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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

Parashat Ki Tissa

And Moses Did not Know that the Skin of his Face was Beaming"

Dr. Ya'akov Gaartner

Department of Talmud

"And it was as Moses came down from Mount Sinai and the two tablets of the testimony were in the hand of Moses when he came down from the mountain and Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was beaming when he spoke with Him" (Ex 34: 29). According to this passage, the skin of Moses' face was shining when he descended from Mount Sinai after receiving the second tablets. We wish to clarify the meaning of the expression "that the skin of his face was beaming". What is the meaning of the verb "beaming" (Heb. - karan) and what change overcame the face of Moses ?

The Biblical commentator Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor (Northern France, 12th century) wrote about this expression as follows (ed. Y. Nevo, Mossad HaRav Kook, 5754 p.176):

"Behold the skin of his face was beaming" : His skin was shining from the aura of the Holy Presence.[1] It is the same in 'Rays (Karnayim) issued from His hand' (Habakkuk 3:4). The explanation is that when the light shone from his face, and the pillar of light which formed opposite him it resembled horns (Keren = horn of an animal). Similar to this is the expression Gazelle of Dawn (Ayelet Hashahar) because the shining sun looks like a gazelle whose horns (karnayim, sing. keren) are spread out. Thus (the Torah) used the word keren, since the first tablets were given amidst much commotion and these second ones in secret. The Holy One Blessed Be He demonstrated that these, too, were holy, by the fact that the face of Moses shined from the aura of the Holy Presence when he received them.

Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor explains that the passage before us describes a shining light - that the face of Moses shone from the aura of the Holy Presence. This wondrous phenomenon occurred only when he received the second Tablets and this came to demonstrate that despite the fact that they were given in secret, their holiness was no less than the holiness of the first Tablets which were given amid much pomp.

In any case the meaning of the verb karan in this passage is a description of a beam or ray of light which emanated from the face of Moses. Rabbi Yosef adds that the same meaning can be found in another passage , in the prayer of the prophet Habakkuk which describes , among other things , the revelation of the Holy Presence going forth to strike the Chaldeans : "And there is a brightness as the light; rays issued from His hand" (from the place or the hand of God).

This passage from Habakkuk is the only passage in the Bible in which the word keren appears as a noun in the sense of a ray of light (keren or). Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor also commented on the parallel usage of keren as light and keren in the sense of horns or antlers . He explained that the light that emanated from the face of Moses like the pillar of dawn looked like horns[2], (See illustration 1, drawn by the French painter Gustave Dor and this similarity gave the first rays of dawn the name Ayelet Hashahar (Gazelle of Dawn)[3].

But we have another explanation for this passage which did not explain the term "the skin of his face was shining" in the sense of light emanating from his face. Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam), the grandson of Rashi and a contemporary of Bechor Shor, writes in his Torah commentary concerning the term in question as follows: "karan refers to splendor, and similarly in 'rays issue from His hand' (Hab. 3:4), and anyone who compares [our verse] to "his horn are like the horns of a wild ox" (karnei re'em karnav - Deut. 33:17) is mistaken .

Rashbam's understanding of the word keren is similar to that of Rabbi Yosef (and that of our Sages and of Rashi, see note 1 and 2)ý; but in his comments we hear of others who interpreted keren literally in keeping with its meaning in Deut. 33:17.[4] Who were these interpreters?

E. Touitou[5]ý has shown that the commentary of Rashbam on the Torah challenged Christian Biblical exegesis, as indicated by the Rashbam's phrase: "[This explanation is] according to the way of the world and an answer to the heretics" (E.g. Lev. 19:19). In our passage, the Rashbam rejects the interpretation that Moses sprouted horns, probably espoused by Christian scholars with whom he had contact. Such an interpretation is based on the Latin Biblical translation , the Vulgate, which translated keren in our passage: quod cornuta esset. The Vulgate followed Jerome, one of the Church Fathers, whose interpretation follows the Greek translation of Aquilas[6] in translating karnayim (Amos 6:13) with the Greek equivalent word for "horn"[7].

R. Mellinkoff, in her book devoted to this subject,[8] claims that neither Aquilas nor the Vulgate , which both translated keren as the horns of an animal, intended to say that Moses sprouted horns. Rather in the ancient world, and as it seems from numerous Biblical passages, horns were simply a metaphor for might, honor and splendor. It is therefore not surprising that until the 11th century no illustrations are to be found in which Moses is portrayed as having horns.

