Did Moses Become Celibate?
Among the many problems with the story of Miriam and Aaron slandering Moses is understanding the connection between its first two verses:
במדבר יב:א וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח. יב:ב וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְ־הוָה הֲלֹא גַּם בָּנוּ דִבֵּר וַיִּשְׁמַע יְ־הוָה.
Num 12:1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” 12:2 They said, “Has YHWH spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” YHWH heard it.
How is Moses’ marriage to a Cushite woman in the first verse connected to Miriam and Aaron’s insistence in the second verse that they, too, were prophets?
Moses Divorces Zipporah
A well-known traditional interpretation of this brief unit is that the Cushite woman refers to Moses’s Midianite wife Zipporah, and that Miriam and Aaron are saying that Moses divorced her. So, for example, the old rabbinic Aramaic translation, Onkelos, writes:
ומלילת מרים ואהרן במשה על עסק אתתא שפירתא די נסיב ארי אתתא שפירתא דנסיב רחיק.
Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses because of the beautiful woman he had married, for he had separated from the beautiful woman he had married.
Following Onkelos, and offering further background from classical midrashic texts, Rashi (R. Solomon Yitzhaki 1040–1105) also interprets the verse as a reference to Moses’ separation from Zipporah:
...ומניין היתה יודעת מרים שפירש משה מן האשה? ר׳ נתן אומר: מרים היתה בצד צפורה בשעה שנאמר למשה: אלדד ומידד מתנבאים במחנה. כיון ששמעה ציפורה, אמרה: אוי לנשותיהם של אילו, אם נזקקים בעליכן לנבואה יהו פורשין מנשותיהן כדרך שפירש בעלי ממני. משם ידעה מרים והגידה לאהרן...
...And how did Miriam know that Moses had separated himself from his wife? R. Nathan said: “Miriam was beside Zipporah when Moses was told that ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’ (Numbers 11:17). When Zipporah heard this, she said, ‘Woe to their wives if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives as my husband separated from me’.” From this [remark] Miriam knew [that Moses was now celibate], and she told Aaron....
Rashi continues by explaining the connection between vv. 1 and 2:
על אודות האשה—על אודות גירושיה...
“Because of the woman”—because of her divorce…
כי אשה כושית לקח—ועתה גירשה.
“For he had married a Cushite woman”—and now he divorced her.
הרק אך עמו—לבדו—דבר י״י.
“Has the LORD spoken only”—exclusively—“with him?”
הלא גם בנו דבר—ולא פרשנו מדרך ארץ.
“Has He not spoken through us as well”—and we do not abstain from sexual activity!
According to this interpretation, Moses divorced his wife because he decided to become celibate after becoming a prophet. That the issue is celibacy is underscored by the 11th century peshat commentator, R. Judah ibn Balaam, who says concerning Moses: שהוא התנזר מן הנשים בצפותו לנבואה “he abstained from women (i.e. sexual activity) as he anticipated [receiving] prophecy.”
Celibacy for Prophets?
Why should a prophet be celibate? Rashi, in this gloss to v. 4, again follows the midrash in explaining why the text emphasizes that God spoke “suddenly” (פתאם) to Moses, Aaron and Miriam:
נגלה עליהם פתאם, והם טמאים בדרך ארץ... להודיעם שיפה עשה משה שפירש מן האשה מאחר ששכינה נגלית עליו תדיר, ואין עת קבועה לדיבור.
He [God] revealed Himself to them suddenly, when they [Aaron and Miriam] were unclean as a result of sexual intercourse... He did this to make them understand that Moses had acted appropriately when he had separated from his wife, since the Shekhinah used to appear to him at all times; no time was fixed for [God’s] speaking [to Moses].
The idea that a prophet about to communicate with God should not have recently engaged in sexual intercourse derives from the command at Mount Sinai after the Israelites have washed their clothes, immediately before the theophany:
שמות יט:טו וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים אַל תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל אִשָּׁה.
