Are Moses’ Horns Based on a Jewish Tradition?

Michelangelo Buonarotti’s sculpture of Moses is probably the most famous artistic depiction of the Israelite lawgiver and prophet. It also embodies one of the most famous biblical mistranslations. In Exodus 34, the Torah states of Moses that, after descending from Sinai, “the skin of his face shone [karan].” The similarity between the verb meaning “shine” and the word for “horn” (keren) led to St. Jerome’s Latin Bible, and translations based on it, stating that Moses’ face was “horned.” Hence the two protrusions from the head of Michelangelo’s statue.

But Daniel Lispon suggests that the idea of Moses’ horns actually can be traced to an earlier Jewish tradition, as evidenced by a now-forgotten liturgical poem, or piyyut, for the holiday of Shavuot:

The piyyut was written in ancient Aramaic in the dialect of the Land of Israel, and it incorporated Greek words as well. The language and structure of the piyyut date it to the era of the Byzantine empire before the Muslim conquest, but according to the scholar Joseph Heinemann, it is based on a folk song, handed down orally from much earlier.

The piyyut opens with the words Arkin Hashem sh’maya l’Sinai (“God bent Heaven to Sinai”), later describing God as placing rays of glory on Moses’ head. So far, so good in aligning with the biblical text. But then, towards the end of the piyyut, the angels appear before God and are afraid of Moses, as they claim he might gore or headbutt them.

It may be that this combination of Moses’ physical description (the Hebrew wording being open to interpretation) with his supposed ability to headbutt or gore someone (possibly based on a common, popular understanding which arose during this period), is responsible for creating the image of Moses as actually having horns on his head.

The art scholar Malka Rosenthal showed that Moses appeared with horns in Jewish literary illustrations as well. A number of books published in the German city of Fürth between 1741 and 1750 show the figures of Moses and Aharon on the cover, with Moses holding a staff and tablets while a pair of horns appear on his head.

Read more at The Librarians

More about: Exodus, Michelangelo, Moses, Piyyut, Translation


Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship