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Did Moses Have a Speech Impediment?

I wrote about this topic before, but in revising my article for my forthcoming book I came across a scholarly article that made me change my mind. Since we are in the midst of Devarim, this is a timely topic.

Moses tells God that he is “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon” (Exodus 4:10). But what exactly do these terms mean?

To explain the first of the above expressions, Rashi uses a word from the French of his time. The word is usually translated as “stutter” or “stammer.” (Rashi does not make any comment on the second expression.) But where did Rashi get his explanation from? No such view is expressed by the Tannaim or Amoraim.

James Kugel, The Bible As It Was (1997), p. 297, points out that there was a Hellenistic Jewish writer from the second century B.C.E., Ezekiel the Tragedian, who wrote that Moses stammered. So Rashi was not the first to give the stammer interpretation.

It is possible that Rashi’s source was a story that eventually made its way into Exodus Rabbah 1:26. There a story is recorded about a test put to the infant Moses and that Moses’ mouth and tongue ended up being burned by a piece of coal, and that this is what made him “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon.” But I have seen it suggested that burning to a mouth and tongue would more likely cause lisping than stuttering/stammering. More importantly, Rashi does not cite any such a story in his comments to Exodus 4:10.

Most likely, Rashi was just interpreting “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon” and offering a reasonable interpretation without any connection to the coal story. (Strangely, Rashi only makes his comments on “chevad peh.” Perhaps he interpreted both “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon” the same way. See his comment at Isaiah 6:8.)

How have other commentators understood “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon”? Rashbam thought that the 80-year-old Moses was telling God that he was not familiar with the Egyptian language anymore, having left there when he was young. Ibn Ezra, in his early commentary on the verse (his shorter commentary), agreed with Rashbam. But years later, when he wrote his longer commentary on the verse, he suggested that Moses was telling God that he had difficulty with certain letters. He then suggests that God’s response at 4:11-12 implied that God agreed to provide him with words without the difficult letters! A similar idea was suggested earlier by R. Chananel (quoted in R. Bachya). R. Chananel had written that Moses had difficulty with the letters that were difficult for the teeth: zayin, shin, resh, samech and tzade, and with the letters that were difficult for the tongue: dalet, tet, lamed, nun and tav.

Others have focused more on Moses’ oratorical and persuasive abilities. For example, S.D. Luzzatto suggested that Moses was arguing that he was not a “powerful orator who could speak at length before any audience and not cringe before anyone.” Luzzatto explained that this is alluded to at Numbers 12:3, which refers to Moses as the most modest man on the earth. Luzzatto explained further that having spent so many years as a shepherd it was difficult for Moses to go before a great king and argue with him. Similarly, Umberto Cassuto explained: “The meaning is only that he did not feel within himself the distinguished talents of an orator, and in his humility he expressed the thought with some exaggeration.”

Finally, to give one more example, the Daat Mikra commentary suggested that “chevad peh” meant that Moses “spoke slowly” and “chevad lashon” meant that his “voice was not pleasant.”

We can evaluate the various suggestions by looking at God’s response. At verse 12, God says: “Ve-anochi ehiyeh im picha, ve-horeiticha asher tedaber.” The key phrase is the second one: “I will instruct you what to say.” This phrase fits Rashbam’s approach and the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach better than it fits the other approaches. But the Rashbam’s approach is problematic because it does not fit well with Moses’ statement. Moses refers only to a general problem of “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon.” He does not say anything about inability to speak Egyptian. Based on this analysis, it would seem that the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach has the most merit.

But after I wrote all the above and my earlier column on this topic, I came across an article on our topic by the scholar Jeffrey Tigay in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 231 (1978). He defends the “speech impediment” approach. He points to Genesis 48:10, which describes Jacob’s eyes and records: kabdu mi-zoken, lo yuchal lirot. This suggests that K-B-D reflects a medical difficulty. He then looks at evidence from Akkadian and Arabic. He observes that “heaviness,” with respect to a body part, is a medical difficulty in these languages. His evidence from Akkadian is particularly persuasive since it is from kabātu, a cognate of the Hebrew K-B-D. (He admits that the evidence from these languages is not sufficient to pinpoint precisely what medical difficulty was involved.)

Most importantly, Tigay advises us to focus on Moses’ entire statement at 4:10: “lo ish devarim anochi gam mitmol gam mi-shilshom…ki chevad peh u-chevad lashon anochi.” “Lo ish devarim” seems to be the complaint of lack of eloquence or ability to persuade and the like, and “ki chevad peh u-chevad lashon” seem to be adding something more specific. A speech impediment fits perfectly here. Tigay makes the reasonable assumption that “ki” means “because” in the above statement.

So while God’s response at verse 12 supports the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach, Moses’ entire statement at verse 10 supports the speech-impediment approach.

But there is a response for the Luzzatto-Cassuto approach. It can interpret “ki” in verse 10 so that it means something like “rather.” This is how the Daat Mikra commentary interprets “ki” here.

Nevertheless, looked at overall, Tigay’s arguments are strong ones and perhaps his approach, essentially the approach of Rashi, wins the day. It wins the day despite the fact that it does not fit as well with God’s response at 4:12.

***

We still have a little more to discuss. At Exodus 6:12 and 6:30, Moses describes himself as aral sefatayim. We now have to ask whether this is a different flaw, or merely another way of referring to the flaw of Exodus 4:10. Rashi on Exodus 6:12 explains that it means that Moses’ lips were blocked. Although he does not refer to his comments on Exodus 4:10, the simplest approach is to view Rashi as understanding aral sefatayim as another way of describing the stuttering/stammering problem of Exodus 4:10. Rashbam does not comment at all on 6:12. Perhaps he would view aral sefatayim as another idiom for inability to speak Egyptian. Ibn Ezra (shorter commentary) writes that this is just another way of referring to the articulation defect he described earlier. Luzzatto and Tigay also believe that aral sefatayim is just another idiomatic way of referring to the flaw described earlier, even though they disagree as to what the earlier flaw was.

On the other hand, some commentators believe that what we have here is a description of a new flaw. For example, Cassuto believes that aral sefatayim reflects Moses’ doubting his oratorical capacities in a new and more drastic form. Daat Mikra believes that the idiom here is that Moses’ lips were closed, and the meaning is that he could not speak words that penetrated to others.

But since most commentators are reluctant to attribute to Moses a new flaw, we can conclude that whether or not Moses had a speech impediment depends on how one interprets the flaw (or flaws) of verse 4:10.

***

Tigay concludes as follows: “History has known other creative geniuses and national leaders, from Demosthenes to Felix Mendelssohn and Churchill, who worked their effect on humanity despite speech impediments. The Bible viewed Moses as an agent of God whose success owed nothing to his natural endowments, but only to the persuasion worked by the words and deeds he uttered and performed under Divine direction.”

By Mitchell First


Mitchell First does not recall the Hollywood producers giving Charlton Heston any difficulties in articulation.

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