Exod 19:15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day: do not go near a woman.”
The rabbis read Deuteronomy 5:26-27, in which Moses describes what God said to him after the theophany, in relation to this idea:
דברים ה:כו לֵךְ אֱמֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶם. ה:כז וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם
Deut 5:26 Go, say to them, “Return to your tents.” 5:27 But you remain here with Me, and I will give you the whole Instruction—the laws and the rules—that you shall teach them
The classical rabbis interpreted God’s directive to the people through Moses, “Return to your tents,” as permitting the people to resume their sex lives which had been suspended just before the theophany, while Moses, who is to remain with God, must remain abstinent indefinitely.
Because Miriam and Aaron were not prophets at the level of Moses, they did not need to be ready for conversation with God at any moment, and thus were never required to be celibate. Their lack of understanding of the difference between themselves and Moses is what led to God’s rebuke.
This is the most common traditional interpretation of the story. While a number of traditional commentators offer alternative interpretations, none attacked this reading as aggressively as Rabbi Joseph ibn Kaspi (1280-1345), the daring and iconoclastic Bible commentator and philosopher from Provence.
Ibn Kaspi’s Tirade
Ibn Kaspi “wrote some thirty works dedicated to explaining the Bible, in which philosophy served him both as a method and as a compendium of philosophical conclusions which, to his mind, the biblical author had wanted to convey to the reader.” His works were seen as controversial even in his own lifetime, and many of them were lost.
Most of ibn Kaspi’s comment on Numbers 12 is dedicated to ridiculing earlier interpretations—he frequently lambasted exegetes who preceded him—particularly the one offered by Onkelos, which, as noted above, underlies Rashi’s understanding. He then broadens his critique:
מפליא אני על הקדמונים…, איך נפל לעולם בדמיונם שיפרשו דבר מן התורה הפך מה שכתוב… כי ידוע מה שפרש בזה אונקלוס… מאין לו להוסיף מלות הפכיות, אחר כי אשה כושית לקח, כאלו כתוב בתורה כי אשה כושית שלקח, עזב או הרחיק. ואם היתה זאת כונת נותן התורה למה לא כתב כן, ולמה כתב הפכו… מדוע אונקולוס כחו גדול לעשות זה, או חכמי התלמוד או א[בן] ע[זרא] שכולם הסכימו בזה, ומדוע לא נעשה כן אנחנו, ואיש הישר בעיניו יעשה, עד שנחליף ואהבת את י"י אלהיך, באמרנו—חלילה—ושנאת את י"י אלהיך.
I am amazed by what the earlier exegetes wrote…. How could they imagine that it was permissible to interpret a phrase in the Torah as saying the opposite of what is written? …For what Onkelos wrote here is well known… What gives Onkelos the right to add words that say the opposite after the phrase “he married a Cushite woman,” as if the Torah had written “he left or sent away the Cushite woman that he had married”? If that is what the One who gave us the Torah meant, why didn’t He write that? Why did He write the opposite? …Who gave Onkelos the power to do this—or the rabbis of the Talmud, or ibn Ezra, who all agreed with him? Why shouldn’t we do this, too, and have everyone interpret any way they want, even, God forbid, changing “you shall love YHWH, your God,” (Deut 6:5) to “you shall hate YHWH, your God”?
Ibn Kaspi goes on to reject a common traditionalist justification for interpretations that stray from the words of the Bible:
ואם תאמר קבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע והודיעו על פה שכן פרוש זה הפסוק. התשובה, נשוב אל הטענה הראשונה, למה לא נכתב בכתב כמו שהוא הענין, ולא לכתוב מלה שכונה בה ההפך, היקרא פרוש המרת המלות הפך בהפך.
Should you say: Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai, gave it to Joshua, and told Joshua orally that this is the correct interpretation of the verse, my response would be to go back to my first question: Why is the verse not written the way it should be understood? Why is a word written that means the opposite? Is switching the text to its precise opposite called “interpreting” it?
