Maimonides on the Two Tablets: An Extraordinary Idea
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
The Three Weeks, commencing with the 17th of Tammuz, focused us on the tragedies contributing to this day’s sorrowful nature. Talmud Taanis 28b records Moses’ smashing of the tablets as one of these tragedies. As he descended from Sinai with those two sapphire tablets bearing God’s laws, he encountered the Jews sinning with the Gold Calf. He responded by breaking the tablets. A wise Rabbi explained he did so, lest the Jews continue their sin, projecting their idolatrous expression onto these divinely inspired objects, just as they were doing regarding the Calf. Moses broke the tablets to eliminate this possibility, to which, God agreed. We might think the service of the Gold Calf as more worthy of making the list of tragedies. But as a friend suggested, sin is not a “loss,” but a waste. A true “loss” is the removal of something of value or a failure to realize a gain. That loss was the tablets. The removal of the positive is loss, not the engagement in the negative, the latter being “harm.” Similarly, we mourn the loss of the Temple, and not the idolatry or enmity between the Jews that precipitated those two losses, although the latter are evils for which we must repent.
But to truly comprehend the loss of the tablets, we must understand: 1) what they were and 2) why God gave them to us. The indispensable need for the tablets is derived from God’s granting to Moses a second set of tablets after he smashed the first set.."
What I will eventually suggest herein astonished me, but I feel Maimonides’ words point to this discovery…
The Guide for the Perplexed (Book I, chap. lxvi)
“And the tables were the work of God” (Exod. xxxii. 16), that is to say, they were the product of nature, not of art: for all natural things are called “the work of the Lord,” e.g., “These see the works of the Lord” (Psalms cvii. 24): and the description of the several things in nature, as plants, animals, winds, rain, etc., is followed by the exclamation, “O Lord, how manifold are thy works!” (Psalms civ.24). Still more striking is the relation between God and His creatures, as expressed in the phrase, “The cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted” (Ibid. 16): the cedars being the product of nature, and not of art, are described as having been planted by the Lord. Similarly we explain.
“And the writing was the writing of God” (Exod. xxxii. 16): the relation in which the writing stood to God has already been defined in the words “written with the finger of God” (Ibid. xxxi. 18), and the meaning of this phrase is the same as that of “the work of thy fingers” (Psalms viii. 4) this being said of the heavens: of the latter it has been stated distinctly that they were made by a word, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made" (Ibid. xxxiii. 6). Hence you learn that in the Bible, the creation of a thing is figuratively expressed by terms denoting “word” and “speech." The same thing, which according to one passage has been made by the “word,” is represented in another passage as made by the “finger of God.” The phrase “written by the finger of God” is therefore identical with “written by the word of God,” and if the latter phrase had been used, it would have been equal to “written by the will and desire of God."
Onkelos adopted in this place a strange explanation, and rendered the words literally, “written by the finger of the Lord." He thought that “the finger” was a certain thing ascribed to God; so that “the finger of the Lord” is to be interpreted in the same way as “the mountain of God” (Exod. iii. 1), “the rod of God” (Ibid. iv. 20), that is, as being an instrument created by Him, which by His will engraved the writing on the tables. I cannot see why Onkelos preferred this explanation. It would have been more reasonable to say, “written by the word of the Lord,” in imitation of the verse “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” Or was the creation of the writing on the tables more difficult than the creation of the stars in the spheres? As the latter were made by the direct will of God, not by means of an instrument, the writing may also have been produced by His direct will, not by means of an instrument. You know what the Mishnah says, “Ten things were created on Friday in the twilight of the evening,” and “the writing” is one of the ten things. This shows how generally it was assumed by our forefathers that the writing of the tables was produced in the same manner as the rest of the creation, as we have shown in our Commentary on the Mishnah (Avos, v.6).”
We must pay attention to Maimonides’ words. He opens with “And the tables were the work of God." His intent is to first discuss the tablets—not their writing. He first explains how the tablets are made via “nature,” meaning by God. They are not “works” or “art.” By definition, if natural objects are used in a new construction or form, like woodworking or paintings, we call this “carpentry” and “art” respectively. But if something is formed undisturbed by external influence, as leaves are formed with veins and trees with bark, this we call “nature” and not art. Therefore, when addressing the tablets, Maimonides writes, “they were the product of nature, not of art: for all natural things are called “the work of the Lord.”” This means that the tablets formed naturally independent from the rest of the sapphire that formed in that area of Sinai. That is quite amazing. We will get back to what this means. But they were not works of carpentry or art. Remain mindful of this distinction.
Maimonides then addresses the tablets’ writing: “And the writing was the writing of God.” He argues that although the Torah says the writing was “written by the finger of the Lord,” this writing was no less natural than the tablets themselves, or God’s natural creation of the heavens. He disputes Onkelos’ suggestion that a tool was used to form these letters, and insists that those letters were created without a tool, just as God created the heavens, by His will alone.