From the 11th century onward, Europe underwent a change, and the general public understood the Biblical text, literally, though most Christian theologians, some of them influenced by the commentary of Rashi , continued to explain keren as a metaphor for rays of light or glory. It is from this period that we begin to find drawings and sculptures which show Moses with horns in a range of shapes (for further details consult the book of R. Mellinkoff; see example in illustration 2, following this article). The most well known of these is the statue by Michaelangelo in Rome in which Moses has two horns protruding from his head. However, other examples of medieval art reflect the approach of the theologians, and portray Moses not with the horns of an animal but with rays of light (See illustration 3).

Mellinkoff (p. 135) relates the story of the American Jewish scholar who, during a trip to the Midwestern United States, became involved in discussion with a farmer. The farmer refused to believe that the scholar was a Jew, since he did not have horns! This story and other evidence to the like clearly show that the medieval superstition that Jews have horns continued well into the modern period. Several appropriate illustrations are brought by Mellinkoff, who raises the possibility of a connection between this belief and the illustrations of Moses in Christian manuscripts in which Moses appears with animal horns.


[1] It is interesting to note the comments of our Sages in Shemot Rabbah (47,11) on the question: "From where did Moses derive rays of splendor? Our Rabbis said: From the cave, as it is said: 'And it will be when My honor passes by' etc. (Ex. 32:32)'. R. Berechiah Hacohen said in the name of Shmuel: The Tablets were six Handbreaths in length and six in width; Moses held two handbreaths, the Holy Presence held two and there were two between them and from there Moses took the rays of splendor. R. Yehudah bar Nachman said in the name of R. Shimon Ben Lakish: While writing with a quill something was left over and he passed it over his head and from that the rays of splendor were created for him, as it is said 'And Moses did not know that his face was shining'".

[2] Rashi also made this point: Ki karan: "In the sense of horns; the light shined and stood out like a kind of a horn."

[3] See Yoma 29a: "To the chief musician upon Ayelet Hashachar (the Gazelle of Dawn) (Psalms 22:1) - Just as that gazelle's horns divide to here and to there so the dawn comes up here and there"; Yerushalmi, Berachot , chap. 1, halachah 1, Daf 2, col. 3: "Rabbi Chiya, Rava and Rabbi Shimon Ben Chalafta were walking through the Valley of Arbel at dawn and they saw the gazelle of Dawn as its light first appeared. R. Chiya said to R. Shimon Ben Chalafta: 'So will the redemption of Israel be, at first little by little but as it continues it will grow continually'."

[3] In reference to our verse, we point out an additional explanation. The interpretation is cited by R. Abraham Ibn Ezra who rejects it. It originates with Chivi Habalchi (Ibn Ezra calls him Chivi the Criminal and appends the curse 'may his bones be crushed' to his name. Chivi was a Jewish apostate who lived in Afghanistan during the period of the Geonim. He was identified with the city called Belech, hence the name 'Chivi Habalchi). He commented: "Because he ate no bread , the face of Moses became dry like a horn, and the reason that the Children of Israel feared Moses (verse 30 "And they were afraid to approach him") was because his face was ugly". Ibn Ezra replies to this: "And how did this accursed one not open his eyes to see that man only fears something wondrous, the likes of which he has never seen. There is no one who has not seen the face of a dead person and yet no one is afraid to approach it. Moreover, if that were so, [that his appearance was abhorred] why was the mask not always on his face ? Why did he remove it when speaking to Israel ?"

[4] E. Touitou, "Shitato Haparshanit shel Harashbam al Reka Hametziut Hahistorit shel Zmano", Iyunim B'sifrut Chazal Bamikra Ubetoldot Yisrael, (in honor of Prof. E. Melamed ) Ramat Gan, 1982, pp.48-74.

[5] See Yerushalmi Megillah chap. 1, halachah 11, p. 71, col.3: "Aquilas the Convert translated the Torah before Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua".

[6] It must, however, be pointed out that the Septuagint translates keren in the sense of splendor, and in the Eastern Church (in which the Septuagint and not the Vulgate is the accepted translation of the Hebrew Bible) the idea that Moses had horns cannot be found in interpretation or in art.

[7] The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought, Berkely, London and Los Angeles; University of California Press, 1970. See also a further article by the same author - "More About Horned Moses," Jewish Art, vol. 12-13 (1986-87), pp. 184-198. (My thanks to Prof. D. Sperber who called my attention to these two sources).

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