Ibn Kaspi then takes a divine oath to reject this style of interpretation:
חי ה' נשגבה בעיני זאת הדרך, המוסכמת מכל הקדמונים… לא אוכל לה. חלילה לי מעשות כדבר הזה, או אעזוב לגמרי תורת משה ואאמין בתורה חדשה חלילה כבר נעשית, או אעשה גם אני כמו שיעשו אלה חס ושלום,
By God (I swear) that this methodology is beyond me; [even if it] is followed by all the ancients… it is not for me. God forbid that I behave like that! [Are my choices only that] I either abandon the Torah of Moses and believe, heaven forfend, in some new Torah, as some have done, or that I do [i.e. interpret texts cavalierly] as they [the ancient exegetes] have, God forbid?
Not done with his sarcasm, ibn Kaspi spells out his criticism as if speaking to a child:
ופי' כי אשה כושית לקח, החזיק, כי כן פי' שורש הלמ"ד והקו"ף והחי"ת, והפך זה שרש העי"ן והזי"ן והבי"ת, וכל זה הסכמת הלשון
The interpretation of “he לקח a Cushite woman” has to be that he “took.” That is the meaning of the Hebrew root ל-ק-ח; the Hebrew root ע-ז-ב is its antonym. This is the agreed-upon understanding in the [Hebrew] language.
Up until this point, ibn Kaspi’s argument was grammatical in nature. But he continues his tirade on a more ideological level.
Ibn Kaspi’s Tirade Part II: Is Celibacy a Value?
Ibn Kaspi is just as upset about the content of Onkelos’s and Rashi’s explanation as he is about its methodology. He rejects the idea that Moses was celibate at the end of his life. The Torah, he writes, does not command us to go against nature by living celibately (לא נצטוינו שננגד ונעיק לפעולת הטבע). Furthermore, reflecting medieval ideas about the bodily humors, he writes:
וכל שכן שהמעשה ההוא יותר ראוי לשלמי היצירה ולטוביהם, רצוני אשר החום והלחות גובר בם. ואין ספק כי משרע"ה אדון הנביאים היה מזה המזג, עד שחיה מאה ועשרים ולא כהתה עינו ולא נס לחה,
Such behavior [sexual activity] is especially fitting for the best and most perfect human beings, I mean those whose moist and warm humors are predominant. Doubtless, the humors of Moses, the greatest of the prophets, may he rest in peace, were of this nature. He even lived for 120 years and yet (Deut 34:7), “his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.”
According to ibn Kaspi, portraying Moses as celibate is an insult to him:
ואם הוא ע"ה יהיה פורש לגמרי מאשה כמו שאמרו הקדמונים ועשו על זה אסמכתות מן הכתוב אין בם ממש, הנה לא היה משה האיש המשובח בזמן מעולם ועד עולם,
If we were to say that Moses, may he rest in peace, completely separated himself from women, as the ancient [rabbis] maintained, basing themselves on groundless “hints” in the text, then he would not have been the greatest man of all generations.
Here ibn Kaspi finds himself more in line with rabbinic tradition than the Talmudic rabbis themselves, for while the rabbis may have countenanced celibacy for Moses because of his unique status, classical rabbinic texts speak out against celibacy. Unlike the Essenes, who approved of members of their group being celibate, the rabbis encouraged marriage, declaring procreation to be a crucial mitzvah, and further understood husbands to have a Torah obligation of ‘onah, of regularly fulfilling the sexual needs of their wives, even after the couple has passed the age of producing children.
But ibn Kaspi is bothered by more than just the fact that celibacy goes against biblical and rabbinic commandments. Toward the end of his lengthy comment, ibn Kaspi makes a quip which clarifies why he is so troubled by the suggestion that Moses was celibate:
א"כ אין לשפוט עליו ע"ה שפרש מאשה, כי אינו צעיר ודורש או אגוסטי, וכרמלי.
