When Moses Smashed the Tablets

Literally. When?

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai.

Exodus 19:1

They left at the full moon of Nisan. Nisan 15. The next new moon was Iyyar 1. The new moon after that was Sivan 1. Does this mean they entered Sinai on Tamuz 1? Nope. It’s an odd counting method along with a very slight mistranslation. It should read the new moon of the third month. Nisan, Iyyar, Sivan. They arrived at Mount Sinai on Sivan 1.

We know that the Revelation happened on Sivan 6. How do we know that? Well, cause everyone says so. The traditional Jewish wisdom is that Revelation was on Sivan 6 in the Hebrew year 2448 (1313 BCE). Sivan 6 is the date of the holiday of Shavuot, the celebration of the giving of the Torah, 50 days after the first seder (which was the evening of Nisan 15) aka 49 days or 7 full weeks after the second night (this is called counting the Omar).

We also know that the day they left Egypt, the morning after the first Passover night, was a Thursday. Which would make Revelation a Friday. Or maybe not.

Some of the Hebrew months are a bit flexible, in order to make sure that the new moon occurs on the first day. Iyyar usually has 29 days and that’s how I had it in my working calendar for writing this book. Putting Revelation on a Friday throws off the 50 day count. It also makes for a very awkward day two. After all the teachings the Hebrews got before Revelation to honor the Sabbath, surely Moses’ big animal sacrifice sendoff the morning after Revelation wouldn’t happen on that day.

I figured parts of Revelation might have extended another day, making Moses’ assent for the tablets on Sivan 8. This does not jive at all with commentaries. Apparently, this year, Iyyar was 30 days. This makes everything fit. Revelation is Saturday and Moses holds the sacrifices and ascends the mountain to begin his 40 day visit with God on Sunday.

It was the first day of Sivan which occurred on a Monday, according to the opinion of the majority of the scholars. There was unanimity among the scholars that the day of the revelation was Sabbath. (Shabbat 86) According to the majority of the Rabbis who hold that that the revelation occurred on the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the first day of that month had to have been on a Monday. This is based on the month of Iyar during that year having had 30 days.

Chizkuni Exodus 19:1:3.

Chizkuni’s conclusion comes from Talmud, written around 200 CE (about a thousand years before Chizkuni). This amazing document is the center of Jewish post-Biblical manuscripts. If it sounds like it’s an account of a bunch of Rabbis arguing fine points, that’s because it is.

The Sages taught: On the sixth day of the month of Sivan, the Ten Commandments were given to the Jewish people. Rabbi Yosei says: On the seventh day of the month. Rava said: Everyone agrees that the Jews came to the Sinai desert on the New Moon, as it is written here: “In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai” (Exodus 19:1), without elaborating what day it was. And it is written there: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). Just as there, the term “this” is referring to the New Moon, so too, here the term is referring to the New Moon. And similarly, everyone agrees that the Torah was given to the Jewish people on Shabbat, as it is written here in the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Shabbat day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and it is written there: “And Moses said to the people: Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength of hand the Lord brought you out from this place; there shall be no leaven eaten” (Exodus 13:3). Just as there, the mitzva of remembrance was commanded on the very day of the Exodus, so too, here the mitzva of remembrance was commanded on the very day of Shabbat. Where Rabbi Yosei and the Sages disagree is with regard to the determination of the month, meaning which day of the week was established as the New Moon. Rabbi Yosei held: The New Moon was established on the first day of the week, and on the first day of the week He did not say anything to them due to the weariness caused by the journey. On the second day of the week, He said to them: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; these are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel” (Exodus 19:6).

Shabbat 86b, Talmud, The William Davidson Edition

Okay, so let me just readjust all my timelines. Sivan 1, Monday. Sivan 6, Saturday. Done. Now Torah tells us about the morning after the Revelation. Sivan 7, Sunday:

Early in the morning, he [Moses] set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.

He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the LORD.

