Vayekhel »
« Tetzaveh

Ki Tissa

The parasha, so famous for the incident of the golden calf, starts with a poll tax - a shekel to be paid by all of a certain age. It carries on with the observation that the children of Israel are to keep the Sabbath (the "veshamru" from the Shabbat services). It then talks of the golden calf built by the Children of Israel while Moses is on Mount Sinai. God gets angry and wants to kill all the people but is placated by Moses, though a number are slaughtered by the Levites. Moses, in his anger at the golden calf, smashes the tablets and receives new tablets, spending another forty days and nights on the mountain.

Another voice

Ki Tissa by Maureen Kendler :: 5768

Maureen is a Teaching Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies and is Education Director at Tzedek. She is proud to have been involved in Limmud since the beginning.

In this Sedrah, Aharon, Moshe's brother, stands by helplessly while the children of Israel build a golden calf.

Are they indeed a fearsome, murderous mob? When Moshe went up the mountain, he left Aharon and Hur (Aharon's nephew) in charge. There is no mention of Hur in this Sedrah. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7a) interprets this as significant: Hur had attempted to appease the angry crowd, frantic at Moshe's absence, and he had been killed. Aharon feared he might suffer the same fate if he tried to challenge and control the mob- and that the charge of murder as well as idolatry would be brought upon the people, making forgiveness by God - and Moshe - less likely. The Talmud presents Aharon as selfless, unconcerned for his own welfare.

Rashi, Aharon's great defender, builds a case that Aharon tried everything he could to stop the idol from being built. He suggests Satan tempted and eventually persuaded him.

Aharon asks for the gold of the women, hoping that they would refuse, but tradition understands that the men promptly bring theirs instead. He tries to drag out the construction process, hoping Moshe will soon return, making the calf himself, to exonerate the people from this terrible task. This is the kindest explanation for his neither rebuking nor attempting to dissuade the people. Once the idol is made, he says there will be a "Festival to the Lord" but it is the Calf, not God that is then worshipped. At each stage he plays for time, hoping for the best, expecting the worst. Playing for time is a risky strategy for those in trouble. It must be said that his mis-handling of the situation, whatever his intentions, is spectacularly terrible.

When Moshe comes down from the mountain, he asks Aharon what on earth happened. Aharon's mumbled answers, comments Rabbi Joseph Telushkin surely rank alongside "the dog ate my homework" as the flimsiest of excuses. It was the people's fault, Moshe of all people must know are they are "set on evil", Aharon threw the gold into the fire and it ... just... emerged as a calf!

There is a curious innocence about Aharon, an unworldliness in his narrative. This incident is often used as proof-text for the unsuitability of Aharon as leader: he is simply not tough enough. Yet when Aharon dies, and we are told how deeply the people mourn him, they do not hold the Golden Calf incident against him. They do not seem to resent his failure to have led them. Perhaps "loving peace and pursuing peace" (the description of Aharon attached by the Mishnah) overcomes that memory of his inglorious, miserable hour.

Abarbanel comments that the reason Aharon is not allowed into the Promised Land is that he is being punished for building the Golden Calf.

What we will never know is if Aharon had asked them not to build the Golden Calf whether they would have listened. One could not imagine Moshe hanging back in such a situation. But eternally, the unworldly and naïve Aharon is punished for not making that request.


More by Maureen Kendler

Another voice by Uri Berkowitz

In the opening of Ki Tissa, God tells Moses to take a census of the Israelites (not by counting the people but) by instructing all male adults of fighting to contribute half a shekel. The Torah is clear that this exact sum must be paid by rich and poor alike. This became an annual obligation throughout temple times. How much is this worth in today's money?

The shekel was a unit of weight and in this context is understood to be silver. The reading of the exact measurements vary but let's settle on a shekel being 14 grammes. The current price for a gramme of silver is about 28 pence (0.56 USD) so half a shekel would be £1.96 GBP ($3.80 USD).


More by Uri Berkowitz

Other Divrei Torah on Ki Tissa

  • 5766 (Rachel Adelman)
  • 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5767 (Shelley Marsh)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Elisha Ancselovitz)
  • 5769 (Steven Fisher)
  • 5770 (Rachel Bello)
  • 5770 (Ira Goldberg)
  • 5771 (Rebecca Forgasz)
  • 5771 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5772 (Danny Shine)
  • 5773 (Francis Nataf)
  • 5773 (Onkardeep Singh Khalsa)
  • 5774 (Jeffrey Saks)
  • 5774 (Richard Verber)
  • 5775 (Arieh Miller)
  • 5775 (Andy Finkel)