Moses Shatters the Tablets – in Anger
Moses Saves the Israelites at the Mountain
Moses shattering the Tablets of the Covenant (Exodus 32:19) is one of the most dramatic events described in the Torah. This is only one is a series of actions Moses takes in response to the Israelites’ worshipping the Golden Calf. The Torah’s account as a whole presents Moses’ actions in a positive, even heroic, light.
According to Exodus 32, the Israelites sin with the Golden Calf (vv. 1-6), God becomes furious (vv. 7-8) and threatens to destroy them (vv. 9-10), but Moses intercedes with prayer on Israel’s behalf and averts their destruction (vv. 11-14). Moses heads down the mountain with the tablets (vv. 15-16); when he gets close enough to the camp that he can see the Golden Calf and the Israelites dancing, he flings the tablets from his hands and shatters them.
Moses then proceeds to set the Israelites back on the proper path by destroying the calf (v. 20) and killing the perpetrators (vv. 26-28). Finally, Moses returns to speak with God on the mountain, continues praying for the Israelites (vv. 31-34) and, at the end, receives replacement Tablets (Exod 34).
Psalms 106 (vv. 19 & 23) also praises Moses’ actions:
תהלים קו:יט יַעֲשׂוּ עֵגֶל בְּחֹרֵב וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְמַסֵּכָה… קו:כג וַיֹּאמֶר לְהַשְׁמִידָם לוּלֵי מֹשֶׁה בְחִירוֹ עָמַד בַּפֶּרֶץ לְפָנָיו לְהָשִׁיב חֲמָתוֹ מֵהַשְׁחִית.
Ps 106:19 They made a calf at Horeb and bowed to a molten [idol]…106:23 [God] thought to destroy them if not for Moses his chosen, who stood in the breach before him to turn back his anger from destroying.
Nevertheless, is it clear that everything Moses does in Exodus 32, including shattering the tablets, is praiseworthy?
Why Does Moses Shatter the Tablets? Exodus vs. Deuteronomy
The Torah reprises these events in Deuteronomy, but with significant differences. We will focus specifically on the description of Moses shattering the tablets. Exodus 32 describes this action as follows:
שמות לב:יט וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיַּרְא אֶת הָעֵגֶל וּמְחֹלֹת וַיִּחַר אַף מֹשֶׁה וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ (מידו) [מִיָּדָיו] אֶת הַלֻּחֹת וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם תַּחַת הָהָר.
Exod 32:19 When he approached the camp and saw the calf, and dancing, Moses got angry, flung the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the bottom of the mountain.
Moses acts in anger; he sees the calf (and merrymaking), gets enraged, and shatters the tablets right then and there “under the mountain.”
Deuteronomy describes this event a little differently:
דברים ט:טו וָאֵפֶן וָאֵרֵד מִן הָהָר וְהָהָר בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הַבְּרִית עַל שְׁתֵּי יָדָי. ט:טז וָאֵרֶא וְהִנֵּה חֲטָאתֶם לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עֲשִׂיתֶם לָכֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה סַרְתֶּם מַהֵר מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה אֶתְכֶם. ט:יז וָאֶתְפֹּשׂ בִּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת וָאַשְׁלִכֵם מֵעַל שְׁתֵּי יָדָי וָאֲשַׁבְּרֵם לְעֵינֵיכֶם.
Deut 9:15 I turned and descended from the mountain and the mountain was ablaze and the two Tablets of the Covenant on my two hands. 9:16 I saw and behold you had sinned against YHWH your God, you made for yourselves a molten calf, you turned-aside quickly from the path that YHWH commanded you. 9:17 I grabbed hold of the two tablets and flung them from my two hands and shattered them before your eyes.
Deuteronomy does not mention anger, and has Moses shattering the tablets before the Israelites’ eyes. This suggests a different mindset; Moses is not angry, but deliberate, shattering the tablets so all Israel might see.
Was Moses Acting Impulsively?
Perhaps Deuteronomy is uncomfortable with the image of Moses, losing his temper and shattering the tablets in a fit a of rage. Thus, it preferred to see the act of shattering the tablets as Moses’ intentional strategy.
Pseudo-Philo: Moses Didn’t Break Them on Purpose
A similar idea is found in the retelling of the Bible in Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo (12.5), an anonymous text that retells the biblical narrative from Genesis to Saul, written by a Jew in the late 1st / early 2nd century:
Moses descended in haste and saw the calf. He looked at the tablets and saw that they were not written upon and, agitated, he smashed them. He stretched out his hands and he became like a woman in labor with her first child who, when she is seized by pains, her hands are upon her chest and she has no strength to aid her delivery.
