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"And Out Came This Calf ..."

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Despite the popular adage, the sin of the Golden Calf was no orphan: like other tragedies and failures, there were many contributors to this debacle. Various components and antecedents, as well as a unique mixture of circumstances, are often the fertile soil in which the seeds of disaster are sown, and the sin of the Golden Calf is no exception; a host of people and events contributed to the nation's downfall.


The people begin to fear that Moshe has been up on the mountain for too long, and they panic:

And when the people saw that Moshe delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered around Aharon, and said to him, 'Arise, make us gods to lead us; and as for this Moshe, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him.' (Shmot 32:1)

The word which is clearly stressed is "man": Moshe the man. The people expressed their most primal fears of abandonment and betrayal: Moshe is a man – nothing more. Like all men, he is fickle, untrustworthy, mortal – and necessarily transient. Moshe surely could not have survived, alone on the top of the fiery mountain, exposed to the elements, without provisions. Moshe was surely dead, they thought. He had served as their oracle, the word of God flowed through him, but they felt that if Moshe was to be replaced, it behooved them to find something more reliable and sturdy, something concrete. This seems to be reflected in the description of what it is they want Aharon to provide: they did not seek to replace the transcendent God who liberated them and revealed Himself to them, indicated by the Tetragrammaton (YHVH). Rather, they ask Aharon for a deity (elohim) that can physically lead the way for the remainder of their journey. They seek a physical leader.

Their first error is their estimation of Moshe. Was he merely a "man"? While Moshe was certainly not a deity, and to suggest otherwise would be an affront to the most basic teachings of Judaism, rabbinic sources use singular, even daring language to describe Moshe and his unique status. One such instance is in the rabbinic explanation of the Torah's account of Moshe's ascension:

God's glory rested on Mount Sinai, and it was covered by the cloud for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moshe from the midst of the cloud. (Shmot 24:16)

In an eponymous teaching in Avot d'Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Natan explains what transpired during those six days:

Rabbi Natan said, Why was Moshe delayed all six days, and the word of God did not come to him? In order to purge his body of all food and drink from his bowels, so he could be sanctified and become as a ministering angel. (Avot d'Rabbi Natan, Chapter 1)

Moshe is transformed; he becomes something more than a regular mortal man, above the physical constraints of hunger and thirst. God Himself attests to Moshe's unique status, describing him as a "servant of God,"(1) which is ultimately what an angel is. The six days Moshe spent waiting to receive the invitation to climb the mountain were a period of preparation, of elevation. Moshe was not denied food, nor did he abstain from food out of respect;(2) Moshe's body was purged, purified, and prepared for his ascent to heaven. This transformation left a permanent mark which separated Moshe from all other men: When Moshe finally does descend with the new Tablets, his holiness is physically manifest; he is so visually stunning that the people cannot gaze upon his face:

And he was there with God forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. And it came to pass, when Moshe came down from Mount Sinai with the two Tablets of Testimony in Moshe' hand, when he came down from the mount Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become luminous when [God] spoke to him. And when Aharon and all the people of Israel saw Moshe, behold, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to come close to him. And Moshe called to them; and Aharon and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him; and Moshe talked with them. And afterward all the people of Israel came near; and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moshe finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. But when Moshe went in before God to speak with Him, he took the veil off, until he came out. And he came out, and spoke to the people of Israel that which he was commanded. And the people of Israel saw the face of Moshe, that the skin of Moshe' face shone; and Moshe put the veil upon his face again, until he went in to speak with Him. (Shmot 34:28-35)

Aside from the tragedy of their sin, the Torah transmits a certain irony in describing this "replacement" for Moshe that the people had Aharon fashion for them: the Hebrew description of the idol they created is egel masecha:

And he took (it) them from their hand, and fashioned with a heret (an engravers tool) an egel masecha (molten calf); and they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.' (Shmot 32:4)

The word masecha, translated generally as being rooted in something which is poured, is usually rendered "molten": a figurine formed of cast metal. However, the word masecha can be understood as a derivative of a screen or mask.(3) Thus, while they made an egel masecha to replace the mortal Moshe, little did they realize that Moshe, the holiest mortal servant of God, who could subsist without physical sustenance, would need a masecha (mask) to cover his glowing face.


