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Moshe, Miriam and Prophecy

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

At the end of Parshat B'ha'alotcha a short episode is recounted, an episode that seems a private family matter of sibling intrigue:

And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. And they said, 'Has God indeed spoken only by (through) Moshe? Has he not spoken also by us?' And God heard it. And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any other men upon the face of the earth. (Bamidbar 12:1-3)

This section is obscure; each verse is difficult independently, and the connection between one verse and the next is also unclear. What was the problem with Moshe's choice of spouse? What is the identity of this woman? What is the connection between the marriage and the fact that Moshe was a prophet? Why does the Torah feel the need to share the important biographical note that Moshe was the most modest of men, at this particular juncture?

The answers to these questions offered by the classical commentaries are radically different than what we would expect: these puzzling verses are construed in a manner that represents a departure from normal biblical commentary. The entire episode is approached in almost total disregard for the straightforward meaning of the verses; pshat is left behind, in apparent disregard for one of the most basic and overarching principles of biblical study.(1) In this case, the commentaries follow an oral tradition regarding the events described in the verses - a tradition that teaches a different lesson than that of the plain text, and one not easily read into the text without "filling in" some of the lacunae.

The first question to arise is the identity of this woman: Is she Zipporah, daughter of Yitro of Midian, whom we are told Moshe took as a partner years earlier,(2) or another woman? On this point the commentaries are divided: Some (like Onkelos(3) and Rashi) insist that the Kushite woman referred to here is, in fact, Zipporah. Others (Targum Pseudo Yonatan(4) and Rashbam) claim that Moshe had taken another wife. The source of contention lies in the translation of the word Kushit, which is variously taken to mean either "from the land of Kush" (5) or as a reference to a particular trait of people of that land, namely, dark-skinned.

The simple reading of the text would suggest that Moshe married a woman heretofore unknown to us, and, in fact, she was from the Land of Kush. If this is correct, we might ask when Moshe had time for courtship and romance. Furthermore, what was the objection of his siblings? Was it simply because Moshe married the "wrong" type of woman? Do we hear echoes of racism? The discussion between Miriam and Aharon regarding Moshe's choice of spouse seems to be a pretext for a larger complaint regarding prophesy: this complaint is raised in the following verse and it is this complaint that God takes up in his response.

And God spoke suddenly to Moshe, and to Aharon, and to Miriam, 'Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting.' And the three came out. (Bamidbar 12:4)

It seems unlikely that her color was the problem: The entire Jewish People were middle-eastern, making it highly likely that a large percentage were themselves of fairly dark complexion.(6) On the other hand, we cannot help but consider that the punishment eventually meted out to Miriam is leprosy; the Torah emphasizes that her affliction affects her skin and its color:(7)

And the cloud departed from off the Tent; and, behold, Miriam had become leprous, white as snow... (Bamidbar 12:10)

To explain the sudden appearance of the Kushite wife, the commentaries quote an elaborate tale: When fleeing Par'oh Moshe made his way to Africa and settled for a while in Kush. He eventually became an important leader there, and married the queen.(8)

Rashi, perhaps within a more general "theory of conservation of characters", believes this woman to be none other that Zipporah, and offers three different explanations for the appellation Kushit. Rashi's basic approach is clear: Kushite denotes beauty. Rashi concedes that the "plain meaning" does not translate as "beautiful", but contends that the text is employing a euphemism to describe Moshe's wife, a woman of physical and spiritual beauty.(9)

But if this is so, and the discussion here regards Zipporah, is our problem with this passage solved? If Moshe had married Zipporah years earlier and she was beautiful in every way - what problem could Miriam and Aharon have had with her or with Moshe? Rashi's answer, which is based on a very strong and widely held tradition, is that the problem lay not in the wife but in Moshe: Moshe had separated from his wife Zipporah.(10) While there is no inkling of this in the text, even commentaries who say that Moshe had at some point married a Kushite queen suggest that the problem was that he had separated from her.(11) Perhaps Rashi, who sees the term isha Kushit as a euphemistic description of Zipporah, also sees the phrase "for he had taken a Kushite woman" as a euphemism: What the Torah really means to say is that Moshe had separated from his wife. Perhaps, aware of Moshe's greatness, Miriam exercised caution and spoke with reticence while criticizing her brother, and did not spell out what was bothering her.

We can now reconstruct the section as follows: Moshe had separated from his wife. Miriam finds this unacceptable. She turns to her brother Aharon and, in Moshe's presence, says that what Moshe did was wrong. The next verse remains difficult: what is the connection between Moshe's marital status and the fact that Miriam was also a prophet? If we set this problem aside temporarily, our reconstruction of the scene continues as God calls all three protagonists out. Verse 4 indicates that Moshe was indeed within earshot of Miriam's criticism;(12) the fact that Moshe remained silent even when attacked by his older brother and sister helps us to better understand the "editorial comment" about Moshe's modesty in Verse 3. Thus, when Moshe does not respond, God stands in Moshe's defense.

Thus far, our understanding of this passage leaves us with several unanswered questions: Why did Moshe separate from his wife? What is the relationship between this separation and prophesy? Additionally, we might ask why Miriam felt it was her right to criticize Moshe.

Under normal circumstances, married life is a Torah ideal. The opening chapters of Bereishit describe the union of man and wife as complete, all-encompassing:

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh. (Bereishit 2:24)

Existentially and physically, man and woman are imperfect when alone.(13) Nonetheless, when the Jews stood at Mount Sinai and prepared for Revelation, a temporary separation of husband and wife was introduced.(14) Apparently the reason for the separation was to properly prepare for the singular moment of Revelation. All of Israel needed a single-minded level of kavanah which precluded other relationships. After the theophony, all of Israel returned to their tents and spouses. Only Moshe remained alone.

Go say to them, 'Return again into your tents'. But as for you, stand here by me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess. (Devarim 5:26-27)(15)

Moshe, the man of God,(16) was to be in a constant state of preparedness for the Divine Word. Miriam was correct; there were other prophets, but none had as intimate a relationship with God. Moshe was different; unique.(17) His sister's complaint was not valid. True, she too was a prophetess; she simply was not like Moshe - nor was any other prophet in history.(18)

Miriam must certainly have been aware of the qualitative superiority of Moshe's prophetic experience. What emboldened her to attack or question Moshe in this particular instance? Perhaps the answer lies in her choice of words. Miriam notes that God had spoken to her as well, a fact borne out by the verses immediately following the splitting of the sea. When the Israelites left Egypt, they had a showdown with the hated Egyptians at the Red Sea. Upon witnessing their miraculous salvation, Moshe led the men of Israel in song. The Torah then adds that Miriam led the women in song.

And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, 'Sing to God, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea. (Shmot 15:20-21)

Here Miriam is described as both a prophetess and as the "sister of Aharon"; why not "the sister of Moshe"? Rashi explains that she achieved prophesy at the point when she was only the sister of Aharon, before Moshe was born.(19) What was the content of her prophesy? That one day her parents would have a child named Moshe who would be the savior of the Children of Israel. This prophesy led Miriam to action: she encouraged her parents - who had separated - to reunite.

Amram, leader of the enslaved Israelites, eventually succumbed to the tyranny of the Egyptian regime: He separated from his wife out of fear that they would have a son who would be cast into the Nile, in accordance with Par'oh's decree. In such a world, he reasoned, it was preferable not to have children. Miriam knew better; strengthened by her prophetic insight, she chastised her father, accusing him of being even worse than Par'oh himself. Par'oh's decree threatened the male children, while Amram's behavior, which was emulated by many others, would prevent all Jewish children from being born, placing the continued survival of the Jewish People in peril. Amram accepted his daughter's argument; he and Yocheved remarried, demonstratively and with great fanfare in order to encourage others to do the same; they were even serenaded by their older children.

"And there went a man of the house of Levi" (Shmot 2, 1). Where did he go? R. Judah, the son of R. Zebina, said: He followed his daughter's advice. It was taught: Amram was the leading man of his generation; "and took for his wife a daughter of Levi". It does not say ' he took her back ', but "he took", proving, said R. Judah, the son of Zebina, that he went through a marriage ceremony with her. He placed her on the bridal throne, Miriam and Aharon dancing before them and the angels saying: "As a joyful mother of children" [Tehilim 113, 9]. ( Midrash Rabbah Shmot 1:19)

Soon after, a son was born, and the light of his aura filled their home.