Pseudo-Philo claims that the letters flew off the tablets and Moses lost control of himself. This miracle both excuses Moses’ agitation and panic as well as making the shattering less problematic, since the shattered tablets were blank.
Midrash Tanhuma offers a similar interpretation (Warsaw ed., Ki Tissa 30):
ארז”ל כל ימים שהיה הכתב על הלוחות לא היה משה מרגיש בהם, כיון שפרח הכתב נמצאו כבדים על ידיו והשליכם ונשתברו
The Rabbis said: As long as the writing was on the tablets Moses could not feel the weight. Once the writing flew off of them, the tablets began to feel heavy in his hands and he flung them and they shattered.
This midrash offers an even stronger excuse for Moses’ behavior: The letters are what made the tablets light enough to hold. Without them, Moses simply couldn’t carry them anymore, so he flung the tablets and they smashed. Accordingly, the shattering of the tablets was, for the most part, God’s doing.
Deuteronomy Rabbah: ‘Anger Resides in the Bosom of Fools’
Other traditional commentators take at face value the claim of Exodus, that Moses broke the tablets on his own initiative in anger, but criticize his behavior. A particularly censorious midrash appears in the 9th century Deuteronomy Rabbah, on the verse in which Moses recounts how God told him to make a second set of tablets:
דברים י:א בָּעֵת הַהִוא אָמַר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי פְּסָל־לְךָ שְׁנֵי לוּחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים…
Deut 10:1 At that time YHWH said to me, sculpt two stone tablets like the first ones…
Commenting on this instruction, the midrash (Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:14; Lieberman ed.) says:
הה”ד אל תבהל ברוחך לכעוס [כי כעס בחיק כסילים ינוח], ומי היה זה שכעס, זה משה, דכתיב ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו [את הלוחות],
It is written (Ecclesiastes 7:9) “Do not be fast to anger [for anger resides in the bosom of fools].” Who was angry? Moses, as it is written: “Moses got angry and flung [the tablets] from his hands” (Exod. 32:19).
This bold and audacious midrash quotes the verse about fools getting angry—and applies it to Moses! Being “fast to anger” is the quality of fools and it leads to foolish behavior (that is, impulsive and ill-considered), which is what this midrash thinks shattering the tablets was. Better would have been to calmly evaluate the situation and then decide on appropriate action.
Especially powerful is the continuation of the midrash, where God rebukes Moses:
א”ל הקדוש ברוך הוא הא משה היית מפיג חמתך בלוחות הברית, מבקש את שאפיג חמתי ואין אתה רואה שאין העולם יכול לעמוד אפי’ שעה אחת,
God said to him: “So, Moses, you are calming your anger by [destroying] the Tablets of the Covenant? Do you want me to calm my anger [by destroying things]? Do you not see that the world would not last even one hour [were I to do so]?”
א”ל מה יש לי לעשות, א”ל לתת עליך קטריקין, אתה שיברת אותן, ואתה מחליף אותם, הה”ד פסל לך שני לוחות אבנים.
Moses said to [God]: “What should I do?” God said: “You need to pay a penalty. You shattered them, you replace them.” Thus: “Sculpt two stone tablets” (Deut. 10:1).
The midrash interprets the command to Moses to carve new tablets and write the Decalogue on them, in contrast the heavenly gift of divine tablets in the earlier story, as a penalty for shattering the original tablets. God uses the ultimate reductio ad absurdum: if you (Moses)—vent your anger through random acts of destruction, what would appen if I did so as well, where will this lead?
Talmud: More Power to You for Shattering! (יישר כוחך ששיברת)
The rabbis are not unanimous, however, in their criticism of Moses. A different point of view is expressed in a Talmudic homily (b. Shabbat 87a, b. Yebamot 62a), which lists shattering the Tablets as one of three things that Moses did on his own initiative and that God agreed with post facto. The Talmud imputes the following reasoning to Moses:
ומה פסח שהוא אחד מתרי”ג מצות, אמרה תורה וכל בן נכר לא יאכל בו, התורה כולה על אחת כמה וכמה!
If the Paschal sacrifice, which is [only] one of 613 commandments, may not be eaten by a “foreigner” (=apostate), the entire Torah (e.g., the Decalogue) how much more so!