When Aharon was approached with this obscene request, it seems that his first line of defense was not confrontation; rather, he used a series of stalling tactics. The people were not specific in their request; they sought "gods to lead them," but never said anything about actually making a figurine, nor did they specify what these gods should be made of. Aharon asked for their gold, the most precious metal they had. It is altogether likely that he assumed the entire project would stagnate if the people were asked to part with their gold. He hoped to abort the mission before it began.(4) Unfortunately, the people quickly acquiesced, and procured the earrings from their loved ones:

And Aharon said to them, 'Take off the golden ear rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.' And all the people took off the golden ear rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aharon. (Shmot 32:2-3)

Aharon collects the gold, and a calf is formed. Then, in another apparent act of procrastination, Aharon tells the people that only on the following day there would be a holiday – a celebration for God; notably Aharon uses the proper name of God – YHVH.

And he received [it] from their hand, and fashioned with a heret (engraver's tool) a molten calf; and they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.' And when Aharon saw it, he built an altar before it; and Aharon made a proclamation, and said, 'Tomorrow is a feast to God. (Shmot 32:4-5)

But what of the actual formation of the calf? We cannot simply gloss over this stage: Aharon used a heret and formed the calf. The word heret would normally be translated as a graving tool; based on the context, this seems to be a perfectly reasonable interpretation. Yet this would be damning evidence of Aharon's complicity in the sin: He very purposefully carved or formed an idol, using tools of the trade, leading the people Moshe had left in his charge toward the abyss of idolatry, in clear violation of Second Commandment that they had all heard spoken by God Himself. Is this conclusion unavoidable? Rashi actually offers two interpretations of the word heret. The second interpretation is what we have called the more obvious one: the heret is a tool used by goldsmiths. In Rashi's first interpretation, he suggests that a heret can mean scarf or kerchief;(5) Aharon collected all the gold in a cloth, and somehow a calf of gold emerged.

Even if we say that Aharon used a craftsman's tools and purposefully formed a graven image, we may be able to excuse his behavior if we look beyond his actions and consider his motivation: Perhaps Aharon thought that he might be able to shock the people back to their senses, to shake them from their panic-induced reverie. This Golden Calf was a clear and direct affront to the words of God in the Decalogue heard and seen by all. So perhaps this, too, was part of Aharon's plan to delay the completion of the project, to push off actual idol worship long enough for Moshe to return.

Rashi's first interpretation of the word heret leads us in a different direction, allowing us to imagine that Aharon pulled the calf out of a handkerchief. This was no act of craftsmanship; it was magical, and it surprised even Aharon. Rashi is not simply grasping at straws in an attempt to exonerate Aharon; Aharon's own description of the course of events seems to support this interpretation. When Moshe questions him, shocked and dismayed by what transpired in his absence, Aharon mentions neither goldsmith's tools nor handkerchiefs:

And Moshe said to Aharon, 'What did this nation do to you, that you have brought so great a sin upon them?' And Aharon said, 'Let not the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, "Make us gods, which shall go before us; and as for this Moshe, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him." And I said to them, "Whoever has any gold, let them take it off." So they gave it me; then I cast it into the fire, and out came this calf. (Shmot 32:21-24)

Aharon implies that the calf spontaneously inexplicably, emerged. Aharon's account seems to contradict the initial narrative only on this very salient point: did he, or did he not, form or sculpt the calf?

There are commentaries who opine that out of embarrassment, or fear of Moshe, Aharon was selective in his retelling the sordid tale; in other words, he lied.(6) The Maharal takes umbrage(7) at this suggestion, and points out a psychological insight: A person is apt to lie if they are not likely to be caught. In this instance, all of Israel knew that Aharon had formed the calf. Any attempt to cover up his own involvement in the affair would have been futile. The Maharal therefore reads something else into Aharon's words. He did not deny that he had formed the calf, but he was expressing his surprise at what happened next: something strange and unexplainable occurred after the calf was formed, and the calf became animated. When Aharon said "out came this calf," he meant to explain that something bizarre and unexpected caused the calf to vivify.(8) Aharon knew that the people had learned too much, seen too much, heard too much, to worship a statue. The unexpected happened: the calf emerged from the fire on its own, alive, as it were.

Clearly, the divergence between the two accounts of the creation of the Golden Calf presents a problem; rabbinic authorities were not unaware of the discrepancy between the two accounts, nor were they unaware of the ramifications of the discrepancy. These two sections are among those cited in the Mishna's list of biblical verses that are not publicly translated:

The incident of Reuven is read in synagogue but not translated. The story of Tamar is read and translated. The first account of the incident of the golden calf is both read and translated, the second is read but not translated. Mishna Megila 4:10 (Talmud Bavil 25a)