Exodus 24:4-5

Next, Moses reads the covenant (the laws and teachings he and God spoke during the Revelation, starting with the Ten Sayings (or Words or Utterances), what most people call the Ten Commandments), does ritual stuff with blood, then he leaves to go up the mountain. His brother Aaron, Aaron’s two eldest sons, and 70 elders go with him, though only part-way. Only Joshua accompanies him higher.

The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.”

So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God.

To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.”

When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain.

The Presence of the LORD abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud.

Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.

Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Exodus 24:12-18

Tradition tells us the 40 days includes the entire assent, not just the time after Moses went inside the cloud.

“forty days and forty nights.” These days commenced with the morning of the seventh day of Sivan, and ended with the morning of the seventeenth day of Tammuz.

Chizkuni, Exodus 24:18:2

Tammuz is the month that comes after Sivan. In the year of the Exodus, Tammuz 17 is a Friday. While Moses is up there, God gives him instructions for creating the Mishkan (aka the Tabernacle), the ark which will hold the tablets Moses is about to bring down to the children of Israel. He tells him to elevate Aaron and his four sons to the priesthood, with instructions for their clothing, ordination, and more. God also teaches Moses how to hold a census and raise money, with reminders about keeping the Sabbath.

Moses and Aaron with the 10 Commandments, Aron de Chavez, 1674-75, “Creechurch Lane Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue”. Source Sephardi community in London

While Moses is gone, the people become restless.

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.”

Exodus 32:1

Some commentators say it’s all a big misunderstanding. The people expected him the day before he actually arrived so they thought he was dead. Perhaps with some help from Satan.

The people saw that Moses delayed, etc. The words: “the people ‘saw,’ refer to their mental eye, of course. Alternatively, we may accept a statement in Shabbat 89 that Satan came and showed them the image of darkness and the picture of Moses lying on a bier, dead. This is why the Torah used the expression וירא העם i.e. that there were circumstances which justified the people thinking Moses had indeed died. Their thinking was reinforced by the arrival of the sixth hour, ב־שש, the hour at which Moses had told them he would return. Had Moses not told them that he would return at noon i.e. “at six hours,” no one would have heeded the picture drawn by Satan the swindler.

Or HaChaim on Exodus 32:1

Here is the Talmud story:

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the people saw that Moses delayed [boshesh] to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1)? Do not read the word in the verse as boshesh; rather, read it as ba’u shesh, six hours have arrived. When Moses ascended on High, he told the Jewish people: In forty days, at the beginning of six hours, I will come. After forty days, Satan came and brought confusion to the world by means of a storm, and it was impossible to ascertain the time. Satan said to the Jews: Where is your teacher Moses? They said to him: He ascended on High. He said to them: Six hours have arrived and he has not yet come. Surely he won’t. And they paid him no attention. Satan said to them: Moses died. And they paid him no attention. Ultimately, he showed them an image of his death-bed and an image of Moses’ corpse in a cloud. And that is what the Jewish people said to Aaron: “For this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).

Shabbat 89a, Talmud, The William Davidson Edition

The day Moses returns is Tammuz 17 but the people approach Aaron the day before, Thursday, Tammuz 16. Aaron responds by creating the Golden Calf, fashioned from the peoples’ jewelry.

Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.

This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the LORD!”

Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.

The LORD spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.

Exodus 32:2-7
Moses Breaks the Tables of the Law (Ex. 32:19), 1866, Doré’s English Bible

So here’s the timeline:

  • Nissan 15 (Thursday): Leave Egypt
  • Sivan 1 (Monday): Arrive at Mount Sinai
  • Sivan 6 (Saturday): Revelation (Giving of the Torah)
  • Sivan 7 (Sunday): Covenant and sacrifices. Moses leaves for the mountain
  • Tammuz 16 (Thursday): People expect Moses, Aaron makes Golden Calf
  • Tammus 17 (Friday): Sacrifices to and worship of Golden Calf. Moses returns and smashes tablets

To be continued. Of course.


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