own volition and in the end HaShem Agreed with him:

a) He added one day entirely upon his own discretion,[13]  

b) he separated from his wife,[14]  

and c) he destroyed the Luchot.[15]

Breaking the Luchot could then be understood as consistent with Moshe’s audacious defense of the Jewish people in Shemot 32:11-13 and BaMidbar 14:13-19:


An alternative explanation for the breaking of the Luchot.

However, a variation on the theme of who actually made the decision to have the Luchot destroyed, which does not cast Moshe in the role of sparing nothing in order to protect the Jews at all costs, appears in the following Midrashic sources:

Otzar HaMidrashim, p. 194

…the word (Shemot 32:19) “MiYadav” (from his [Moshe’s] hands) is written without a “Yud”[16]  (which then allows it to be read “MiYado” [from His Hand]) to teach you that the Great Hand (of HaShem) Hinted to him (Moshe) that he destroy them. He Said, “It is better that the people be considered as an unmarried woman rather than like a married woman…”

Midrash Tanchuma, Parshat Ki Tisa, #30

R. Akiva said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, Told him to destroy them.

According to this understanding, in terms of the elements of the parable that has been invoked numerous times, it is the “husband”, rather than the “attendant” who is moving swiftly to protect the “wife”. Such a perspective appears to assume that it would be just too presumptuous for an attendant to attempt to protect a guilty party by destroying a legal document.  Forgiveness, or even creating a legal loophole of a technical cancellation of sin, such an outlook would maintain, can be initiated and approved only by the aggrieved party that has been sinned against. A similar point of view is reflected in the following Aggada:

Talmud Yerushalmi, Makot 2:6

They asked Wisdom, “Sinners, what should their punishment be?”

Wisdom said to them, (Mishlei 13:21) “Sinners will be pursued by evil.”

They asked Prophecy, “Sinners, what should their punishment be?” Prophecy said to them, (Yechezkel 18:20) “The sinning soul will die.”

They asked the Holy One, Blessed be He, “Sinners, what should their punishment be?

                The Holy One, Blessed be He said to them, “S/he should repent and gain for him/herself atonement for it.”

For this reason it is written, (Tehillim 25:8) “Therefore He Shows sinners the way to repent.”

 Depending upon to whom is attributed the initiative to break the Luchot, different lessons are learned.

In the final analysis, the viewpoint of Otzar HaMidrashim and R. Akiva to the effect that Moshe acted only after receiving a directive from HaShem, understands the lesson of this entire incident as being that one who carries out a Divine Commandment correctly under difficult circumstances is most praiseworthy and deserves emulation by the rest of the Jewish people. But the view of most of the Midrashim as well as RaShI’s comment at the end of Devarim,[17] i.e., that a person who acts courageously and precipitously in order to further the interests of Am Yisrael, all the while not knowing whether his/her action will be supported or criticized, advances a much more heroic but also risky approach to life and its challenges.

A middle position that while attributing to Moshe the decision to smash the Luchot, suggests that HaShem Trained him to think in such terms.

Yet, one could say that HaShem has Attempted to teach Moshe the virtue of such behavior back at the Sea of Reeds, as well as when He first Informs His Prophet of the sin of the Golden Calf. In Shemot 14:15, when the Jews were terrified because Pharoah and his army were bearing down upon them and they were blocked from escaping by the water of the Sea before them, HaShem says, “…why are you crying out to Me? Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey forward!” And in Shemot 32:10, just before Moshe launches into his reasons for why HaShem must not Destroy His People, RaShI, based upon Midrash Tanchuma, interprets HaShem’s Comment, “And now leave Me alone so that I can Destroy them in My Anger…” as encouragement for Moshe to intervene and save the Jews. “To this point we have not heard that Moshe has prayed on their behalf, and God Says, ‘Leave Me alone’? But here He has Opened for him an opening and Made Known to him, that what will ultimately happen depends upon him (Moshe), that if he were to pray on their behalves, He will not Destroy them.” >From these instances, it appears that HaShem is Trying to Engender within Moshe the sensibility that there are occasions when even leaders have to throw caution to the wind. During moments like these, deliberations may be of no consequence; one must act to the best of his/her abilities and by his/her own lights.

[1] See Mishna Shabbat 13:3.

[2] Yalkut Shimoni, Parshat Teruma, #372 lists a container of Manna,  Aharon’s rod that flowered and sprouted almonds during the controversy over his appointment as High Priest, a container of anointing oil, and the shards of the first Tablets as all being preserved within the Aron.