"And his sister stood afar off." (Shmot 2:4) Why did Miriam stand afar off? R. Amram in the name of Rav said: Because Miriam prophesied, 'My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel'; and when the house was flooded with light at the birth of Moshe, her father arose and kissed her head and said: 'My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.' This is the meaning of: 'And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a timbrel' (Shmot 15:20); 'The sister of Aharon,' but not of Moshe? [She is so called] because in fact she said this prophecy when she was yet only the sister of Aharon, Moshe not having been born yet. Now that she was casting him into the river, her mother struck her on the head, saying: 'My daughter, what about your prophecy?' This is why it says: 'and his sister stood afar off' - to know what would be the outcome of her prophecy. (Midrash Rabbah - Shmot 1:22)

Now we can appreciate why Miriam was so emboldened. She had been endowed with prophetic vision before Moshe was born - and she was particularly sensitive to what she saw as a mistake on Moshe's part: Celibacy is not the Jewish way; this was a battle that Miriam had fought - and won - years earlier. Moshe owed his very existence to his sister's prophecy, for her prophecy caused her separated parents to reunite. Nonetheless in this instance, Miriam was mistaken: Moshe's prophesy was unlike any other. Ultimately, God agreed (or ordered) that Moshe should remain alone: Moshe, and he alone, would remain constantly on the level of holiness and preparedness for prophecy that all the People of Israel obtained before the Revelation at Sinai.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik once explained in the name of his grandfather Rav Chaim Soloveitchik that this section regarding Miriam is not about slander, but something far more basic. At the end of our daily prayers there is a custom, recorded in many sidurim, to recount on a daily basis the six things the Torah specifically commands us to "remember." Included in this list are the Exodus (Shmot 13:3), Shabbat (Shmot 20:8), the Revelation at Mount Sinai (Devarim 16:3), the epic struggle with Amalek (Devarim 25:17), and the sin of angering God in the desert (Devarim 9:7). The sixth in this category is the commandment to remember what happened to Miriam.

Remember what the Almighty your God did to Miriam on the way, as you came out of Egypt. (Devarim 24:9)

Why did this particular offence rate consideration equal to the other major principles of Judaism? Rav Chaim addressed this question by pointing to the Thirteen Articles of Belief enumerated by the Rambam. The sixth principle deals with belief in prophesy, while the seventh speaks of belief in Moshe as the foremost among the prophets. Rav Chaim questioned the necessity of enumerating these two ideas separately, as two distinct articles of belief. His answer is that aside from believing in the reality of prophesy we are also enjoined to believe that Moshe was the spiritual father of all prophets and hence he was on a level all his own. This is an independent obligation; it is possible to believe in the idea of God communicating with man without necessarily recognizing the unique nature of the communication Moshe received. Acceptance of the first principle without the second could eventually open the door to any false prophet who might contradict the Mosaic Law and pervert the chain of Masorah. This was the sin of Miriam: She knew that her brother was a great prophet, the pre-destined savior of the Children of Israel. She surely had no difficulty with the concept of prophecy; she had personally experienced it, as did Aharon. Her mistake lay in failing to grasp or accept the qualitative difference between Moshe's prophecy and her own. She mistakenly believed that she and Aharon were in the same "league" as their brother Moshe. This was clearly not the case: Moshe towered above all others. He was on a completely different level - and he was too modest to say so.(20)

This helps complete our understanding of the entire episode. Miriam, who was aware of her brother's greatness, thought that in this instance she had greater insight, and a moral right to express her displeasure with her brother. She recalled her parents' separation and saw the danger inherent in her brother's behavior. Upon hearing of his separation, Miriam speaks with moral outrage: How could Moshe - the living proof of her prophesy, the result of her parents' reunification-how could he of all people separate from his wife? It struck her as an outrage. If the reason was because he was a prophet - her response was that he was not the only prophet; she received God's Word before he was born, and because she did, he was born!

Miriam, the midwife who took as her personal mission the continuity of the Jewish People,(21) was mistaken in this instance. Although such separation was not to be normative behavior for the entire community, or even for other prophets, Moshe was different. Moshe lived in a continued state of separateness, a constant state of preparedness to receive revelation. For Moshe, and only for Moshe, Sinaitic Revelation was not a singular event; it was a state of being.



