Calves and Coins

My weekly halachah column:

During the episode of the Golden Calf, Aharon seemingly goes along with the mob’s frenzy, to the point of proclaiming that “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” (32:5), apparently intending an idolatrous feast. The Ibn Ezra struggles greatly to reconcile Aharon’s conduct in this episode in general, and in this proclamation in particular, with his holy and pious character, in the course of which he reports that “many say” that what Aharon actually meant by “Tomorrow is a feast to ‘Hashem’” is that the worshipers of the calf would be executed by Moshe. The Ibn Ezra vigorously rejects this solution, declaring that a blasphemer (megadeif) and one who incites others toward idolatry (meisis) are executed based solely upon their verbal utterances, irrespective of their internal intentions. He makes the following analogy: Suppose someone asks his friend in court “Are you my friend to whom I lent such and such a sum?” and the friend replies “I am.” The respondent cannot then retreat from his concession and explain that he meant merely that he is his friend, but nothing more.

The claim that a megadeif cannot defend himself with the claim that when he blasphemed against “G-d” he really meant some other deity seems to be contradicted by a Talmudic assertion that when Moshe charged the Jews to “obey what G-d (elokah) says”, it was necessary for him to expressly stipulate that the oath he was imposing upon them was to be interpreted from the perspective of Hashem and Moshe, since otherwise it could have been interpreted as referring to an idol, since the Hebrew word elokah sometimes has that meaning. Similarly, the Talmud entertains the possibility that when a debtor swears that he has repaid his creditor, without the express stipulation that the oath the court is imposing upon him is to be interpreted from its perspective, the taker of the oath could plead that he really meant that he had given him some [worthless] tokens (iskundri), which he has chosen to refer to as “coins” (zuzi) (Shevuos 29a).

We have previously discussed these passages from the Talmud and Ibn Ezra here.

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