Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How did Aaron make the Golden Calf? Part 1

How did Aaron make the Golden Calf?

Last Friday, my kids came home with the "official" answer to this question, by which I mean "the one particular interpretation of the verse that is most popular and most frequently taught." Along with being the one my kids know, this official interpretation is the one presented in the Stone, Saperstein, and Gutnick translations, and it was mentioned with no qualification by the Rabbi in his Saturday morning speech.

Later, I took an informal poll among the congregants and found most had slept through the speech and/or grade school and had no answer, but those who did have an answer knew only the "official" answer.

Here is the verse, and here is how it is translated according to this "official" interpretation: [See it inside]

וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם
He took [the gold] from their hand[s], tied it up in a cloth, and [someone else, i.e., sorcerers] made it into a molten calf. They said: "These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!"

This "official" interpretation (Aaron tied the gold into a cloth, and someone else magically transformed it into a calf) is based on Rashi who writes:

...וַיָּצַר  is an expression of tying, and בַּחֶרֶט is an expression meaning a kerchief, similar to “and the tablecloths and the purses (וְהַחִרִיטִים) ” (Isa. 3:22); “and he tied two talents of silver in two purses (חִרִטִים) ” (II Kings 5:23).

The trouble is that Rashi offers a second, infinitely more plausible reading. As his comment continues:

The second [way of rendering the phrase] is [that] וַיָּצַר is an expression meaning a form, and בַּחֶרֶט is the tool of the smiths, with which they cut out and engrave (חוֹרְטִין) forms in gold. [The tool is] like a scribe’s stylus, which engraves letters on tablets and wax-covered tablets, as “and inscribe on it with a common pen (בְּחֶרֶט אֱנוֹשׁ) ” (Isa. 8:1). This [second interpretation] is what Onkelos rendered: וְצַר יָתֵיהּ בְּזִיפָא, an expression of זִיוּף, a tool with which people engrave letters and designs, known in French as nielle, niello work. With it, signets are engraved.

So, per Rashi, we have two explanations, two ways to read the verse:. One is logical, the other is fanciful. One tells us Aaron took a tool, and carved a calf; the other says he wrapped the donations of gold  in a cloth and somehow a statue was produced. One relies on the text itself, the other depends on the introduction of unmentioned characters (the sorcerers) and a belief in their magic.

One makes sense, the other doesn't.

So can someone explain why the lesser of these two interpretations has become the default reading, taught to school children and enshrined in the popular translations? Why can't both explanations be given, and if one must be chosen, why not choose the one that is least fanciful and least offensive to common sense?

I'll have a word or two about the sorcerers in Part 2 of this post.

Search for more information about dumb pedagogical choices at

No comments: