Ki Tissa: Moses’ Horns: Not a Mistranslation

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most fateful words in the history of the Jewish people.  That word is קרן “keren.” 

What does it mean?  According to my Hebrew dictionary: “horn, corner, ray, capital, fund, kitty, foundation, principal.”  Clearly, it’s a word with many possible meanings.   Today, American Jews might recognize “keren” in the “aylu devarim” prayer, in which the fruits of engaging in such precepts as honoring parents and visiting the sick are enjoyed in this world, while “hakeren kayemet lo” -- the principal remains intact for him in the world to come.  Similarly, the word “keren” appears in the Hebrew name of such organizations as the Jewish National Fund (Keren Kayemet LeYisrael).   

In the 4th century, St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew into Latin.  His translation eventually became the official version of the Roman Catholic Church.  According to this week’s parashah, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai bearing the two tablets in his hand, he didn’t know that קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ.”   Jerome translated this phrase into Latin as “cornuta esset facies sua ex consortio sermonis Dei” – “his face was horned from the conversation with the Lord.”

In her book The Horned Moses in Medieval Art and Thought (Los Angeles, UC Press, 1970), Ruth Mellinkoff describes how prominent this “mistranslation” became in depicting Jews physically, as well as metaphysically, as being in league with the Devil.  Of course, the best known – but certainly not only -- example of this depiction is Michelangelo’s magnificent Moses.  

Most commentators have simply said that Jerome mistranslated “keren” as “horned” rather than  “radiant.”  But Bena Elisha Medjuck, a McGill University Department of Jewish Studies graduate student, offered a more complex explanation in his 1988 thesis “Exodus 34:29-35: Moses’ ‘Horns’ in Early Bible Translation and Interpretation.”[1]  Medjuck explains that Jerome was well-acquainted both with the variant meanings of “keren” and with the prevailing translation of his contemporary Jewish scholars – with whom he consulted!   Jerome chose the “horned” translation as metaphor faithful to the text: a depiction of Moses’ strength and authority, and a glorification of the Lord!  Jerome even explained this in his accompanying commentary!  

Horns were almost universally viewed by ancient civilizations as symbols of power, not as the negative or demonic symbols they became for Christians thousands of years later.  For example, both Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun were described as wearing horns.  Mellinkoff reminds us that horned helmets were often worn by priests and kings, with the horns connoting that divine power and authority had been bestowed upon them.  

Moreover, in his book Did Moses Really Have Horns? (URJ Press, 2009) Rabbi Dr. Rifat Sonsino reminds us that the Hebrew Bible contains many other references to “horns” as symbols of power and authority.  For example, the phrase “keren yishi” (My horn of redemption” is used at II Samuel 22:3 and in Psalm 18:3, and in the book of Daniel, G-d even tells Daniel “The two-horned [hakarnayim] ram that you saw [signifies] the kinds of Media and Persia.” (Dan. 8:20).  In the daily Amidah, we pray: “Baruch atah Adonai matzmiach keren y’shuah.”  The Orthodox Artscroll siddur translates this as “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who causes the pride (keren) of salvation to flourish.” But liturgy commentator Dr. Joel Hoffman opines that it may actually refer to sexual prowess! 

Thus, Jerome’s depiction of Moses with horns was not a “mistranslation” but rather an accurate symbolic and intensely positive rendering of the word.  Moses was conveying the Divine words that he had just received in a face-to-face meeting with G-d.  What greater authority could any human have?  This is what Moses’ horns signified, as early readers of the Torah surely understood.  They also fit perfectly with Michelangelo’s splendid depiction of a supremely robust, powerful, and Divinely inspired Moses.  

To the incalculable harm and suffering of Jews thereafter, Jerome’s interpretive intention was lost, ignored, and/or suppressed by those who either did not know better or who did, but had other agendas.  (The pernicious staying-power of this evil is also noted by Rabbi Sonsino.  He recounts an experience of a friend in South Carolina in 1963, when mentioned to a civilian army base secretary that he was Jewish.  The secretary asked to feel his head.  After doing so, she said, in all seriousness: “Where are you horns?  I thought all Jews had horns.”  Ironically, I recently heard another version of the same story from an acquaintance whose grandfather visited his friend in Spain in the 1930s.  When the friend made an anti-Semitic remark, the grandfather revealed that he was Jewish.  His shocked friend demanded that he first remove his hat.  When no horns appeared, he demanded that the Jew remove his shoes, to “reveal” his devilish feet.  My friend’s grandfather complied, and the two never spoke again.)    

There are many lessons we might learn from this terrible history.  One is that our own characterization of people, whether as individuals or as groups – even a single word spoken “figuratively” or in jest -- can have unintended, profoundly awful consequences.  Talking about others requires great care and discretion! 

Shabbat shalom.     

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  • Ki Tissa: Moses’ Horns: Not a Mistranslation
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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3