“And the nation saw that Moshe delayed (boshesh) in descending from the mountain…” (Exodus 32:1). As a result, the Jewish people formed a Golden Calf to replace Moshe.
Rashi explains that “boshesh” is an expression of “ichur” (delay) but does not explain the difference between the two words. The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah §18:6) interprets “boshesh” as a portmanteau of the phrase “ba’u shesh sha’ot – six hours have arrived” and explains that the Jews thought Moshe was late because it was already six hours into the day on which they expected him to return, yet Moshe was nowhere to be seen.
Rabbi Chanoch Zundel of Bialystok (d. 1867) in Eitz Yosef explains that the basis for this exegesis is the atypical appearance of the word “boshesh” in lieu of the expected “ichur.” It screams for interpretation, which the Midrash provides.
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Shapira-Frankfurter (1743-1826) writes in HaRechasim LeVikah that “ichur” means acceptably late while “boshesh” means excessively late. Similarly, the Malbim explains that “ichur” means anything past a pre-determined point of time while “boshesh” means excessive lateness.
Rabbi Shapira-Frankfurter discusses a third word for delay or late: “hitmahmah.” In his view, this word denotes a delay caused by moving slower than usual. It is used when someone is dilly-dallying. Thus, cognates of this word appear when Lot delays his escape from Sodom (Genesis 19:16) and when King David delays his escape from Avshalom (II Samuel 15:28).
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) looks at the relationship between the three words differently. He explains that “ichur” is a neutral type of delay and is related to “achar” (after). It is neither good nor bad. By contrast, the other two words carry a value judgment: “hitmahmah” is a positive type of delay while “boshesh” is a negative type of delay from which one ought to be embarrassed (“bushah”).
Interestingly, Rabbi Pappenheim connects “hitmahmah” to the biliteral root mem-hey (“mah”), which means what (an expression of doubt and uncertainty). He explains that a person who is hitmahmah is essentially waiting around and not doing anything specific because he is asking himself what he should be doing.
Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (1785-1865) cites an elaborate discussion about these words from the writings of R. Naftali Hertz (Wessely) Weisel (1725-1805) and explains that “ichur” denotes being willingly and deliberately late. “Boshesh,” in contrast, connotes being late due to forces beyond one’s control. By using the word “boshesh,” the Torah is telling us that the Jews thought Moshe was delayed from descending the mountain due to circumstances beyond his control – i.e., he had either fallen sick or died.
Rabbi Avraham Saba (1440-1508) in Tzror HaMor writes that the Torah uses “boshesh” instead of “ichur” as a means of alluding to the argument that the erev rav made to convince the masses to worship the Golden Calf. He explains that “boshesh” is related to the Aramaic “bshash,” which denotes tasteless food – i.e., without spices or seasoning. The erev rav argued that Moshe’s teachings have no taste or seasoning and thus ought to be rejected.
Earlier, we noted that “boshesh” and “bushah” are related according to Rabbi Pappenheim because “boshesh” is a type of lateness from which one ought to be embarrassed. Other rabbis, however, offer other ways of explaining the connection between these two words.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explains that the core meaning of both words is disappointment. He explains that “bushah” (embarrassment) is a feeling of disappointment in oneself while “boshesh” is a delay that causes disappointment in the people whom the tardy person has kept waiting.
Rabbi Dovid Golumb (1861-1935) in Targumna explains that when a person is embarrassed (“bushah”), he is so belittled and ashamed that nobody views him as important and thus won’t wait for him when he is delayed (“boshesh”).
Rabbi Aharon Marcus (1843-1916) explains that the root bet-shin primarily refers to something being delayed or withheld. Lateness is obviously associated with being delayed while embarrassment is associated with it because, one’s face turns white when one is embarrassed, which means one’s blood is withheld from traveling in its normal manner.