The Temple: A Response to the Golden Calf


Moshe Ben-Chaim



In Exodus, 25:8, God instructs man, “Make Me a Temple and I will dwell among you.”

Sforno comments on the purpose of the Temple in 25:9 as follows: “In order that I may dwell in your midst, to speak to you and to accept your prayers and the (Temple) service of Israel, not as the matter was prior to the Golden Calf, as was stated, (Exod. 20:21) “In every place that you mention My name, I will come to you and bless you.” Sforno says that prior to the sin of the Golden Calf, the statement in Yisro, “In every place that you mention My name...” teaches that God’s relationship to man was that anyone, anywhere, would have his prayers recognized by God. But subsequent to the Golden Calf, a new system was demanded, “In order that I may dwell in your midst, to speak to you and to accept your prayers and the (Temple) service of Israel,...”


Sforno teaches a startling concept; the Temple may have had no objective need, but was a concession in response to the Golden Calf. If the Jews hadn’t sinned with that Calf, the structure of Temple, the ark, the menorah and all the vessels might not have been commanded, according to Sforno. “Make Me a Temple and I will dwell among you” teaches that after the Calf, without the Temple, God will not dwell with us. One might suggest this is an impossible theory, as the Temple appears in the Torah before the sin of the Calf. But Rashi addresses this in Exodus 31:18, “There is no chronology in the Torah; the Golden Calf preceded the command of the work of the Temple by many days...” Rashi again makes mention (Deut. 10:1) that it was only on Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai did God first command him on the work of the Tabernacle. It was at the time of his descent that the Jews had already sinned with the Golden Calf.


What was the precise sin of the Golden Calf, and how does the institution of the Tabernacle and Temple rectify the problem? Sforno also teaches that prior to the Calf, one’s prayer was readily noticed by God, afterwards it was not. This needs an explanation.


A few other relationships are seen between the sin of the Calf and the Temple/Tabernacle, which supports Sforno’s explanation. Those who sinned with the Calf were not allowed to serve in the Temple. For this reason, the entire tribe of the Levites who abstained from the sin of the calf merited Temple service. One might suggest a simple explanation; idolaters are prohibited to officiate in God’s service. But perhaps there is more to this command. Additionally, no gold was used in the service of the Holy of Holies, due to the reason that “the accused cannot be come the defender”. That is, the accused - the gold (representative of the Gold Calf) cannot be part of man’s service seeking atonement. One does not mention his gravest sins when seeking pardon for his offenses. Similarly, the Torah teaches that the High Priest’s garb including gold must not be worn when entering the Holy of Holies. Prior to entering, he must change into his white garments. Again we see a tie between Temple law and the sin of the Golden Calf.


The Torah teaches that the Jews gave their jewelry for the creation of the Calf, (Exod,. 32:3) “And they removed, all the people, the rings of gold, that were in their ears, and they brought it to Aaron.” We also learn that the Tabernacle was created from the peoples’ donation of Terumah, “...from every man whose heart motivates him you shall take my Terumah”. Is there any parallel between these two acts of giving, that the Torah wished to record both?


Another verse in response to the sin of the Calf reads “And Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far from the camp, and called it the ‘Tent of Meeting’, and it would be that anyone seeking God would, go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp.” (Exodus 33:7) This verse teaches that prior to the sin, God communicated with Moses within the camp. But after the sin, this close relationship could no longer be. Moses therefore demonstrated this by his removal of his tent to outside the camp of the nation. What may we learn from this act of moving the tent? Isn’t it clearly stated that whoever sought God would exit the camp? So God was still found. What purpose is there in distancing the Tent of Meeting from the people?


To clarify, Sforno is not suggesting that without the sin of the Golden Calf, there would be no institution of sacrifice. Sacrifice dates back to the first men. Adam’s children brought sacrifices. Noach, Abraham and so many other figures sacrificed long before the Golden Calf. To clarify, Sforno is suggesting that the institution of Temple alone is due to the sin of the Calf, but he agrees that sacrifice always existed. So our main question is how the Temple addresses the problem of the Golden Calf sin.


How do we begin to answer this main question? The first step would be to understand the sin. We should look for an expression of the sin exhibited by the sinners. This would make for accurate analysis. God’s own words describing the Jews’ precise flaw would provide an even better clue. Fortunately in this case, we have both.(1) The mixed multitude said about the Calf, (Exod. 32:4) “These are your gods Israel, who took you up from Egypt.” Later, after the giving of the tablets to Moses, God says to him concerning the Jews’ worship of the Calf, (Exod. 32:8)”They have turned quickly from the path which I have commanded them, they made for themselves a molten calf, and they prostrated to it and sacrificed to it and they said, ‘These are your gods Israel, who took you up from Egypt.” God purposefully repeated this statement in His Torah, “These are your gods Israel, who took you up from Egypt.” I believe this is to point us to the Jews’ precise error.


God is teaching us that the Jews’ sin was due to their wish to relate to God in some tangible form. Ramban and Or Hachaim dismiss the notion that the Jews thought the Calf to be God. Ramban said, “no fool would say the gold that was in their ears is what brought them up out of Egypt.” (Exod. 32:4) Ramban explains that the Jews did not say the Calf was God, but that this Calf was some force of God.(2) Or Hachaim says on “they turned aside”, that they violated “you shall not make intermediaries.” Both Ramban and Or Hachaim agree that the Jews admitted to God’s existence, and that this Calf was not viewed by the Jews as God. The Jews’ error was their belief that the Golden Calf had forces which effect reality.


