Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)

A poll tax, sacred incense and oil, a calf made of gold, smashed tablets, punishment, new tablets, Moses and the Lord, and starting afresh. 

That’s an outline of this week’s Torah portion.  A few more details:

The half-shekel head tax (aka poll tax) was a means of counting the people, paying for communal offerings, and reinforcing the idea that all are equally responsible for supporting the community.  Next are the final details for the establishment of the Tabernacle, namely, a copper washbasin for the priests, recipes for sacred anointing oil and sacred incense.  The Lord even designates the lead artisans, Bezalel and Oholiab.  Once more, there is a divine reminder of the importance of observing the Sabbath.  And the Lord finally gives Moses the two engraved tablets.

Meanwhile, down below, someone has apparently miscounted the days and the people think Moses is late.  They demand of Aaron that he make “gods that will go before” them.  Apparently playing for time, Aaron asks for their gold jewelry and makes a statue of a calf from it.  The people proclaim this as the god that took them out of Egypt (32:4) and start reveling. But Aaron proclaims a festival for the Lord on the morrow.

The Lord, of course, sees what’s going on and decides to annihilate the apostate Israelites but reconsiders when Moses notes the consequences, especially very bad PR among the other nations. 

Moses then sees for himself what’s going on, shatters the tablets, and grinds the golden calf into dust which he strews over water and makes the people drink (like a parent washing a kid’s mouth out with soap).  Aaron doesn’t explicitly tell Moses he made the calf out of fear for his life, just that the people were “disposed toward evil.  Then, in an excuse so lame Moses doesn’t bother to answer, Aaron claims he threw the gold into the fire “and this calf emerged” (32:24). What follows is a massacre of 3000 men by the Levites who had joined Moses, a plague, and a stern warning to the properly downcast people. 

Moses now carves the second set of tablets on the mountain. After trying to mend the relationship between God and the people, he wants to deepen his own relationship with God, asking “Show me now your glory.” (33:18-23). But he gets to see only God’s back while hearing a proclamation of what we call the Thirteen Attributes (34:6-7).  God reseals the covenant with Moses and Israel, restating a few of the core laws (idolatry, the Sabbath, the harvest festivals, dedication of the firstborn).  Moses returns to the people with his face glowing, literally, so that he has to wear a mask to not freak out the people.

This is a puzzling portion.  First, it’s full of action and disobedience and punishment.  Yet it is sandwiched between portions idyllically describing plans for a tabernacle and beautiful furnishings and priestly ordination and vestments and later portions describing the happy execution of those plans.  I have thought of the surrounding portions as a cushion, to delay and then blunt the painful events in Ki Tisa.  Among Biblical literature scholars, the inclusion of the golden calf story in the middle presents the story of the Tabernacle and the priests as creation (Ex. 25-31), fall (Ex. 32-34), and restoration (Ex. 34-40), echoing similar themes elsewhere in the Torah (James W. Watts, “Aaron and the Golden Calf in the Rhetoric of the Pentateuch,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 130(3), Fall 2011, pp. 417-430).

A bigger question for me is, why is Aaron treated so leniently?  Yes, he loses two sons later, but that’s for their sins, not his. And he doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land, but that doesn’t appear to be a punishment specifically for making the golden calf.  He isn’t even stricken with tzara’at when Miriam is, after they both slander Moses. 

One idea is that Aaron’s actions are involuntary (Watts, p. 424).  Rashi wrote, “As soon as he (Aaron) had thrown it (the gold) into the fire in a melting pot the magicians amongst the mixed multitude who had come up with them from Egypt came and made it (the golden calf) by their magic art.”

Or, maybe the devil made him do it.  Also Rashi, “וירא אהרן AND WHEN AARON SAW that there was the breath of life in it — as it is said with reference to the golden calf, (Psalms 106:20) “[They changed their glory] into a similitude of an ox that ate grass” — and he realized that Satan’s work had succeeded and that he had no argument (lit., mouth) to put them (the people) entirely off.” 

Or maybe the editors of this text needed to soft-pedal Aaron’s misbehavior to be able to hold him up as the model High Priest.

Next week, the Israelites get to work.

Shabbat shalom,


The sacred incense was not to be made for home use and enjoyment (30:37-8). I remember more frivolous incense from the ‘60’s, when you got it at a head shop (where I also got cigarette papers to clean the pads of my flute keys).  Much later, I tried lavender incense as a palliative for migraines, with inconclusive results. Now incense just makes me cough.  

For incense-loving do-it-yourselfers, there are recipes on the web and ingredients for sale.  See, for example, 70 Best Incense recipes imagesThere’s also a lot of how-to information at

Ingredients for Biblical-type incense are available at You can also buy ingredients for the anointing oil .   IGP


Which tax is the fairest?

At a business conference in Montpelier, Vermont, the state tax commissioner asked the audience which sort of taxation they found fairest.

There was a pause, and then a white-haired man in the back raised his hand. ‘The poll tax,’ he said.

‘But the poll tax was repealed,’ replied the commissioner.

‘I know,’ declared the man, ‘that’s what I like about it.’


tph 2 more commandments


tph aaron hiding calf


(10 of) The 60 Most Ridiculous Excuses People Actually Used to Get Out of Work

Brandon Specktor

“Grandma tried to poison me. Again.”

An employee got stuck in the blood pressure machine at the grocery store and couldn’t get out.

An employee’s wife found out he was cheating, and he had to spend the day retrieving his belongings from the dumpster.

The employee said that he couldn’t come to work because his fortune-teller had asked him not to step out of the house or he would suffer a brain hemorrhage.

An employee couldn’t come to work because she accidentally got on a plane.

An employee had a “lucky night” and didn’t know where he was in the morning.

An employee said that someone glued her doors and windows shut so she couldn’t leave the house to come to work.

An employee said bats got in her hair.

An employee woke up in a good mood and didn’t want to ruin it. [This may be my favorite. IGP]

An employee forgot he had been hired for the job. [Or maybe this one. IGP]


tph moses duct tapes tablets

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1 Response to Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 – 34:35)

  1. Pingback: Vayak’hel (Exodus 35:1 – 38:20), Shabbat Shekalim | Torah Portion Humor Weekly

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