So, I took hold of the two Tablets, cast them out of my two hands, and shattered them before your eyes.

--Devarim 9:17

Classic Questions

Why did Moshe "take hold" of the Tablets if he was already holding them? (v. 17)

Ohr haChayim: Until Moshe saw that the Jewish people had sinned, the Tablets hovered in the air above his hands ("upon my two hands"—v. 15). When he witnessed their sin, the Tablets lost their holiness, and he had to take hold of them and support them.

Midrash: The Tablets were a total of six tefachim (handbreadths) long. Moshe was holding two tefachim and G‑d was holding two tefachim at the other end, leaving two tefachim unsupported. Moshe strength­ened his grip, grabbed the Tablets and broke them...

Thus G‑d said to Moshe, "It was you who broke them."1

Why did Moshe break the Tablets? (v. 17)

Midrash: What can this be compared to? To a nobleman who wished to marry a woman through an agent. The agent went and found that the woman had been promiscuous with another man. What did the agent—who was totally innocent—do? He took the marriage document that was given to him by the nobleman, and tore it up. He said, "It is better that this woman be judged as a single woman and not as a married woman!" And this is precisely what Moshe did. When he saw what the Jewish people had done, he took the Tablets and broke them, [so he could argue] that if the Jewish people had seen the punishment for idol worship [written there], they would not have sinned.2

The Rebbe's Teachings

To Whom Did the Tablets Belong? (v. 17)

In addition to the solutions of Ohr haChayim and the Midrash, the reason why Moshe needed to "take hold" of the Tablets can be understood by first addressing the following question:

Presumably, the Tablets were public property, since they were given to Moshe in order to be placed into the Ark (which belonged to the public), together with all the other parts of the Tabernacle.3 This begs the question: How could Moshe break the Tablets if they did not belong to him. Surely, Moshe was vandalizing public property!

Did the Tablets Have any Value?

At first glance, we might argue that the Tablets were in fact worthless, since in the desert stone has no market value, as houses are not built there. Therefore, Moshe was not guilty of causing any damage, since the Tablets were of no real value.

However this solution is clearly unacceptable, because:

  1. Even if they are not used for building, stones do have some value; e.g., they can be used as simple furniture.4

  2. According to our Sages, the first Tablets were made of sapphire, which is tremendously valuable.5

  3. In any case, since the first Tablets were formed by G‑d Himself, they obviously had immense value.

"Damage" for the Public Good

Another possible approach to explain why Moshe was not guilty of damaging public property would be to argue that breaking the Tablets was actually for the public benefit. For, as the Midrash explains, Moshe broke the Tablets so as to reduce the punishment for which the Jewish people would be liable due to worshiping the calf. Thus, it is only logical that the public would wish its own property to be damaged, for the sake of a public benefit.

Alternatively, we might argue that the public did not enjoy normal rights of ownership over the Tablets, since no person was allowed to use them or benefit from them in any way. Thus, in breaking the Tablets Moshe was not denying the public any privileges of ownership.

However, both of the above arguments fail to take into account that the breaking of the Tablets ultimately appears to have been an act of theft. For even if we accept the argument that Moshe did not damage public property because he acted for the sake of the public good, or that he did not deny the public any privileges of ownership, we are nevertheless left with the problem that the unauthorized use (or abuse) of another's property is theft. And, in the case of theft, the law is that one may not steal another person's object even if it is for the owner's benefit (e.g., one intends to replace it with a superior item6); and likewise, one may not steal another's property7 even if the owner does not enjoy any privileges of ownership.8

Furthermore, the argument that the Jewish people had no privileges of ownership of the Tablets is simply not true, since the Tablets were given "to instruct" the Jewish people,9 and Divine instruction is surely a tremendous privilege indeed.

Joint Ownership of the Tablets?

Clearly, the Tablets were not public property, otherwise Moshe would have had no right to break them.

Perhaps then it could be argued that they were in fact private property in which each member of the Jewish people had their own share. This notion would appear to be supported by the teaching that when saying the Ten Commandments, G‑d addressed the Jewish people in the singular, rather than the plural, since He was speaking to every single Jew directly and personally.10 Thus, the Tablets themselves, which contained the Ten Commandments, likewise belonged to each and every Jew individually.

This opens a new argument in defense of Moshe's breaking of the Tablets. For, according to Torah law, the prohibition of theft only applies where the item stolen is worth more than a prutah (small coin). In our case, however, each person's individual share in the Tablets would surely have been negligible, so it could not be said that Moshe was guilty of theft, since in breaking the Tablets he did not misappropriate a prutah from any single person.

However, in the final analysis, this argument is untenable, because:

  1. According to the view (cited above) that the Tablets were made of sapphire, it is likely that there was at least a prutah of value for every Jewish person.

  2. In any case, the Torah forbids a person to steal even less than a prutah. It is only that the laws of restitution apply only if a prutah or more was stolen (Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch, beginning of Laws of Robbery and Theft).

The Explanation

It would seem therefore that the first Tablets must have been Moshe's private property, otherwise he would have had no right to break them. In fact, this appears to be stated explicitly in scripture: "When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moshe the two Tablets of the testimony,"11 on which the Talmud comments12 that G‑d gave them to Moshe "as a gift."

Thus these Tablets must have been an exception to the general principle that all parts of the Tabernacle had to be public property, a point stressed by the fact that the Tablets were given several months before the construction of the Tabernacle, indicating their existence as an independent entity.

Nevertheless, when Moshe received the Tablets from G‑d as a personal gift to him, he intended to give them to the Jewish people, as an act of generosity.13 But when Moshe saw the Jewish people worshiping the calf, he changed his mind and decided to break them instead. However, since Moshe had intended to give the Tablets to the Jewish people, he feared that his outright ownership of the Tablets (and the accompanying right to break them) had become somewhat confused. So, before breaking the Tablets, Moshe "took hold" of them once again, in order to establish his ownership of them unequivocally.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 34, p. 51ff.)