[3] Additional usages of the word can be found in: Shemot 24:12; 27:8; 31:18; 38:7; Devarim 4:13; 5:18; 9:9-11, 15, 17; 10:1-5.

[4] The Midrash tries to address the dilemma of how could Moshe have deliberately destroyed such a holy artifact, i.e., tablets of stone Hewn and Inscribed by God Personally, KaVeYachol (if it is permitted to speak in such an anthropomorphic manner at all). If it is posited that moments before Moshe’s throwing down the Luchot  they at least in part “lost” the source of some of their holiness, i.e., the Divine Writing was removed, Moshe’s act becomes more palatable and understandable.

Yet this Midrash can be understood to be making a different point, i.e., that rather than Moshe deliberately deciding to destroy the Tablets, he had no choice but to drop them. The unadorned stone Tablets in themselves were always too heavy for Moshe to handle on his own. However, by virtue of their elevation to holy status by virtue of their serving as the material upon which HaShem’s Ten Commandments are inscribed, the Tablets become invested with a supernatural quality that allow the ordinary laws of physics to be suspended and Moshe becomes able to carry them. However, once the letters are removed from the Tablets by God due to the sinfulness of the people which   disqualified them for the time being from receiving such a spiritual artifact, the Tablets regain their original massive weight, and Moshe has no choice but to drop them. According to this approach, Moshe was not self-consciously trying to save the broader society, but rather continued participation in the miracle of the handling of the tablets was stripped away from him because of no fault or decision of his own.

[5] Although blame for dropping and breaking the Tablets could be directly attributed to Moshe, if HaShem was “Responsible” for the removal of the Holy Letters and the consequent rendering of the Tablets “uncarriable” for a human being, then HaShem should be viewed as Orchestrating their destruction, with Moshe no longer exercising individual, free moral choice. According to the Midrash from Otzar HaMidrashim, God is given direct responsibility for the destruction of the Luchot.

[6] Viewing what took place at Sinai as a marriage ceremony between HaShem and the Jewish people is a theme that manifests itself throughout Rabbinic literature. Consider the following example, upon which is based the custom that the groom walks down the aisle prior to the bride:

Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer, Chapt. 41.

(Shemot 19:17) “And Moshe led out the people from the camp to meet HaShem and they stood themselves at the foot of the mountain.”

R. Chachinai says: During the third month (Sivan), the daylight period is twice the length of the night. As a result, the Jewish people slept two hours into the day, since sleeping into the day on Shavuot is pleasant and the night is short. And Moshe went out to the camp and awakened the people from their sleep. He said to them, “Get up from your sleep! The GROOM has already come and is wants his BRIDE to come so that he can bring her to the WEDDING CANOPY and MARRY her.” He (God) is eagerly awaiting her (the Jewish people’s) arrival so that He can Give to them the Tora. The attendant comes and brings forth the bride, as an person who serves as an attendant at the wedding of his friend, as it is said, “And Moshe led out the people from the camp to meet HaShem…” and the groom goes out to greet the bride to give them the Tora, as it is said, (Tehillim 68:8) “HaShem, in Your Going out before Your People…”

[7] If the Ketuba could be produced in court, it would provide evidence that the woman was already married on such-and-such a date, and if the nasty rumors could be substantiated that she had been unfaithful during the time that she was supposed to be married, then she would be punished harshly. In the absence of the Ketuba, the facts in the case become subject to doubt and dispute.

[8] This would appear to be a reference to the prohibitions of idolatry contained in the Decalogue in Shemot 20:3-4. However, the proof text that is cited in the Midrash with respect to the consequence for engaging in worshiping other Gods appears much later, within Parashat Mishpatim. If the sequence of verses in the Tora is adhered to, and the events recorded in Shemot 24 are believed to have taken place AFTER Moshe received the laws of Mishpatim, a position advocated by Ibn Ezra and RaMBaN, then the contents of Shemot 21-23, including 22:19, was conveyed to the people prior to their worshipping the Calf. However, if Shemot 24 is to be interposed with Shemot 19, as a view in the Mechilta quoted by RaMBaN insists, then it would not be appropriate to assume that the people were aware of what happens to those who engage in idolatrous practices.

