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Why Did Moses Break the Tablets?

Why Did Moses Break the Tablets?

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Question:

Why did Moses break the tablets?

I heard that his reason was the Torah-mandated capital punishment for idolatry. If he would give the Torah to the Jews at this point, they would be condemned to death, so he instead broke the tablets to save the Jews. Is this correct? Are there other reasons too?

Answer:

The midrashim and various biblical commentaries suggest many reasons to explain Moses’ action. The following are a few of them:

1) The explanation which you wrote is indeed found in the Midrash. Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Torah, quotes a similar explanation:1

This can be compared to a king who went abroad, and left his betrothed with the maidservants. Because of the immoral behavior of the maidservants, she acquired a bad reputation. Her “bridesman” (the person appointed to defend the bride should any problems arise) arose and tore up her marriage contract. He said, ‘If the king decides to kill her, I will say to him, “She is not yet your wife.”’

2) Another explanation quoted by Rashi2 is that Moses made the following calculation:

He said [to himself]: If [in regard to] the Passover sacrifice, which is [merely] one of the commandments, the Torah said: “No estranged one may partake of it”—[now that] the entire Torah is here [i.e., the Ten Commandments include the whole Torah], and all the Israelites are apostates, shall I give it to them?3

3) A classic explanation is that the tablets, two large sapphire stones, weighed too much to be possibly carried by a single human being; instead, the divinely etched letters engraved within them miraculously lightened them, enabling Moses to carry the tablets. When the letters “saw” the golden calf which the Jewish people had made, they were revolted and “flew” out of the tablets, back to their divine source—leaving Moses with a burden he could not bear, and which he therefore dropped.4

4) Others explain that Moses broke the tablets in order to discourage G‑d from implementing His plan to annihilate the Jewish people for their sin, and to recreate a new chosen nation from Moses and his descendants (see Exodus 32:10). Upon breaking the tablets, he told G‑d, “Now I am a sinner just like them. If You decide to eradicate them, destroy me as well.”5

For further insight on this topic, see Priceless National Treasures.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson

Footnotes
1.

Rashi on Exodus 34:1.

2.

Rashi on Exodus 32:19.

3.

This reason is taken from the Talmud, Shabbat 87a.

4.

Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4:5.

5.

Exodus Rabbah 41:1.

Rabbi Baruch S. Davidson is a writer who lives with his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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susanblange October 26, 2016

The tablets of the law were broken by Moses because the children of Israel had broken the law. Reply

Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar for Chabad.org October 26, 2016

The people, coming from idolatrous Egypt, were certainly challenged. Especially considering how dependent they were on Moshe for inspiration and direction.

But they too were just 40 days removed from the revelation at Sinai when the existence of G-d was perhaps more crystal clear than any other point in history! Reply

Isaac Brooklyn NY September 4, 2016

Re: Anonymous TX Exodus 32:18
And [Moses] said: "[It is] neither a voice shouting victory, nor a voice shouting defeat; a voice of blasphemy I hear."

Moses was saying, "I do not hear any of the 597,000 non worshipers shouting victory of having put a stop to the blasphemous conducts, nor do I hear the idolatrous shouting, we have been defeated." Reply

Anonymous TX September 3, 2016

Exodus 32:19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. Reply

katrin p. Germany March 4, 2013

RE: What really caused Moses to become angry ? Isaac, my guess is it might be impossible to get angry in the very presence of G-d.
On a side note, it almost feels as if Moshe didn't want to leave the mountain. The tablets must have already been done when G-d encouraged him to leave saying that the people had corrupted themselves. Just seems to me as if they were having a conversation, or just spending time there, even after the tablets had been done. So, who knows, maybe the tablets had already been ready after 30 days, and the other ten days Moshe stayed with G-d and when the situation got delicate down there, G-d told him to leave. Maybe this is also why G-d remained (relatively) calm. Reply

Isaac Brooklyn March 4, 2013

According to the Chasam Sofer. The Chasam Sofer asks why did Moses wait until he got down from the mountain to become angry. Surely it was God himself that told him that his people have gone astray.

It was because, Moshe was not worried about the people sinning, he had Torah in hand which would remedy the situation. But in fact there was only a small minority, about 3000 people involved, and the rest, about 597,000 (some say this was just the number of men) was just standing about doing absolutely nothing, i.e. they were not worshipping, nor were they preventing the others from worshipping the golden calf.

Moses became very angry upon seeing this, because he knew the Jewish people were not ready for this set of tablets written by the hand of God, which was on a higher level. Under the circumstances Moses therefore had decided to break the tablets.

Albert Einstein had said. The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.
Reply

Isaac Brooklyn March 1, 2013

What really caused Moses to become angry ? God had told Moses, "Go down from this mountain, for your people have corrupted themselves."

At this time he had not yet become angry. Only after coming down did he first become angry.

If it was due to the fact that seeing Jews worshipping a golden calf, why then did he not become angry upon first hearing it from God himself ?

It was not because he did not believe God, and wanted to see it for himself, no, this cannot be. It is therefore obvious there was something else which he saw that upset him.

