Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Ki Tisa

Identical Tallies

Parashat Ki Tisa opens with a command to count the nation via half shekels.  Surprisingly, the head count reached by this census is identical to the tally of the census in Bemidbar 1, which happened only in the second year in the Wilderness.

  • How can this be?  Were there no deaths or births in the interim?  Moreover, considering that only a few months separated the two events, why were two censuses necessary at all?
  • U. Cassuto uses knowledge of Ancient Near Eastern censuses to suggest that  the two events were were both part of a single extended process which started with the building of the Tabernacle.  R"Y Bekhor Shor agrees that there was only one census, but suggests that it occurred only in the beginning of the second year in Bemidbar 1.  He claims that the half shekels of Parashat Ki Tisa played no role in counting the nation and were solely for the building of the Mishkan.  What are the advantages and disadvantages to each approach?  See Censuses in the Wilderness and Half Shekels – For Census or Tabernacle?

Polemics and Parshanut

Commentators' positions on Biblical  issues are influenced by numerous factors including their reading of the text, theological and philosophical concerns, the events of their own day, and polemics with other sects or religions.

  • See R"Y Bekhor Shor on the Sin of the Golden Calf where he explicitly argues with the "heretics" who mock Israel for failing and sinning with the Calf, and note how his position might come to counter such claims.  See also  R. Saadia Gaon on Half Shekels – For Census or Tabernacle whose position that there is an annual  Biblical obligation to bring half shekels to support the Mikdash may be reacting to opposing Karaite claims.
  • A point to ponder:  Does the fact that an approach is polemically motivated make it less valid or intellectually rigorous than one which is influenced by the text alone?

In Defense of Aharon

How could the nation, and especially Aharon, blunder by making a golden calf so soon after the revelation at Sinai?  Is it possible that Aharon could have really been involved in an idolatrous rite?  If so, how could he have been rewarded with the priesthood so soon afterwards?

  • Set up a debate at your Shabbat table, with some defending and others prosecuting Aharon for his actions.  For starters, see Sin of the Golden Calf.
  • Did the nation sin by believing in foreign gods, or, as the Kuzari suggests, did they simply err in making a graven image, even though it was meant to represent God Himself?  See also R"Y Bekhor Shor for a third possibility that people were simply looking for an alternative guide to replace the lost Moshe, and that there was no sin against God at all.  Which of these approaches do you find most convincing and best supported by the text?  How would each position explain Aharon's actions?

Prophetic Authority

In the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf (Shemot 32), Moshe commands the Levites in the name of Hashem to kill all idolaters. However, no record exists of any such explicit Divine command to Moshe.

  • Is it possible for a prophet to speak on his own initiative, and to then attribute that speech to Hashem? Or must we assume that, despite the textual silence, Hashem must have given the directions beforehand?  Might Moshe be different than other prophets in this regard?
  • How much autonomy does a prophet have? Is he simply Hashem's mouthpiece, or is he allowed to act on his own? If the latter, is it possible for the prophet to make a mistake? See Invoking Hashem's Name Without Explicit Divine Sanction.

Sins of the Parents

Why, at times, are the righteous punished while sinners prosper?  The verse "פֹּקֵד עֲוֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים" appears to suggest that, at least in certain circumstances, Hashem Himself allows innocent children to be punished while their sinful parents go free.

  • How does this manifest Divine justice?  Is there any other way of understanding the verse?
  • When, if ever, is collective punishment justified?  Can the same reasoning apply to vicarious punishment?  Does the fact that the verse speaks of familial punishment make a difference?
  • For extensive discussion of the issue, see Are Children Punished for Parents' Sins?


For more, see: Parashat Ki Tisa Topics.