[9] According to Jewish law, the marriage process includes two stages: Eirusin or betrothal, during which the bride and groom are married to one another with respect to not being able to enter into marriage with someone else , but they do not as yet live together, and Nesu’in which entails the completion and consummation of the process. Although today, both Eirusin and Nesu’in are carried out on the same day (the two rituals are separated by the reading of the Ketuba), the original normative practice provided for at least a year to pass between the two rituals in order for bride and groom to be afforded the time to ready themselves for marriage. If following Eirusin but prior to Nesu’in it was decided by the two parties that they will not be completing the marriage process, a Get (Jewish divorce) will nevertheless be required, since they were at least partially married.

Carrying the analogy even further and plugging it into the context of the Biblical story in question, since according to Jewish law, a Kohen (priest) is not allowed to marry a divorcee (VaYikra 21:7), would the Jewish people be taken back by HaShem in the event of a divorce? Consequently, the decision to annul even the Eirusin becomes relevant. 

[10] Referring to the Jewish people as the Arusa of HaShem parallels the famous Rabbinic discussion of Devarim 33:4 “Moshe commanded to us the Tora, ‘Morasha’ (an inheritance) for the congregation of Yaakov”.

Sifrei Devarim #345.

Another interpretation:  “…’Morasha’ (an inheritance) for the congregation of Yaakov”—don’t read the word “Morasha” but rather “Me’urasa” (from the word “Eirusin” and thus betrothed) for the congregation of Yaakov. This teaches that the Tora is betrothed to Israel, and considered a married woman (and consequently unavailable) to the nations of the world…

[11] An apparent reference to the Eiruv Rav (mixed multitude). See e.g., BaMidbar 11:4 ff.

[12] A simpler explanation would contend that Moshe was furious with the people’s infidelity to HaShem and felt that they were undeserving of such a holy artifact as the Tablets. Presuming that his destruction of the Tablets was in order to protect the Jews, constitutes an approach that lays 1800 in the opposite direction!

[13] HaShem Said to be ready to receive the Tora as part of the Revelation on Sinai on the third day (Shemot 19:10-11), suggesting two days of preparation and separation of husband and wife; Moshe, however, tells them to prepare for three days (19:15).

[14] In Devarim 5:26-27, we are told that HaShem authorizes everyone but Moshe to go back to “their tents”, i.e., resume normal intimate relations between spouses. While this could have been understood by Moshe in a limited fashion, i.e., as long as he remains on Sinai his state of separation will have to continue, but this will not be the case indefinitely since eventually he will be returning to the Jews waiting for him below, Moshe chose to attribute to these verses a maximal intent to the effect that he is never to return to Tziporra.

[15] It is notable that with respect to the very last phrase of the final verse of the Tora, Devarim 34:12, which is a culmination of praises of the just deceased leader of the Jews, “And with all of the Yad HaChazaka (strong hand) and the great awe achieved by Moshe before the eyes of the Children of Israel,” RaShI chooses to draw attention to a singular event in Moshe’s long career:

RaShI on 34:12

“Before the eyes of the Children of Israel”—that he took the initiative to destroy the Luchot before their eyes, as it is stated, (Devarim 9:17) “And I took hold of the two Tablets and I threw them from upon my two hands and I destroyed them BEFORE YOUR EYES”, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, Agreed with Moshe’s action, as it is said, (Shemot 34:1) “And HaShem Said to Moshe: Form yourself two Tablets of stone like the first ones, and I will Write on the Tablets the words that were on the first Tablets ‘ASHER Shibarta’ (that you destroyed)”—“YeyASHER Kochacha” (let your strength continue, i.e., may you do comparable things in the future; a sign of support and encouragement) that you destroyed (them).

[16] Words in the Tora are not always written in a consistent manner. There are certain letters that may appear in one iteration of a word, but may be absent in another. With respect to the word “MiYadav” (from his hands—pl.) in 32:19, the word can be spelled either “Yud”, “Daled”, “Vav” or “Yud”, “Daled”, “YUD” “Vav” and still be read in the same manner, to connote “his (Moshe’s) hands.” However, once the word is written Chaser  (lacking), i.e., without the second “Yud”, although when the Tora is read publicly, only the pronunciation “MiYadav” is acceptable, nevertheless, an alternate reading presents itself if one were to follow the manner in which the word is written, rather than the traditional way in which it is to be officially read. The alternate reading would result in “MiYado” (from his hand—sing.), and according to the Midrash, the antecedent of the pronoun may not be the more obvious Moshe, but rather HaShem Himself, i.e., “from His Hand”. Such an alternate reading would result in the conclusion that Moshe was not the one who initiated the smashing of the Tablets, but rather HaShem Ordered that this should happen.

[17] See fn. 15.

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