As the Torah tells it, Moses was raised in luxury. Pulled from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was brought to the royal palace where he was raised. One has to imagine there was no setting in all of Egypt better equipped to provide a child with all they might need. Then after fleeing Egypt, Moses finds his way to the house of Jethro, a priest of Midian, whose daughter he marries. The Torah tells us that he worked as a shepherd for his father-in-law — not as luxurious, perhaps, but it is not much of a stretch to assume he lived comfortably in Jethro’s household as well.
The Torah doesn’t tell us much about Moses’ standard of living after leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the desert. But on today’s daf, we find a midrash that imagines he continued to enjoy a comfortable existence.
Rabbi Hama, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: Moses became wealthy exclusively from the waste from the tablets, as it is stated: “Hew (p’sol) for you two tablets of stone like the first” (Exodus 34:1). It means their waste (p’soltan) shall be yours.
Rabbi Hama’s midrash is based on a word play. The Hebrew words for “hew” and “waste” share the same root, which Rabbi Hama suggests means that by commanding Moses to hew the tablets, God was also giving him the shards that fell from the tablets. Given the rabbinic tradition that the tablets were carved from gemstones, these shards were surely worth a fortune. If this is true, Moses would certainly have been able to maintain the standard of living to which he was accustomed.
The 19th-century commentator Ben Yehoyada is not so sure about all of this. He suggests that only a simpleton would understand this midrash literally. Is it possible to imagine, he asks, that Moses would take the shards of the tablets and sell them in order to become rich? Of course not. And even if Moses did retain the shards, although they are valuable, merely owning them does not contribute to one’s standard of living. Instead, Ben Yehoyada suggests that we read the midrash metaphorically. Moses doesn’t take possession of the actual shards, but rather the shards of Torah and the knowledge contained therein. The wealth he acquires comes in the form of the unique Torah insights he alone was able to glean.
Ben Yehoyada’s commentary echoes a second midrash shared by the Gemara:
Rabbi Yosei, son of Rabbi Hanina, said: The Torah was given (initially) only to Moses and his descendants, as it is stated: “Write for you” (Exodus 34:27). “Hew for you” (Exodus 34:1) means just as their waste is yours, so too their writing is yours.
God’s command to write down the laws comes in the same grammatical form as the command to hew the tablets. Both attach the Hebrew word lecha, for you, to the verb, implying that Moses is the beneficiary of the task he is ordered to perform. So just as the shards became his, so too does the Torah.
If you are thinking that if it’s problematic to suggest that Moses grew rich from the shards, we should also be troubled by the notion that Moses kept the Torah to himself, that’s some good talmudic thinking. But don’t panic because the midrash adds:
Moses treated (the Torah) with generosity and gave it to the Jewish people.
In other words, Moses could have kept the Torah to himself, but chose not to. He decided to share the wealth. And thank God he did, because we are all wealthier as a result.
Read all of Nedarim 38 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.