Timeline and Basic Outline
The sin of the golden calf is widely regarded as one of the
most disgraceful moments in Jewish history. In Exodus, chapters 31-32, theA mere 40 days after receiving the Torah, the Jewish people created an idol
Torah tells how three months after leaving Egypt, and a mere 40 days after
receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people created an idol and
worshipped it. Having miscalculated the date of Moses’ promised return from the
mountain, the Jewish people thought their leader had died. They decided to
replace him, and with the help of Aaron, formed a golden calf and worshipped
On the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the Jewish
people left Egypt and began traveling through the desert. After 49 days of
travel, on the 50th day, the sixth (or the seventh) of Sivan, G‑d gave them the
Torah. Standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, they witnessed G‑d’s glory descend
upon the mountain, and they heard the Ten Commandments. The next day, G‑d
commanded Moses to ascend the mountain for 40 days, where He would teach him
all the laws and present him with the tablets on which the Ten Commandments
Moses took leave of his people, promising to return in 40 days.
When Moses told the people 40 days, he meant 40 full days—nights and days. And since
Moses left in the morning, that first day was not included in the count.
However, the Jews miscalculated, and expected Moses to return on the 16th of
Tammuz. In vain the Jews waited for Moses on the 16th, and when he didn’t show,
they began to worry. The biblical commentator Rashi describes how Satan made the
sky grow dark and caused a feeling of gloominess to descend upon the camp,
further unnerving the people.
As this was happening, the erev rav (“mixed multitude”)—a ragtag group of Egyptian outcasts
who had tagged along with the Jews when they left Egypt, and who were insincere
in their commitment to G‑d—convinced the people that Moses was dead and that
they needed a new leader. Terrified, the Jewish people gathered around Aaron,
Moses’ brother, and demanded that he make them a new leader. (The commentators
note that, at this point, the people only wanted a new leader in place of
Moses, not a new G‑d.)
Aaron told them to go home and collect their wives’ jewelry and bring it back
to him. Crazed, the men ripped off their own jewelry and threw it into a fire.
And out of the fire a golden calf emerged.
As to who actually formed the calf, there are three
- Aaron formed it by molding the form of a calf from the
Sorcerers from the erev
rav formed it using magic.
Micah, a member of the erev rav whose life had been saved by Moses, created the calf. When
the Jewish people were leaving Egypt, Moses went to collect Joseph’s coffin to
fulfill his request that his remains be redeemed together with the Jews.
However, in an attempt to stop the Jews from leaving, the Egyptians had sunk
Joseph’s coffin in the Nile. Moses took a plaque, wrote on it the words “alei shor” (“rise ox”), and threw it in
the river, causing the coffin of Joseph (who is compared to an ox) to rise to
the surface. Micah had stolen this plaque and now used it to create the calf by
throwing it into the blaze.
Then the erev rav
called out to the Jewish people, “These are your gods, O Israel, who took you
out of Egypt!”
Aaron built an altar and instructed the Jews to go to sleep, saying that
“tomorrow there will be a festival to G‑d.”
The next day, the people rose early and made their way to
the golden calf, where they offered sacrifices and started worshipping. The
Torah tells us, “The Jewish people sat to feast and rose to play,” which Rashi
explains to mean that, in addition to idolatry, they also committed acts of
immorality and murder.
There is a lengthy discussion among the commentators as to
why Aaron involved himself in the construction of the golden calf. How could
Aaron, prophet of G‑d and future high priest, take such an active role inHow could Aaron take such an active role in blatant idolatry?
blatant idolatry? Rashi and most other commentators explain that Aaron was
trying to stall the people. He knew that they wouldn’t listen to him anyways,
but he hoped that if he delayed them enough, Moses would return before any
major damage was done. That is why he told them to collect their wives’
jewelry. It is also explained that Aaron knew that the Jewish women had too
much faith in Moses to be roped into such mutiny, and that they would further
delay their husbands.
Building the altar himself was also a delay tactic.
Other reasons given for Aaron’s involvement are:
Before the Jews came to Aaron, they went to Chur,
Aaron’s nephew. Chur rebuked them and refused to help them, so they murdered
him. Aaron witnessed this and thought, “If I don’t help them they will kill me,
too. Chur was G‑d’s prophet and I am G‑d’s priest. If they murder the prophet
and the priest their sin will be unforgivable.” He therefore decided to help
them, to minimize their sin.
Out of his great love for the Jews, Aaron decided that
it was “better that the sin be placed on me than upon them.” The Midrash brings
a parable for this idea. There was once a prince who grew angry at his father
and decided to overthrow him. He grabbed a sword and went to attack his father.