Consider the Jews words when they felt Moses was no longer returning, “...Moses the man who took us up from Egypt, we know not what has happened to him.” Why did they mention Moses “the man”? This statement too points to the Jews’ inability to relate to God as he is, above the physical, “metaphysical”. They became attached to the “man” of Moses. When they miscalculated Moses’ stay on Mt. Sinai, they were confronted with a false belief that Moses was gone. They feared not having some tangible leader, so they created the Golden Calf and said this was responsible some how for their exodus. They desired something physical to relate to. This is not tolerated in Judaism, and many have been killed (Samuel I, 6:19(3)) because of their projection of physical qualities onto God. Judaism demands above all else that we do not project any physical nature onto God, (Deut. 4:15) “And guard yourselves exceedingly for your lives, for you did not see any form on the day God spoke to you on Horeb (Sinai) from amidst flames.” The Torah stresses how fundamental it is to know that God is not physical. We saw no physical objects when we heard God speak to us on Sinai.


Maimonides third principle of his 13 Principles reads:


“Principle III. The Denial of Corporeality in Connection with God.
This is to accept that this Oneness that we have mentioned above (2) is not a body and has no strength in the body, and has no shape or image or relationship to a body or parts thereof. This is why the Sages of blessed memory said with regards to heaven there is no sitting, nor standing, no awakeness, nor tiredness. This is all to say that He does not partake of any physical actions or qualities. And if He were to be a body then He would be like any other body and would not be God. And all that is written in the holy books regarding descriptions of God, they are all anthropomorphic. Thus said our great Rabbis of blessed memory The Torah spoke in man’s language (i.e. using human terms so that man would have some understanding). And the Rabbis have already spoken at length on this issue. This is the third pillar and is attested to by the verse “For you saw no image” meaning that you did not see an image or any form when you stood at Sinai because as we have just said He has no body nor power of the body.”


Perhaps now we may answer how the Temple addresses the sin of the Golden Calf. The Temple had many unique qualities and vessels. But most central was the fact that it was constructed of two rooms; a Holies, and a Holy of Holies. In this second room, no man was allowed to enter, save the high priest on Yom Kippur, and even then, only with smoking incense, a veil. Sinai too was accompanied by smoke and darkness. God created His “appearance” as cloud. In all cases, we are taught that there is an impenetrable veil - cloud - between God and man. “For man cannot know me when alive.” (Exod. 33:20) Man must accept his mind’s shortcomings, his inability to know God. We have but five senses of perception. All that cannot be perceived through these senses is completely out of our range of knowledge. In a dark room, vision does not function, as vision requires light. God is not physical, similarly, He cannot be perceived by human sensation, which requires physical stimulation.


The sin of the Golden Calf was man’s futile attempt to grasp what man cannot grasp. When man assumes there is a sensory connection between God and the physical, man forfeits his purpose. His existence is worthless, as all he knows or learned in his life, to him, stems from an imagined physical god, not the true metaphysical God. His knowledge is completely inaccurate. His life is wasted due to his incorrect notions of God. He deserves death. Therefore, those who worshiped the Calf were killed, just as those who looked into the Ark when it was returned by the Philistines.(Samuel I, 6:19) In both cases, man assumed something physical in connection with God. In truth, the underlying flaw is man’s overestimation in his own knowledge. In both cases the sinners felt all must be within their grasp, including God. They could not accept human inability.


We mentioned that the Temple has two rooms, one of which is off limits. The Temple attempts to teach man through man’s distance from a certain room, that man must admit complete ignorance about the nature of God’s existence. Even more, man must not even try to approach any understanding of God’s existence - it is impossible for our minds to apprehend, and is “off limits”. We cannot know Him. A location, the Holy of Holies, coupled with the command never to enter, opposes man’s assumption that God is approachable, and teaches that in fact, we cannot fathom God’s existence. What we do know concerning God, is as Maimonides explains, is what He is not. We can only have negative knowledge of God. That is, we know He is not physical, He has no emotions, He occupies no place, He is not “in” this world, etc. Te Rabbis say, “He is the ‘place’ of the world, and the world is not His place.” This means that God is the “place” or source of the world, but He occupies no place. He is not physical.


Prior to the sin, the people had not demonstrated a false notion of God. Therefore, as Sforno states, in any place they called to God, He responded. This is because they were calling on the true God. However, subsequent to their sin, they corrupted their view of God, and he therefore could not answer. They did not call to “Him”, but to an imagined idea of God. An imagination cannot answer someone’s call. Moses’ removal of his Tent of Meeting was a demonstration that there was a separation between God and the people after the sin of the Golden Calf.


Perhaps we can also answer why the Temple was constructed from free donations. Such an act demonstrates that the donor is not attached to the precious metals, gems, and materials, but he gives freely. In fact, his focus on physical property is replaced by an act of following a Divine command, to build a Temple to God. Such a donation enables man to remove his grip on the physical, which the sinners could not accomplish. Man is also perfected by this display of following God’s commands, not man’s own fantasies.



(1) But even the Jews’ sin is recorded by God’s divine words, so in fact, both are God’s clues for our study.

(2) Either notion is a corruption in our view of God, and is prohibited.

(3) The Jews looked into the ark upon its return from the Philistines. This demonstrated their belief that there is something to be seen in relationship to God. They harbored a notion that God is connected with the physical. A large amount of Jews were punished there with death by God’s hand.