But focus your attention on Maimonides’ insistence that the writing was “natural” and not an act of carpentry or art. What does he mean by this? You must know that Maimonides bases himself on the verse that references both, the tablets and the writings: “And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God” (Exod. xxxii. 16). Maimonides teaches that this verse is not redundant, but with it, God intentionally directs us to realize that not only were the tablets a natural phenomenon, but so too was the writing. This is essential to our discussion.
So, we must delve into understanding the distinction between writing that is natural, and writing that is art. How are they different?
We must ask a number of questions. God communicated 10 Commandments, shortly afterwards they would be committed to the Sefer Torah Moses would write. Therefore, for what purpose did God create the tablets with the same record of this communication? Is this not a redundancy?
Let’s briefly recount the history. God orchestrated Revelation at Sinai. The nation heard great sounds. Moses ascends Mt. Sinai, he remains in commune with God for 40 days and nights and then he receives the two tablets from God. While still on Sinai, God informs Moses that the Jews sinned with the Gold Calf and that He will destroy the nation. Moses prays and God refrains from destroying the Jews. Before Moses descends the mountain we read these words, “And Moses turned and descended from the mountain, and the two tablets of Testimony were in his hands; tablets written from both sides, from this side and that were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, were they explained on the tablets.” (Exod. 32:15,16) Why is Moses’ descent interrupted with this detailed description of the tablets? Why was this description of the tablets not included earlier (31:18) where we read, “And God gave to Moses—when He concluded to speak with him on Mount Sinai—two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” This division of the tablets’ details into two Torah portions requires explanation, as does the term “tablets of testimony”… testimony to what exactly? And we wonder why “two” tablets are needed. Could not a larger tablet contain all the words; could not smaller letters accomplish the same message on a single tablet?
Maimonides also cited the Mishna in Avos, “Ten things were created on [the first] Friday in the twilight of the evening,” and “the writing” is one of the ten things.” Maimonides wishes to draw our attention to the necessity for God to have created the tablets and their writing, at the end of the six days of Creation, just before God ceased His creation. What is his message?
In Exodus 34:1, God instructs Moses to hew a second set of tablets, and He says He will write on them the matters that “were” on the first tablets. Why doesn’t God say He will write on them the matters that “He wrote” on the first tablets? He uses a less descriptive term.
I also wonder if there was more to Moses’ breaking of the tablets than already explained.
Revelation on Sinai was intended to remove all doubts that a Supreme Intelligence created all, sustains all and communicates with man. However, God desired this message not end at Sinai’s closure. My friend suggested that the tablets were intended to be an everlasting “testament” (tablets of Testimony). This explains why upon God’s completion of His communication with Moses atop Sinai, we read, “And God gave to Moses—when He concluded to speak with him on Mount Sinai—two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” That is, once God concluded His Revelation to the people and to Moses, He desired an everlasting testimony of this Revelation, to serve as enduring and conclusive evidence that He alone created and sustains the universe. Thus, “testimony” appears in this verse, and not later in the second description of the tablets. In order that this testimony is everlasting, the words are embedded in a permanent object: stone. So “stone” is also in this verse. But can’t anyone write words in stone? Of what proof are these tablets?
The testimony God intended is to the truth that He alone is the source of the universe. We read that these tablets were “written with the finger of God.” Maimonides said this was a “natural” phenomenon. Here now is the amazing idea and how these tablets “testified”…
These miraculous tablets contained something not found elsewhere in nature: naturally formed letters, sentences and commandments! Imagine a tree cut down, where its inner rings viewed closely were actually lines of text forming intelligent sentences, or lightning bolts that formed words as they streaked across the sky. That is how astonishing these tablets were. The Torah says the text could be seen from both sides of the tablets (Exod. 32:15). Some wish to explain this to mean that the letters were hollowed through, but that would not appear miraculous as a human being can carve letters into a stone. My opinion is that the letters were formed internally through the sapphire’s grain. And as sapphire is translucent, one can see the letters “from both sides.” The only explanation for words existing in the inside a stone is if the words formed naturally. That means the creator of the stone intentionally embedded His messages within the stone.
As God formed these tablets over time at the end of Creation, so too, He formed the “writing” simultaneously, and naturally. The commands were not subsequently carved into the tablets, but they literally grew inside the stones grain as the stones naturally formed over time: “And the writing was the writing of God,” as Maimonides said above, this means a natural phenomenon. This explains why God tells Moses that He will write on the second tablets the matters that “were” on the first set, and not matters that He “wrote” the first set. For God did not do an act of “writing” on the first tablets. Yes, the words appeared “written” as the verse states, but not through an act of one thing acting on another resulting in writing. Again, the verse does not say, “I wrote” on the first tablets, but rather, “were” on the first tablets. The letters in the first tablets formed within the tablets. This is an amazing idea, and a phenomenon not seen elsewhere in nature. Perhaps for this reason, Maimonides includes in this chapter his critique of Onkelos’ suggestion that the stone tablets were carved through an instrument.
