The Bible Says What? ‘Moses broke the first tablets and kept them’

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The Bible Says What? ‘Moses broke the first tablets and kept them’

 Rabbi René Pfertzel takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a Liberal Jewish response

Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)
Torah scroll (Photo by Tanner Mardis on Unsplash)

“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.” (Exodus 32:19)

Ever wondered what happened to the first set of stone tablets we read about in our Torah?

We know that after returning from 40 days of a one-to-one encounter with God, Moses smashes them because the Israelites were so impatient they melted their gold and created an idol. Later on, we read that God gives another set of tablets.

According to Torah, the first set was inscribed by God’s finger – whereas the second were chiselled out by Moses and rewritten by God – but it doesn’t tell us what happened to them. One Talmudic tradition states the broken tablets were placed in the Holy Ark along with the second, which were intact. Another tells us: “Two Arks journeyed with Israel in the wildernes. One in which the Torah was placed, and the other in which the tablets broken by Moses were placed.”

It is remarkable the broken tablets were kept alongside the unbroken ones. They were not buried, which is what we generally do with holy items no longer in use. But why?

Midrash Rabbah gives an explanation. God said to Moses: “Do not be distressed over the First Tablets, which contained only the Ten Commandments. In the Second Tablets, you will also have Halachah, Midrash and Aggadah.” In other words, both sets of tablets represent different stages of Revelation: it is a progressive process. The first tablets were written only by God. For the second, Moses and God were partners. Similarly, our relationship with God is one of collaboration.

  •  Rabbi René Pfertzel serves Kingston Liberal Synagogue

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