This list includes several very difficult biblical passages, and the method the rabbis devised for "damage control": while these problematic passages are read in public, the Targum, the vernacular Aramaic, which was usually employed to explain the meaning of the verses, should be omitted. Among the passages that are suppressed, read but not translated, is Aharon's retelling of the making of the Golden Calf; the earlier passage, which describes the events in "real time," is read and translated, while Aharon's recap of the events read without translation. While various commentaries reason that this solution was established in order to protect Aharon's honor,(9) the fact remains that there is an acute awareness of the discrepancy between the two versions of the events.(10)


In his commentary to the Talmud,(11) Rashi explains that the "censorship" is enacted so that less-educated listeners would not think that the calf emerged, on its own, as Aharon implied. Unsophisticated listeners might be misled, by Aharon's statement, to believe that the calf had some powers of its own, that it was, in fact, some sort of god. Rashi(12) rejects both this possibility, as well as the charge that Aharon purposefully formed the calf; he prefers to translate heret as "handkerchief". How, then, does Rashi understand Aharons' description of the formation of the calf? Rashi explains that the calf was animated by the power of incantations uttered by the erev rav (the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the Jews), or through the use of the Divine Name by a person named Micha. In either case, these explanations have a common denominator; according to both, Aharon is not solely responsible for the golden calf. In each case, someone else bears partial responsibility – someone who was not even present when the episode took place: Moshe.

According to tradition,(13) it was Moshe who insisted that the erev rav be permitted to join the Children of Israel as they were redeemed from Egypt. Thus, when they cause this massive sin, their sponsor, Moshe, should bear at least some of the responsibility.

If it was Micha who caused the golden calf to come to life, again – Moshe must share the blame: The Talmud(14) fills in some background details of Micha's biography: While the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, Moshe complained to God regarding the precious children who were brutally murdered used as "just another brick in the wall" of Egypt's grand building projects.(15) God assured Moshe that divine wisdom was even involved in such seemingly senseless deaths, but when Moshe actually witnessed such a case first-hand, he implored God to save the innocent child. According to some(16) traditions, Moshe used the Divine Name and saved the child. This child, Micha(17) was responsible for the Golden Calf.(18)

According to this interpretation, Aharon and Moshe bear joint responsibility.

In fact, there are certain Talmudic passages that spread the responsibility for the sin even further:

R. Yehoshua b. Levi also said: Why is it written (Shmot 32), 'And when the people saw that Moshe delayed [boshesh] [to come down from the mount]? Read not boshesh [delayed] but ba'u shesh [the sixth hour had come]. When Moshe ascended on high, he said to Israel, 'I will return at the end of forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour.' At the end of forty days Satan came and confounded the world. Said he to them: 'Where is your teacher Moshe?' 'He has ascended on high,' they answered him. 'The sixth [hour] has come,' said he to them, but they disregarded him. 'He is dead,' but they disregarded him. [Thereupon] he showed them a vision of his bier, and this is why they said to Aharon, 'for this Moshe, the man, etc.' (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 89a)(19)

According to the Talmud, the people were shown Moshe's dead body in a vision; they had every reason to fear the worst. It might seem that God Himself allowed the scales to tip, nudging the people toward the brink. Had He orchestrated the events that led to the sin? If Micha was to become such a notorious sinner, why was Moshe not warned? If the mixed multitude would cause such calamity, why wasn't Moshe told? If Satan was to misrepresent reality and trick the nation into believing Moshe was dead, why was he given free reign? Should some of the responsibility for the golden calf be shared by God?

God's Will is that man have free choice; foreknowledge of the outcomes of events would negate man's Free Will. When Moshe insisted that the erev rav be liberated from Egypt, he believed that the shared experiences, the miracles they had witnessed and the uplifting experience at Sinai would help them abandon idolatry and join in the destiny of the Jewish People. Similarly, seeing innocents slaughtered certainly caused Moshe to protest, and to beg that these lives be spared. What evil could possibly be housed in the heart of an innocent child? Moshe saw through human eyes, but God's view is unbounded. He could see what Moshe could not: Micha and the erev rav, the very ones Moshe fought to save, would stand at the epicenter of the sin of the golden calf. While the Egyptians were guilty of the most heinous crimes – murdering Jewish children and crushing their bodies in the walls that they built, God is involved in each and every detail; nothing is left to chance. When Moshe prays for mercy, he cannot know the outcome.


In a stunning, counter-intuitive thesis, Rav Kook describes the "holy sparks of paganism", arguing that even idolatry has something which is redeemable.