What consideration demanded that God create such a phenomenon? Although the exact words appearing on the tablets were duplicated in the Torah scroll, it was not the words per se that demanded the tablets’ existence, but the “manner” of existence of these words. This natural formation of words and commands is God’s clear message that He is behind the natural world, and Torah. Both form one unit. This is needed, for many people view nature as devoid of God’s creation and rule. Man becomes accustomed to matters by his very nature. The sun rises and sets, plants and animals grow, and species beget their own kind. We take all for granted, thinking all occurs due the nature itself…and not God. But with the existence of naturally formed words and commandments in natural objects, we can no longer maintain a view of an unguided world. Nature is finally understood to be the expression of an intelligent being: God. How can one ignore a natural object that has words naturally imprinted and not the work of art? This was the lesson of Sinai, and the sustained lesson of the tablets.
Therefore, the Torah scroll’s account of God’s communicated commands sufficed for the ‘content’ of His words, but not for an everlasting “testament” which was revealed through natural stones containing intelligent words! And perhaps to remove all doubt that this occurred without God’s intent, there were two stones, not one. A freakish natural incident can possibly be dismissed if it occurs once…but not twice.
We can no longer separate nature from God. His very words are embedded in these stones in truly natural manner.
Why didn’t God give the tablets to Adam the First? Perhaps Adam had no need for them. God’s original plan was that man use intellect to discover God. The beauty and precision of natural law is sufficient for a person following a life of wisdom.
However, at this era in mankind’s development, these tablets were intended to offer mankind a new leap in our wisdom of God. The ability for nature to produce such a phenomenon would offer us tremendous appreciation for the Creator of this nature. They were to be viewed and not placed in an ark.
But as these tablets were being delivered, the Jews sinned with the Gold Calf. The extraordinary lesson of the tablets would not be realized with those Jews. These first tablets required destruction. However, a lesson was required: the nation must now have a reminder of what they lost. God instructed Moses to hew a new set of stones; their tablet form would not come about naturally, but by human craft. God also “wrote” the matters on this second set; again, no longer a natural phenomenon of words that were part of their natural design. A gap now existed between the Jews, and God. The intended, intimate relationship that could have been, was now lost. To emphasize this break from God, these tablets must be stored out of sight; in an ark. Perhaps this explains why King Solomon hid the ark and no other vessel. He reiterated this message of “distance” between God and the nation through digging caverns to eventually hide the tablets and the ark.
“Ten things were created on [the first] Friday in the twilight of the evening”
As natural law needed to tolerate these unique tablets, they had to be planned with the creation of the substance of sapphire. This could not be created later, for the very blueprint of how sapphire forms must contain natural laws that would generate stones with embedded communication. As this would be a “property” of sapphire’s substance, it must be set at the time that God endowed sapphire with its formative properties: during Creation.
“And Moses turned and descended from the mountain, and the two tablets of Testimony were in his hands; tablets written from both sides, from this side and that were they written. And the tables were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, were they, explained on the tablets.”
Why is Moses descent interrupted with this detailed description of the tablets? Why was this description of the tablets not included earlier (31:18) where we read, “And God gave to Moses”… “two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” It appears to me that the first account expresses the “purpose” of the tablets: testimony. Thus, we learn that the testament is in durable stone, and that the testament is a unique phenomenon. But when Moses is about to descend to the sinful Jews, we are told of the tablet’s nature that conflicts with their idolatry: the tablets were “God’s work,” intended precisely to fend off idolatry. This aspect is relevant in connection with the idolatrous Jews, and therefore not mentioned until its relevance surfaces.
Now we understand the loss of the tablets: our knowledge of God has been impaired. This is the ultimate tragedy. What an amazing sight they must have been. Perhaps in the future, this will be the means by which God will make His name fill the Earth. For we do not know if the tablets were the only natural elements in which God embedded natural communication. And as this was God’s will at Sinai, perhaps in the messianic era He will unveil this again to a more fitting generation.
 Ibn Ezra rejects the notion that the letters Mem Sofit and Samech (shapes like “O”) had miraculous center pieces floating. The letters were not hollowed from one side completely through to the other. They were simply written on the two faces of the stones, as the stones were thick. Alternatively, I suggest the letters were internal facets in the translucent sapphire, that could be seen on “both sides,” like a crack can be seen from any side of a diamond. Furthermore, God does not perform impossibilities, so to have legible writing passing through a stone, with the exact wording seen on the opposite side, is not possible. God can do miracles, but not impossibilities. Similarly, God cannot create a circle that is a square.
 Exod. 32:15