Shiva Asar B'Tamuz
The Breaking of the Luchos - A Judgement Call
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
In the last post, we mentioned that we fast on the 17th of Tamuz because the
Luchos, the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, were broken on this day.
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta'anis 4:5) there is a discussion of the events
leading up to the breaking of the Luchos. Moshe ascended Mt. Sinai to receive
the Torah, and told the nation that he would be there for 40 days. After what
the nation erroneously assessed to be 40 days, Moshe had not reappeared, and
the nation began to fear that Moshe would not return. People approached
Aharon, Moshe's brother, asking him to "create" a new leader, which was the
Golden Calf. As they were creating and then worshiping the Golden Calf, Moshe
was still receiving the Torah from G-d. G-d informed Moshe to descend the
mountain, as "your nation has become corrupt." Moshe went down, and met
Yehoshua, Moshe's devoted student and assistant, who had been waiting for
Moshe. Both heard sounds coming from the camp. Yehoshua thought the sounds
might be those of battle. Moshe responded that the sounds were not the sounds
of war, but rather the sounds of song. Moshe then continued down the
mountain, and when he saw the nation engaged in the worship of the Golden
Calf, he broke the Luchos.
The Talmud tells us that we learn an important rule from an aspect of Moshe's
behavior. From the fact that we see Moshe did not break the Luchos until he
saw the nation engaged in idol worship, we learn that a person cannot judge
based on an estimation. Though Moshe heard the nation's celebratory noises
and had a clear picture of what was occurring, he did not break the Luchos
until he saw with his own eyes that the nation was not deserving of the
The Chasam Sofer, in explaining this Gemora, notes that G-d informed Moshe
that nation had become corrupt even before he descended the mountain. In
fact, Moshe asked for forgiveness for the nation before he descended. So why
then did he wait before breaking the Luchos?
The Gemora explains that Moshe broke the Luchos because of a judgement he
made: If, by the Pesach offering, we find that a male who is uncircumcised,
lacking in only one respect in his observance, cannot take part, a fortiori
the nation, who were denying G-d's providence by worshiping the Golden Calf,
could not take part in receiving the Torah and the Luchos, upon which were
engraved the Ten Commandments. For this reason, G-d did not want Moshe to
bring the Luchos down to the people. However, Moshe felt that perhaps the
people had some explanation behind their actions. Perhaps they were not
really denying G-d's providence. Our Sages explain that Satan fooled the
nation into thinking Moshe had died by placing a vision of Moshe lying on his
deathbed into the heavens. Moshe thought that perhaps this was why the nation
took the action that they did. He gave the people the benefit of the doubt.
However, G-d, who knows what is in the heart of man, knew that from the time
the nation heard the Ten Commandments, there were nonbelievers. Now that they
thought that Moshe was dead, they had a seemingly valid pretense for idol
worship and their true colors came out. Moshe did not know that this was the
case when Hashem told them the nation was corrupt. Only when he heard the
songs of the people was he able to detect that something was amiss. Moshe
detected an element of joy in those songs that was not present when the
nation received the Torah. He knew that the people did not deserve the
Luchos. Hashem's statement was confirmed. The small doubt that Moshe
previously had vanished. So why did Moshe wait before breaking the Luchos?
Moshe had to see that the Jews were engaged in this behavior before he
rendered judgement. Being almost sure was not enough. Moshe could not take
any action until he knew with absolute certainty that the nation was acting
improperly. Moshe achieved that degree of certainty only upon seeing the Jews
dancing and singing around the Golden Calf with his own eyes. Consequently,
Moshe broke the Luchos only upon seeing the nation worshiping the Golden
Calf. And from here we learn that we cannot judge based on an estimation.
The 17th day of Tamuz marks the beginning of the end of the Holy Temples. The
Temple was destroyed, our Sages tell us, because of baseless hatred. Because
people did not treat each other properly, the Temple was destroyed, and the
Jewish nation was sent into an exile which has not yet ended. In Pirkei Avos
(The Ethics of Our Fathers) our Sages tell us that we should always be
careful to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. If Moshe, who was told
information by G-d about the Jewish nation, still gave the people the benefit
of the doubt and did not act until he knew the circumstances with certainty,
we, who usually do not have a source as reliable as G-d for our information,
should certainly give others the benefit of the doubt and not jump to
conclusions. It is fitting that on the day we begin to mourn a destruction
that occurred because of our interpersonal relations, we learn an important
lesson about these relations from another tragedy that occurred many years
before on the same day.
May we all merit to see the Temple rebuilt speedily, in our days.
Check out all of the posts on The Three Weeks: 17 Tammuz - 9 Av Mourning the Destruction. Head over to
http://www.torah.org/learning/yomtov/ to access the YomTov Page. Then click on the icon for the holiday of your choice.
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.