The prince's teacher passed by and saw what the prince was doing. He said to
the child, “I will help you. Give me the sword.” When the king uncovered the
plot, he recognized the good intentions of the teacher and how he only helped
the prince so that he would bear the blame instead of the prince. The king
rewarded the teacher, promoting him to high office and presenting him with many
gifts. Like the teacher in the parable, Aaron was awarded the position of high
priest as reward for taking responsibility for the golden calf.
Aaron figured that if he was the one to make the calf,
later on he could tell the people that it had no substance and was mere
foolishness. If someone who actually believed in it’s power fashioned it, then
the people would be drawn to follow. But if the one who formed it would deny
its power, people would recognize its worthlessness.
Moses Smashes the Tablets
Meanwhile up on Mount Sinai, G‑d told Moses to descend.
”Your people have become corrupt. Already they have strayed from the path I set
for them. They created a golden calf, worshipped it and offered sacrifices to
it. Now, I shall destroy this nation for they are a stiff-necked people. I will
rebuild a nation from you (one that will not disobey or rebel against me).”
Moses prayed for G‑d to stay His wrath. He then came down
the mountain, and together with his disciple Joshua, turned to enter the camp.
Utter carnage met his eye. Drunken revelry, blasphemy, adultery and idolatry.
Outraged, Moses took the tablets that were given to Him by G‑d, and hurled them
to the ground, shattering them. Moses reasoned: “If regarding the paschal
offering, which is but one of the 613 mitzvahs, the Torah says a heretic may
not partake of it, how much more so the entire Torah should not be given to
Other reasons given for Moses’ breaking the tablets are:
Moses thought, “Better the Jews be judged as an unmarried
woman (who acts promiscuously) than as a married one.” The tablets were the
marriage contract between G‑d and the Jews, so once the tablets were given to
them, their punishment would be much harsher. Moses destroyed the marriage
contract to minimize the severity of the sin and the consequent punishment.
Rabbeinu Bachaye says that when Moses descended from
the mountain, the words on the tablets disappeared. These were miraculous
letters, engraved through both sides of the stone, and readable from any
direction. The tablets containing the Ten Commandments were compared to a body
and soul, so when the letters disappeared, the stones, much like a human body
after the soul leaves, became incredibly heavy. Moses was unable to bear their
weight, so he dropped them.
The Ultimate Leader
The Talmud states that when Moses broke the tablets, G‑d
agreed with his action and praised him. But this seems strange:
even if Moses’ smashing of the tablets was justified, why was it praiseworthy?
This is made even stranger when we take a look at the end of
the Torah. The Torah concludes with aHe was willing to sacrifice the Torah for his people
description of Moses’ greatness, and the final words are, “All the great
wonders that he performed before the eyes of the Jewish people.” Rashi,
concluding his commentary on the entire Torah writes: “This ‘wonder’ that he
performed before the eyes of the people was the smashing of the tablets, and
G‑d agreed with him and praised him.” Astonishing! The entire Torah ends with
the statement that Moses’ breaking of the tablets, a result of perhaps the
gravest sin ever committed, was praiseworthy. Why?
In truth, the smashing of the tablets was Moses’ greatest display of love for his
people and his crowning moment as a leader. Moses’s entire existence was Torah.
His life’s mission was to receive the Torah from G‑d and teach it to the Jews.
So intense was Moses’ connection with Torah, it is even called “the Torah of
Yet, he was willing to sacrifice the Torah for his people. When he saw them
sinning, and knew that were he to give them the tablets their punishment would
be more severe (as explained in the Midrash above), he decided to break the
tablets. So great was his love for his people, that even when they were in a
disgraceful state, worshipping idols, he was still willing to “smash the
Torah” for the sake of his people. As a true Jewish leader, he was willing to
put his people before all. This is why G‑d not only agreed with his actions,
but praised him, for this was the ultimate act of a dedicated leader. This is
also why the Torah ends with an allusion to this incident, for this was Moses’
Moses ground the golden calf into a powder, mixed it with
water and gave it to the worshippers to
drink, killing them. He then commanded the tribe of Levi, who had remained
faithful to him, to further seek out any worshippers and annihilate them. G‑d
brought a plague on the Jews, killing thousands more.
