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In Shemot 32:20 Moshe grinds up the golden calf into water and makes the people drink it. Rashi comments on this:

[Those who practiced idolatry both] without witnesses and without warning [died] from dropsy, for the water tested them and their stomachs swelled up (Yoma 66b).

That sounds like the same means of death as with the sotah ritual for the wife suspected of unfaithfulness, and according to here Avodah Zara 44a makes the connection. If I understand correctly, the g'mara says that and Rashi alludes to it.

The sotah ritual involves writing the divine name and then dissolving it into water for the woman to drink. I don't have sources for this, but it seems key that the use of the divine name -- that is, invoking and involving the One in whom she should be in fear and awe as part of the ritual, when otherwise we would never erase the name like that -- is critical.

But the calf is just a lump of ex-jewelry. It's not divine; it has no power at all. Grinding it up into sotah-like water doesn't evoke the same image at all. Why would Moshe want to invoke the so-called "power" of the calf in such a ritual?

What am I missing? Aside from the drinking part how is this like the sotah? Or if there are other opinions about why Moshe did this, what are those opinions?

  • The drinking water with bits of something in it, and exploding for failing the test are the same; why can't Rashi just mean that? – Shokhet Dec 31 '14 at 16:33
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    Maybe he does, but it just feels weird -- we expect something involving God to produce that effect when warranted, but since the calf is just gold dust, why even involve it at all? I feel like I'm missing something. – Monica Cellio Dec 31 '14 at 16:35
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The Ramban says that Moshe's intention was that the substance used for idolotry should end up vomited or defecated out, further humiliating it. But he also quotes the Talmud's reason as brought in Rashi approvingly.

In terms of Rashi's answer, of course the primary similarity is the drinking of water to bring out something that is otherwise unknowable outside the guilty parties and the manner of death caused by the water for the guilty. Also, the fact that the natural course of the water is to be harmless, thus any guilt being clearly Divinely indicated.

The Ibn Ezra says that the earth from the floor of the Mishkan used in the Sotah water is also represented here, as the water used was from a river flowing down Mount Sinai, so this is like the floor of the Mishkan (the inanimate taken from a holy place, I assume is the intention).

But in terms of the Divine name, the verse about a Sotah actually emphasizes that it is the curse that it erased into the water, not the Divine name. So here, the golden calf is being compared to a curse. The Talmud (in Sotah) makes the point that the curse includes the erasing of the Divine name and that this shows how important the peace between a husband and wife is - that the Divine name is erased over it.

That too has a parallel here - Moshe broke the tablets in order to make peace between G-d and the Jews, just like the Divine name is erased in the Sotah ceremony.

The Medrash Bamidbar Rabbah (9:54) examines dozens of parallels between the Sotah and golden calf, with G-d as the husband, Israel as the unfaithful wife, Idol worship as adultery, Aahron as the paramour (who made the golden calf), etc.

Among them the holy water of the Sotah parallels the river water from the mountain which was used for the water in this case, the dust of the Mishkan being the gold dust from the golden calf and that dust was from the floor representing how lowly it was to worship it.

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Sifsei Chachamim, the commentary on Rash"i expands on this idea stating that one who defiles himself by following idolatry is compared to a woman "hidden" from her husband (my loose translation - I may be a bit off). Sifseu Chachamim ends by saying "as stated in the Midrash", but he doesn't say which one. He also cross-ref's Rashi's comment on averse from Shir Hashirim and ends by stating "This is difficult to me". I'm uncertain if he means that only the Shir Hashirim part is difficult or all of Rashi's comparison to a Sotah is difficult.

My opinion: As you seem to focus a bit on "the calf is just gold dust", actually, it wasn't just that. The calf was considered a "god" to the people. In the Sotah "mixture", the name of G-d is blotted into the water. Similarly, Moses took pieces of their "god" and put it into the water. I see a close comparison.

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    Reread the question: Monica said "But the calf is just a lump of ex-jewelry. It's not divine; it has no power at all" -- yes, people thought it was a god, but it has no holiness in it, in reality. How is that parallel to a written name of God, which does have holiness? – Shokhet Dec 31 '14 at 17:26
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Without presenting the finer details, maybe it is important to add that several Midrashim state that the calf was made with a Divine Name, taken when Moses retrieved Joseph’s coffin from the Nile using this name. It was retrieved from the Nile and thrown into the fire forming itself into a calf despite Aaron's attempts to slow down the process (Tanchuma, Ki Sisa 19; Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer 45).

  • This does not answer the question as asked. – sabbahillel Jun 7 '18 at 0:14
  • I hadn't heard this about the calf before. Can you edit to say how you know this? Who writes about this where? We really value supported answers here since we don't know each other otherwise. – Monica Cellio Jun 7 '18 at 3:27
  • I think this does answer the question as asked - ostensibly the calf itself contained the Name. But check the Midrash again - I’m pretty sure it was just a piece of gold labeled “rise up, o ox,” with no Divine Names at all. – DonielF Jun 7 '18 at 13:41
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    Yeah, I just double-checked the Midrashim. If it’s alright with you, I edited your piece to be more grammatically and factually correct (not “all Rabbis” agree with Midrashim, and certainly not these of which there’s several versions given as to how the calf was formed, most not involving these golden plates at all). I also edited in sources to these Midrashim, for anyone who wants to check them up. If you disagree with my edits you can always roll them back or edit further. – DonielF Jun 7 '18 at 13:52
  • (Con’t) According to the version in these Midrashim, Moses took a plate labeled “Rise up, o ox,” a reference to Joseph who is called an ox in Deuteronomy 33, and used it to levitate Joseph’s coffin out of the water. Micah later stole this plate and threw it into the fire - and poof! An ox rose up. There were no Divine Names involved. While I think this answers the question, it’s simply mistaken. – DonielF Jun 7 '18 at 13:54

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