At Exodus 4:10, Moses tells God that he is “chevad peh” and “chevad lashon.” But what exactly do these terms mean? Last week, I discussed the interpretation of Rashi that the “heaviness” idiom implied that Moshe was a stutterer.
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 Rabbeinu 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 ability. Samuel David 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” (translation from Daniel Klein’s edition). Luzzatto explained that this is alluded to at Num. 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, U. 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” (translation from I. Abrahams edition).
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.”
Nechama Leibowitz, “Studies in Shemot,” vol. 1, page 74, suggested that we evaluate the various suggestions by looking at God’s response. But she did not specify her conclusions. So we will have to conduct this evaluation without her wise guidance.
At verse 12, God says: “Ve-anochi ehiyeh im picha, ve-horeiticha asher tedaber. I will be with your mouth and I will instruct you what you shall speak.” (I am omitting the lesser important response in verse 11.) My feeling is that “ve-anochi ehiyeh im picha” should not be taken literally. Therefore, 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, the Luzzatto-Cassuto oratorical approach has the most merit.
Another interesting issue is how the commentators respond to Ex. 6:12. Here Moses states that he is “aral sefatayim.” Is this is a different flaw? Or is it another way of referring to the flaw of Ex. 4:10? Rashi on Ex. 6:12 explains that it means that Moses’ lips were blocked. Although he does not refer to his comments on Ex. 4:10, the simplest approach is to view Rashi as understanding aral sefatayim as another way of describing the stuttering problem of Ex. 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. Finally, Luzzatto also believes that aral sefatayim is just another idiomatic way of referring to the flaw described earlier, an oratorical flaw.
On the other hand, Cassuto believes that aral sefatayim reflects Moses’ doubting his oratorical capacities in a new and more drastic form. Finally, the Daat Mikra commentary takes the position that aral sefatayim reflects a completely new and greater flaw. The idiom is that Moses’ lips were closed, and the meaning is that he could not speak words that penetrated to others.
To cite two other interesting examples: 1) Aryeh Kaplan, in “The Living Torah,” translates Ex. 4:10 as: “I find it difficult to speak and find the right language.” But at 6:12, he translates: “I have no self-confidence when I speak.” 2) Onkelos, at 4:10, translates: “yakir mamlal ve-amik lishan,” and at 6:12, he again uses “yakir mamlal.” “Yakir mamlal” means “heavy speech.” “Ve-amik lishan” is translated as “indistinct articulation” in the Drazin-Wagner edition.
To sum up, I think the oratorical weakness approach suggested by Luzzatto and Cassuto fits best with the text of 4:10 and with God’s response of 4:11. The commentators also have to deal with the question of why the Biblical text uses different phrases (chevad peh, chevad lashon and aral sefatayim) to describe what may be the same flaw. A few are willing to take the position that more than one flaw was involved.
Daniel Klein, in his “Shadal on Exodus,” has an interesting footnote on our topic. He points out that King George VI (“Bertie,” 1895-1952) had a speech therapist named Lionel Logue. To circumvent the king’s stuttering problem, the therapist would study the text of the royal addresses, “spotting any words that might trip the king up, such as those that began with a hard ‘k’ or ‘g’ sound or perhaps with repeated consonants, and wherever possible replace them with something else.” This was very beneficial as the king had a debilitating stammer and pathological nervousness in front of a crowd or microphone. A book was published on this topic by Logue’s grandson Mark Logue in 2010 (after the discovery of Lionel’s diaries): “The King’s Speech: How One Man Saved the British Monarchy.”
Klein also points out that a search of all of Moses’ recorded public statements fails to reveal the consistent omission of any particular phonemes!
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] His only speech difficulty is that he often reverses peh with ayin. (Ha-maskil yavin.)
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.