1. For a discussion of the hermeneutical principles of pshat, see Talmud Bavli Shabbat 63a,Yevamot 11b and 24a. The Rashbam (Bereishit 37:2) and the Ibn Ezra (Introduction to his Commentary on the Torah, section 4) in particular express an objective of not deviating from the "simple" meaning of the text.

2. See Shmot 2:21.

3. While Onkelos does not explicitly state that this is Ziporah, he translates kushite as "beautiful" not as a woman from Kush.

4. As we shall see, Psuedo -Yonatan characteristically interpolates a midrashic teaching into the text.

5. There are those who identify Kush with Ethiopia, such as the Septuagint and Josephus, who followed the Greco-Roman identification. The Land of Kush may well have been in what is today called Sudan, which is south of Egypt.

6. Ibn Ezra and Rabbenu Bahya both point out that Zipporah, born to the Bedouin tribe of Midian, would have been fairly dark-skinned.

7. I have not found any commentary who understands the objection to this wife being based on her complexion; perhaps this explains why no commentary notes the irony of Miriam's punishment in becoming "white."

8. Cited by Targum Psuedo Yonatan, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Chizkuni. See Yalkut Shimoni Shmot, chapter 2 remez 168.

9. Rashi, Bamidbar 1:12.

10. The Malbim (Bamidbar 12:1) combines both of these views: Moshe had separated from Zipporah, and Miriam points out that this is not the first time that Moshe has acted in this manner, for he had previously separated from his first wife, the Kushit.

11. See Rashbam, Bamidbar 12:1.

12. See Ohr Hachaim, Bamidbar 12:1.

13. See Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b: "R. Tanhum stated in the name of R. Hanilai: Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing, and without goodness."

14. Shmot 19:15: "And he said to the People, 'Be ready for the third day; do not come near a woman.'"

15. The text of the Torah seems to indicate that God had given this order; however the Talmud tells us that this is one of the ideas that Moshe suggested of his own accord, and God agreed with Moshe. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 87a: "And he separated himself from his wife: What did he interpret? He applied an a minori argument to himself, reasoning: If the Israelites, with whom the Shechinah spoke only on one occasion and He appointed them a time [thereof], yet the Torah said, 'Be ready for the third day: do not come near a woman': I, with whom the Shchinah speaks at all times and does not appoint me a [definite] time, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave his approval? Because it is written, "Go say to them, 'Return to your tents'," which is followed by, " 'But as for you, stand here by me.'" There are those who quote, " 'with him [Moshe] will I speak mouth to mouth.'"

16. Devarim 33:1, Yehoshua 14:6, Ezra 3:2, Divrei Hayamim 2, 30:16.

17. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik; also, see below for further treatment of Rabbi Soloveitchik's ideas.

18. It is possible that Ben Azzai, the most celebrated celibate in the Talmud (see Yevamot 63b) was deeply involved in a type of mystical inquiry whereby he felt he was in a constant state of Sinaitic revelation. See Vayikra Rabba 16:4: "Ben 'Azzai was sitting and expounding Scripture, and a flame was burning round him. They said to him: 'Are you perhaps engaged in the study of the sections of Scripture describing the theophanies?' He answered: 'No, I am but finding in the Torah parallels to expressions in the Prophets, and in the Prophets parallels to expressions in the Hagiographa; and the words of the Torah are joyful even as they were on the day they were being given at Sinai, and they were originally given in fire, as it is said, 'And the mountain burned with fire' (Devarim 4:11). I hope to return to this idea at a future date.

19. Rashi Shmot 15:20.

20. The Malbim (Bamidbar 12:1) suggests that Miriam and Aharon knew that Moshe was on a higher level, and that their own prophecy emanated from Moshe's prophetic ability, according to the Malbim, Miriam and Aharon thought that Moshe was on such a high level that he could have a normal home life and still excel as a prophet.

21. Midrash Rabbah Shmot 1:17: "And Calev took unto him Efrat,' this is Miriam. And why was she called Efrat? Because Israel were fruitful (paru) and increased, thanks to her.

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