Perhaps this idea can be applied to the image of the face of a child in the eye of the storm of the sin of the golden calf echoes the innocent face of the keruvim which would later be housed in the Mishkan – a most ironic association indeed. Apparently, at the very core of this colossal sin lies something that can be transformed and used for divine service. Even pagan practice contains a kernel of spirituality. The most extreme pagan rites, such as the practice of molach (in which devotees sacrificed their own children to their deity) displayed a highly developed, though distorted, sense of worship. Practitioners were prepared to give up everything for the cruel pagan god, to offer up what they felt was their most powerful emotional attachment. Although this zeal is misplaced, the solution is not the abolition of religious fervor; when this fervor is channeled properly, redirected to the service of the One true God, it can be redeemed. This in Rav Kook's mind was the universal, eternal message of the Akeida. The angel informs Avraham that the sacrifice of Yitzchak is unnecessary; it is Avraham's willingness to do so that is the religious experience, not the act of human sacrifice. The fervor, the desire to come closer to God, is a positive force; idolatry and child sacrifice are abhorrent.(20) Apparently, this is why Aharon's stalling tactics failed: he did not anticipate that asking the people to surrender their gold actually fanned the flames of their zeal. The people were caught up in a frenzy; they were prepared to give all to the deity. Tragically, their desire to experience total surrender was redirected, through their gold, to the calf.

So many were responsible for the sin of the golden calf : the people, who underestimated Moshe; Aharon, whose stalling tactics were ineffective; the erev rav (mixed multitude), Micha, – and Moshe himself. Obviously, foremost on this list should be those who ignored the very commandments they heard from heaven, and submitted to their basest desires. Child-like innocence, represented by Micha, can be turned into idolatry, distorted by childlike fear and primitive superstition. Or, childlike innocence can be channeled into divine service, representing the most pure and untainted worship of God. The commandments, the Torah with which Moshe descended from Mount Sinai, give man the tools to distil from sin the positive energy which can be used to truly serve God.

  1. See Bamidbar 12:7: God Himself explains that Moshe is like no other man. Also see Dvarim 34:5 describing Moshe's death. Moshe's greatness notwithstanding, he was not divine; he dies, like all men.
  2. Following local custom is the explanation found in Midrash Tanchuma (Buber edition) KiTisa section 19, which explains why the angels who visited Avraham did partake of the food offered them. The Midrash asks how was Moshe sustained, and answers, "from the Shechina."
  3. See Yeshayahu 25:7: "And he will destroy in this mountain the covering that is cast over all the people, and the veil that is spread over all nations." Also, Yishayahu 28:20: "For the bed is too short for a man to stretch himself on it; and the covering is too narrow for him to wrap himself in it."
  4. Rashi, Shmot 32:2.
  5. See Yeshayahu 3:22: " The cloaks, and the mantles, and the gowns, and the handbags." Also see Menachem Zevi Kaddari, A Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2006), page 351.
  6. Mizrachi commentary Shmot 32:24.
  7. As do many other commentaries for example see Kli Yakar Shmot 32:2, haKtav v'haKabalah Shmot 32:4.
  8. Maharal Gur Aryeh Shmot 32:24.
  9. For example see Rav Ovadia MiBartenura Mishna Megila 4:10.
  10. The Meshech Chochma Shmot 32:26 explains that repeating the story of sin causes forgiveness, Aharon who was forgiven of the sin did not require more atonement, but the Jewish people do require more atonement for this sin.
  11. Rashi Talmud Bavli Megila 25a sv uma'aseh egel harishon.
  12. Rashi Shmot 32:4.
  13. See Rashi Shmot 32:7.
  14. Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 101b: "Micha, because he was crushed in the building."
  15. See Rashi Sanhedrin 101b.
  16. Commentary of Ba'alei Hatosafot, Shmot 32:25.
  17. Rabbeni Bachya Shmot 32:4 states that the name Micha is similar to the word "crushed."
  18. This Micha has also been identified with Michayhu from the book of Shoftim chapter 17: And there was a man of Mount Ephraim, whose name was Michayhu. And he said to his mother, 'The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from you, about which you cursed, and spoke of it also in my ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it.' And his mother said, 'Blessed be you by God, my son.' And when he had restored the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, his mother said, ' I consecrate the silver to God from my hand for my son, to make an engraved image and a molten image; now therefore I will restore it to you.' And when he had given back the money to his mother, his mother took two hundred shekels of silver, and gave them to the silversmith, who made an engraved image of it and a molten image; and they were in the house of Michayhu. And the man Micha had a house of gods, and made an ephod, and teraphim, and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest. In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes. (Shoftim 17:1-5).
  19. Cited by Rashi Shmot 32:1.
  20. Igrot ha-Re'ayah, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1961), p. 43 (letter 379).


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