According to this homily, Moses drew on the rule that a בן נכר may not partake of the Paschal sacrifice. The term בן נכר literally means “a foreigner,” but Rabbinic interpretation includes Israelite apostates in this category. Moses’ logic is that the Paschal sacrifice is only one mitzvah, and yet an apostate is forbidden to partake of it, so certainly a group of apostates, which the Israelites became by worshipping the Golden Calf, should not be allowed to “partake” of the Decalogue, which represents not just one mitzvah but “the entire Torah.”
Moses is envisioned as a rabbi here; he engages in classic halakhic reasoning, arriving at the halakhic conclusion that he must not allow the Israelites to partake in the Decalogue. This is a far cry from acting out of anger that the midrash cited above describes.
And God’s response changes accordingly. Deuteronomy Rabbah portrays God as rebuking Moses for venting his rage. The Talmud, by contrast, has God congratulating Moses for his action:
ומנלן דהסכים הקדוש ברוך הוא על ידו? שנאמר אשר שברת ואמר ריש לקיש: יישר כוחך ששיברת.
And how do we know that God agreed to his actions? For it is written: “That you shattered.” Resh Lakish interpreted [this]: “More power to you for shattering!”
In this reading, Moses’ decision is not at all impulsive. Rather, it is the result of classic Talmudic reasoning, and is thus decidedly positive.
Is Moses’ Reasoning Cogent?
This strong Talmudic endorsement of Moses’ action settles the matter for many traditional commentators. Rashi, for example, when listing the various times Moses’ anger led him to err, does not include shattering the tablets. To the contrary, in his Torah commentary Rashi speaks about this act with strong approval, including in his gloss to the concluding verse of the Torah.  And one is left wondering about the discrepancy. How is it that Moses’ anger, which Rashi says led Moses to err in other cases, did not do so now?
Other medieval commentaries, however, are not quite as sanguine about the Talmud’s homily. For instance, in a gloss on this Talmudic passage, Tosafot (12th-13th cent) claim that Moses’ argument from the Paschal offering was faulty (b. Yevamot 62a s.v. ha-torah):
אין זה ק”ו גמור דשאני פסח משום דקדשים אבל כל התורה כולה אדרבה יש לו ללמדם ולהחזירם בתשובה.
This is an imperfect a fortiori argument, since the Paschal offering is different because it is sacrifice. But the entire Torah (i.e., the Decalogue)—to the contrary, he should teach them and thereby bring about repentance.
Moses’ a fortiori argument, Tosafot assert, was based on a category error—a flawed comparison of two things that are fundamentally different. Sacrifices are avodah (divine worship) and as such, have special requirements for participation. Torah study, however, has no such requirements.
Tosafot take this a step further and aver that the a fortiori argument was not only faulty but entirely backwards. Rather than shattering the tablets, he should have taught them what was on the tablets and thereby bring them to repentance.
The Tosafot do not discuss what led Moses to make a backwards argument. Nevertheless, the verse in Exodus describes him as acting in anger and, as we have seen, in other situations his anger led him to err. Thus, it is reasonable that here too Moses’ anger leads him to an error, namely, failing to discern the difference between sacrifices and the study of Torah. And for that very reason he did not discern that the better response to the Golden Calf incident would have been teaching God’s word.
The position of Deuteronomy Rabbah reminds us of the folly and peril of acting in anger. Moreover, it highlights the fallibility of even the greatest religious authorities, a particularly important lesson in a world in which the concept of da’as Torah, the infallibility of Torah sages, has gained ascendency in certain circles.
From Tosafot we learn that just because a Torah scholar quotes sources and provides halakhic reasoning that appears cogent prima facie, the ruling is not necessarily correct. Moses acts based on what appeared to him to be proper halakhic analysis, while in reality he got it backwards. His anger leads him to a false equation of sacrifices with Torah study, and it blinds him to preferable options that would have brought the Israelites toward repentance.
Tosafot’s reading of the Talmud connects us to the midrash in Deuteronomy Rabbah, which sees Moses’ act as contrary to God’s will. The midrash offers us an important lesson: the Torah describes Moses as the greatest human being ever to live, and yet when he gets angry he acts like a fool, and his destructive course of action merits a rebuke and even a punishment from God. Nobody is exempt from the effect of human emotions.
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February 28, 2018
November 13, 2019
Rabbi Uzi Weingarten is the designer of the Communicating with Compassion course. He received Rabbinic Ordination from Yeshiva University’s RIETS and an M.A. in Jewish Education also from Yeshiva University.
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