So, can you tell me what it was ? Reply

katrin p. germany March 1, 2013

I've seen this situation happen a hundred times in front of my eyes, when he ran down the hill totally shocked, in panic, pale, with his mouth wide open. I believe that he was so shocked that he dropped the tablets. In the end, what were they worth if the peeps wouldn't even listen to the first commandment?

What I would like to know is this. After they had built the Arch, G-d said something along the lines of "You better don't break this one! If you break this one there won't be a second one..." (paraphrasing, as I don't know the Chumash too well). So somehow He opened up that can of worms again, and I wonder why? Reply

Theo Copenhagen, Denmark March 1, 2013

Why Moses broke the tablets. I agree with Judith in Los Angeles:

"The Bible is clear why he broke them. God had told Moses of the golden calf when he was still in God's Presence, and Moses had pleaded on their behalf to save them-- from a number of interesting perspectives. But when he came down the mountain and saw the merriment, heard the singing, the craziness of the scene and their worshiping this idol of gold, he was infuriated -- just as God had been, and lost it. And threw down the tablets. they were clearly not worthy of this covenant. and that was before Aaron lied about his role and how the idol came to be. Can you blame him?
judith
los angeles" Reply

Duane Linn February 28, 2013

Moses destroying the tablets I like the explainations given in the four statements. I was always under the impression that Moses destroyed the tablets because he was so mortified by what he saw, he became angry and felt that the people were not worthy to receive G-d's Law. Reply

Abraham Jos Bangalore, India February 27, 2013

the natural and simple reason Going by Moses' temperament - he killed an Egyptian in one shot, he hit the rock twice instead of just commanding it - we can say the most simple reason for the above query is that Moses, who was so close to God, imbibing all that God had in his mind for His people, was so upset to see his people indulging in idolatry that he found no purpose being served in giving it to them and hence broke them.

Yes, its like tearing apart a sheet of agreement because the terms are violated or not agreed upon...! Reply

Joe Harrisburg, PA February 27, 2013

Thanks I especially like #3 - the Torah was given to the People of Israel, not just to Moses, for him to share them! Reply

Isaac Brooklyn February 27, 2013

Why did Moses break the tablets? All these explanations overlook one very important fact, that is the Torah has in it a remedy for all sins.
Prayer, repentance, and charity pardons the iniquity of sin which can be learned from this very episode. Which is what the Jewish people did to save themselves from this harsh decree. So why Moses of all people would want to deny the Jewish people (whom he loved) of the one thing that can save them, i.e. the Torah. And without the Torah what use would God have for the Jewish people ? Which is to say, if Moses broke the tablets to keep the Torah from them, and by doing so was (God forbid) successful, then they would have certainly been destroyed, because denying God was the reason for the decree, and without the Torah they would have continued to worship idols. A lose lose scenario.
What should be looked into is why did Moses become angry enough to break the tablets in the first place, and then afterwards ask why break the tablets. Reply

Lipbalm February 27, 2013

What if Moses wrote those commandments himself on these tablets and simply broke one in order to get attention and captivate the masses ? What a better way to make a splash and get the upper hands on commoners ? Through this action he positioned himself as the leader of them all ! This sounds more logic ! Apple company used this meme passed down throughout the years to sell its tablets computers to the masses & to lead the market ! Reply

Edoardo Shmuel Recanati Tekoa - Israel February 27, 2013

all of the possible answers Moses was very human and... hot tempered. For instance, he did not have to kill the Egyptian supervisor and when he realized his mistake, he ran away. Latter on, he gave more evidence, verbally and hitting rocks. Therefore, he did what one can expect of Moses in front of this total deception.
Anyway, not all the Israelite were responsible for the sin of the calf. The women did not participate and did not supply the gold. The Nation could never have been completely destroyed. Reply

Susan Brownwood February 26, 2013

Breaking the tablets When we make a toast that is like a pact it is common for the glass that one drinks from to be cast into a fire or onto the ground to be broken. It is also like stepping on the glass at a wedding. It seals the deal. The glass cannot be put back together nor the tablets. The tablets and the glasses sacred missions are fulfilled symbolizing that the pacts be not be undone. "What G-d hath joined together . . ." G-d joined man to the commandments not to the tablets. Reply

Eugina Giovanna Herrera New York City, New York February 26, 2013

Disrespected laws Moses was not just the humblest man on this planet, to disrespect laws is to disrespect the laws of our G-d, in other words not to idolize or take any Holy bible in vain for political gain.

Thank you for sharing this. Reply

judith los angeles February 26, 2013

The Bible is clear why he broke them. God had told Moses of the golden calf when he was still in God's Presence, and Moses had pleaded on their behalf to save them-- from a number of interesting perspectives. But when he came down the mountain and saw the merriment, heard the singing, the craziness of the scene and their worshiping this idol of gold, he was infuriated -- just as God had been, and lost it. And threw down the tablets. they were clearly not worthy of this covenant. and that was before Aaron lied about his role and how the idol came to be. Can you blame him? Reply

Elizabeth Georgia February 26, 2013

Sapphire Stones First time I head this, any references I could check? Very, very interesting. Reply

marianne Apex February 26, 2013

tablets I think he was just mad at everyone. Reply

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