Ekev: Why Did Moses Break the Tablets?

August 10, 2022

What does the shattering of the tablets have to do with the death of the righteous? Did the letters fly off the stone before Moses broke them? An original perspective on the shattering of the tablets and its contemporary relevance.

A. Flying Letters

When Moses descended from the mountain, he saw – to his astonishment, the Israelites dancing around a golden calf and he shattered the tablets. (Source 1,2) The Rebbe asks how Moses could have broken the tablets considering that even before the ten commandments were engraved on them they were a special and unique creation of G-d.

Rashi explains that the tablets that G-d gave the Israelites were like a marriage contract given by a king to his betrothed. When the Israelites sinned with the golden calf, Moses shattered the tablets like the bride’s advocate that tore the marriage contract in order to save the bride from being killed. Without the contract, she was not married to the king. Similarly in our case, without the tablets, the Israelites could not be liable for the death penalty. (Source 3)

The Midrash says that the letters flew off the tablets. If so, even before Moses broke the tablets, they were not a marriage contract. Why then did Moses break the tablets?

B. The Vanishing Life Force

The Rebbe explains that the letters didn’t physically fly off – only their life force left them. If so, the physical letters were still present and Moses had to shatter them. This is comparable to the passing of a tzadik – first the soul leaves the body, and only later does the physical body decompose. (Source 4)

This also answers the question as to who allowed Moses to break the tablets. Just as it is forbidden to damage the altar or erase G-d’s name, certainly it would be forbidden to break the tablets! The simple answer is that Moses acted with self-sacrifice in order to save the Israelites. The deeper answer is that once Moses saw that G-d removed the life force of the letters, and the “soul” of the letters had departed, he continued the process and broke the physical tablets as well.

C. The Mystical Reason for Breaking the Tablets (Optional Section)

The tablets were broken because of three thousand individuals that sinned with the golden calf.  For example the women did not participate at all (Source 5). Why then were they broken?

The Rebbe explains: the fact that the letters flew off the tablets caused the tablets to feel deficient. 

Similarly the body of a Jew after one passes away must return to the earth even though the body itself is also holy. This is because the body feels deficient and no longer wants to exist.



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