Rashi explains that these three punishments were for three
types of sinners. Those who sinned in the presence of witnesses, and were
properly warned, were killed by the sword. This is in accordance with the law
that if the majority of the inhabitants of a city commit idolatry, their
punishment is beheading. Those who sinned with witnesses but were not warned
perished in the plague, and those who sinned without witnesses or warning died
when they swallowed the waters.
Moses returned to the mountain two more times for 40 days
each, finally descending on Yom Kippur bearing the second set of tablets and
having secured G‑d’s forgiveness.
Enigmas and Answers
The episode of the golden calf elicits many fundamental
questions. How could the Jews commit such a terrible sin a mere 40 days after
receiving the Torah? The giving of the Torah was the most spiritually upliftingHow did they fall so fast?
moment in our history, and the Jews were on an incredibly high level. How did
they fall so fast, transgressing the first two of the Ten Commandments?
Additionally, what exactly was the point of the golden calf? Did the Jews really
think that an inanimate statue could replace Moses, pray to G‑d on their behalf
and lead them through the desert? If they needed a leader, why not appoint
Aaron, Joshua, or one of the elders? Why did they immediately fashion an idol?
In fact, the Talmud states that at that point in time, the
Jewish people were entirely righteous, insusceptible to sin.
The sin of the golden calf was a “decree of the King so as to provide an
opening for penitents.” G‑d guided them into sinning so that a precedent would
be set for future penitents: repentance would always be accepted no matter how
grave the sin. For if the terrible sin of the golden calf was forgiven, then
all sins could be forgiven.
A deeper explanation of this Talmudic statement is given in
chassidic teachings. At the time of the giving of the Torah, the Jews were
spiritual giants, and they connected with G‑d from a position of spiritual
greatness. However, their connection went only as far as their appreciation and
understanding of G‑d. G‑d’s essence, which is beyond the ability of man to
appreciate, remained distant from them. To truly connect with G‑d’s essence one
must experience oneself as a nothing, a non-existence, creating a vacuum into
which the essence of G‑d can be drawn. This is accomplished by repentance. Only
when the Jews sinned and subsequently repented did they create this vacuum,
becoming receptacles for G‑dliness. “To provide an opening for penitents” does
not only mean penitents of later generations. The Jews who stood at Mount Sinai
sinned so that they could, through repentance, connect perfectly with G‑d.
Of Keruvim and Calves
Another explanation, provided by the Rebbe, re-examines the
motives of the Jews who created the calf, and sheds much-needed light on the
As we learn in the chassidic teachings, the purpose of the
creation of the world is that we make a dwelling place for G‑d through Torah
and mitzvahs. When we learn Torah and perform mitzvahs, we draw G‑dliness down
into the world and permeate the physical with spirituality. Before the giving
of the Torah, this was unachievable, because “the heavens belonged to G‑d and
the earth to man.”
When G‑d descended from heaven onto Mount Sinai, He empowered us to bridge the
gap. From then on, G‑dliness and physicality are able to unite, and thus when
we take a physical object and perform a mitzvah with it, we infuse the
physicality with G‑dliness.
The Jews built the golden calf in an attempt to create the
ultimate dwelling place for G‑d. They wanted to draw G‑dliness all the way down
into the world. They knew that one day G‑d would tell Moses that the Jews
should build Him a sanctuary, and that they should construct keruvim. The keruvim, cherubs, two golden, child-like forms, stood in the Holy
of Holies on top of the ark and from there, from between the keruvim, G‑d would communicate with
humankind. In the holiest place on
earth, where only the high priest would enter once a year, stood two golden
sculptures, and there the essence of G‑d dwelled.
The Jews knew this and wanted to build their own version of
the keruvim. They also wanted toThey earnestly wanted to connect with G‑d
experience the revelation of G‑d’s essence and achieve the ultimate unity of
the sublime with the ordinary. They earnestly wanted to connect with G‑d.
However, their approach was wrong. For even though the golden calf was similar
to the keruvim, there was a
fundamental difference. While G‑d had commanded the keruvim, He had not commanded the calf. True connection with G‑d
can be achieved only in the way G‑d desires it, not in how we desire it. The
connection must be on G‑d's terms, not ours. The Jews’ undoing was in their
failure to recognise that. Their desire to create a golden calf demonstrated
that, in a subtle way, they cared more to enrich their own spiritual experience
than to listen to G‑d and experience Him in the way He desired them to.
Initially, the Jews had no intention of sinning. However,
their choosing to connect with G‑d from the self, not in the way that was
mandated by G‑d, started them on a downward spiral. Once they began to act in
their own interests, their interests became more important than G‑d’s,
ultimately leading some to indulge completely in their own desires and commit