Accordingly, we should not portray him [Moses], may he rest in peace, as being a Franciscan or Dominican, an Augustinian or a Carmelite [monk]!
In other words, Christians may think that abstinence from sexual activity makes you a better person. But according to ibn Kaspi, Judaism teaches that sexual activity is a physical need, so celibacy is unnatural and injurious.
Positive Views of Celibacy Among Medieval Rabbis in Christian Europe
In this regard, ibn Kaspi differs sharply from some of his rabbinic contemporaries in Christian Europe who at least, in theory, saw some spiritual value in celibacy. Radak (R. David Kimhi, 1160–1235) for instance, writes approvingly that after Jacob gave birth to his twelve sons:
היה פורש כל ימיו מאשה ומדרכי העולם, והתעסק בעבודת האל
For the rest of his days, Jacob separated from women and from all affairs of the world and dedicated himself to the service of God.
Similarly, Ramban (R. Moses Nahmanides, 1194–1270), describes a possible example of a celibate woman in the Bible as a person who serves God בטהרה, “in purity.”
Perhaps these Jewish writers in Christian countries admired celibacy for spiritual purposes because of influences from their neighbors. Many Jews felt uncomfortably challenged when they saw the religious dedication to God of celibate Christian clerics. As David Berger, a scholar of medieval Judaism at Yeshiva University, writes,
The one aspect of medieval Christian life that challenged the Jewish image of moral superiority was the monastic ideal. At least some Christians, it appeared, were leading pure and ethical lives.
Reading celibacy for spiritual purposes into Jewish texts was one way to reclaim moral preeminence. Ibn Kaspi, however, took a polemical stance, arguing against celibacy having any moral or spiritual value, even for Moses.
We must, however, resist the temptation of seeing ibn Kaspi as a romantic who thought physical closeness between loving human beings was good and uplifting. Like other medieval philosophers, he valued sexual activity only as beneficial to the male body. He spoke out against the masses (ההמון) who think that the pleasure involved in sexual activity is its purpose, comparing them to people who mistakenly think that the pleasure of the palate is the purpose of eating.
Moses’ Second Wife: Ibn Kaspi’s Interpretation
Given that ibn Kaspi does not think the verse means Moses separated from his wife, how does he explain the nature of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint? As an exegete committed to the plain meaning of Scripture, Ibn Kaspi writes that Num 12:1 means that Moses married a second wife, a Cushite woman, in addition to his first wife, Zipporah.
Aaron and Miriam spoke out against him, figuring that “די לאחת לאיש השלם—one [wife] should suffice for a faultless man.” In other words, as opposed to Rashi who said that Miriam and Aaron were troubled by Moses’ celibacy, according to Ibn Kaspi they were troubled that he had taken a second wife.
Ibn Kaspi explains that the last four ostensibly redundant words of verse 1, כי אשה כושית לקח, address the surprise of the reader who had not yet heard that Moses had married another wife, as if the text says, “Yes, he really did marry [an additional wife,] a Cushite woman.” Ibn Kaspi thus opposes the explanation of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) who says that these four words are a quotation of the slander that Miriam and Aaron levelled against Moses: “[Miriam and Aaron spoke . . .] ‘He married a Cushite woman!’”
Ibn Kaspi speculates that the reason for this second marriage may be because it became impossible for Moses and Zipporah to continue cohabiting: “אולי חלתה צפורה בבית הסתרים ואולי מרדה בו—perhaps Zipporah had some vaginal illness; perhaps she rebelled against him [i.e. refused to continue having relations with him].”
Whatever the reason for Moses feeling the need to take a second wife, Aaron and Miriam’s sin, according to ibn Kaspi, was that they did not give Moses the benefit of the doubt; they did not assume that he had good reasons for doing this. In this reading, God’s touting Moses’ greatness is not an explanation for Moses’ behavior at all. Instead, it is meant to explain why God is reacting so harshly. If Moses is God’s most loyal and trusted servant (vv. 7–8), וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!”
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Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.
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