Thursday, June 01, 2023

Part I

We have all heard the idea that Moses had a speech impediment, since he tells God that he is “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon” (Ex. 4:10). But what exactly do these terms mean? This week we will focus on Rashi’s explanation. Next week, we will address some of the explanations by the other commentators.

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? As Rashbam points out, no such view is expressed by the Tannaim or Amoraim. (As I will explain next week, Rashbam thinks that the 80-year-old Moses was merely telling God that he was no longer familiar with the Egyptian language, having left there when he was young. Others think Moses was just claiming a lack of talent as an orator.)

James Kugel, “The Bible As It Was,” 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. And Rashi may simply have been reporting an earlier rabbinic tradition (not coming from this Ezekiel) that Moses stammered.

Some think that Rashi’s source was 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. So perhaps this was not Rashi’s source. Also, if this was Rashi’s source, he could easily have cited it.

It seems to me that Rashi was just interpreting “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon” and offering a reasonable interpretation without any connection to the story in Exodus Rabbah. Surely others before Rashi (aside from Ezekiel the Tragedian) had come to the same conclusion.

It is important to clarify exactly what Rashi did here. He only made his comments on the first term, “chevad peh.” He did not make any comment on the second term, “chevad lashon.” On “chevad peh” he first wrote “bich’veidut ani medaber.” Then he wrote the French word that meant “stutter/stammer.” It has been suggested that Rashi did not make any comments on “chevad lashon” because a tongue has weight, so it can be heavy. But a mouth is merely an opening and does not have weight. Rashi’s comment “bich’veidut ani medaber” is a clarification that “chevad peh” is not to be taken literally. It would seem (although I am not certain) that Rashi is interpreting both terms in the same way. To Rashi, both “heaviness of speech” and “heaviness of tongue” implied a stutter.

I would now like to go back to the story of Moses as an infant being burned by coal. Rashbam’s comment is very interesting. First Rashbam writes that Rashi’s idea of a speech impairment is not found in the Tannaim or the Amoraim. Then he adds “ve’ein lachush l’sefarim hachitzonim” (we do not have to be concerned with the outside books). It seems that Rashbam thinks that Rashi’s source was the coal story. Even though it is found in Exodus Rabbah 1:26, Rashbam seems to think that this story did not originate in rabbinic literature. The reason for the Rashbam’s suspicion may be that the story is found in the work known as “Chronicles of Moses,” which is not a part of traditional rabbinic literature. Perhaps Rashbam thought that Exodus Rabbah obtained it from there. (This is indeed possible. Both Exodus Rabbah and “Chronicles of Moses” are works compiled around the 10th or 11th centuries.)

Do we have any other basis for determining the origin or age of the coal story?

The coal story is the end of a longer story. The story, as found in Exodus Rabbah 1:26, is that when Moses was an infant he used to grab Pharaoh’s crown and put it on his head. (Compare Tanchuma Shemot 8.) The magicians of Egypt thought this was a bad omen and suggested slaying him. But Yitro, one of the advisers, suggested a way to test if the infant had understanding. Place before him gold and a burning coal, and see which one he reaches for. As the infant Moses put out his hand to grab the gold, the angel Gabriel pushed it so Moses grabbed the burning coal instead. This resulted in Moses’ burning his mouth and tongue and caused the speech impediment mentioned at Exodus 4:10.

What is very interesting is that something similar to the first part of the story is found in Josephus, writing around the year 100 CE. Josephus tells us that when Pharaoh put his crown on the infant Moses’ head, Moses took it off and flung it to the ground and trampled it. This was taken as an evil omen, and a sacred scribe suggested that Moses be killed. But Pharaoh’s daughter snatched the child away.

Josephus does not mention any test involving coal. But Kugel (p. 297, n. 6) thinks that the whole story originated as one long story to explain Moses’ speech defect, i.e., the infant Moses portrayed revolution and this led to the coal test. Thus, Kugel thinks that the coal test part of the story existed at that time of Josephus as well. (Of course, even assuming that Kugel is correct, we still do not know if the story is rabbinic in origin. Since Josephus spent his early life as a student of the early Sages, this is possible.)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the plan for the settlement of Mazkeret Batya (then known as Ekron) in 1882. There was an idea to transfer 10 Jewish farmers from Russia to found this settlement, but the idea needed funding. Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever had an important meeting with Baron Edmond de Rothschild to try to get him involved. But what did R. Shmuel Mohilever say to win the Baron over?

  1. Mohilever posed this question. Why did God choose someone with a speech defect to lead the Jewish people? R. Mohilever wrote that only now, on his trip to the baron, did he realize the answer. Moses was chosen not only to speak to Pharaoh but also to bring the Jews to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. If Moses was eloquent and knew how to persuade people, the cynics would later claim that the Torah was not from God but rather from Moses who knew how to mesmerize the Jewish people into believing. Then R. Mohilever continued: Many powerful people come before you with their proposals, and with their eloquence they try to impress you and obtain your financial backing. I also come with a proposal, but I am a man of heavy tongue and have great difficulty communicating to you the great reward this proposal has for you and for our people. But therefore, if you accept this proposal and heed the request of your people to revive this desolate land, you will know that it is only because the lot of this ailing and oppressed people has touched your heart. (This is my adaptation from the material in “Rebels in the Holy Land,” by Sam Finkel.)

These words were able to break down the coldness of the baron and get him to provide financial assistance for this project. This dvar Torah changed the course of Jewish history. Over the next several decades, Rothschild ended up providing significant financial support not only to the group headed for Mazkeret Batya, but also to many of the other early Jewish settlements in Palestine.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected] He does not recall the Hollywood producers giving Charlton Heston any difficulties in articulation.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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