How a biblical mistranslation led to anti-Semitism

How a biblical mistranslation led to anti-Semitism

Ki Tisa — Exodus 30:11-34:35

Most of parashat Ki Tisa deals with the episode of the egel hazahav, the golden calf — the sin, its aftermath, and Moses’ plea that God forgive His people. God agrees, and after Moses spends another 40-day period on Mount Sinai, he comes down with a second set of luchot, the tablets inscribed with the Ten Statements.

The parasha ends this way:

So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the LORD had imparted to him on Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.

Clearly the time he had spent in the immediate presence of God had changed Moses, not just spiritually but physically — his face glowed with light.

One midrash explains that this happened when Moses asked to see God’s face and God told him that what he wanted was impossible, but “I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.” As God shielded Moses, God’s hand touched Moses’ face and transferred just the tiniest fraction of divine radiance
to him.

Another explanation is found in the Yerushalmi Shekalim. As Moses sat on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights writing down the Torah as God dictated it, his quill would sometimes become clogged with ink. So Moses would wipe the quill in his hair to clean it. Over time this holy ink (which the rabbis call black fire) ran down Moses’ face and caused it to glow with holy light.

But something curious happened to this passage in translation. The verb translated as “was radiant” — “karan” — appears nowhere else in the Tanach. However, the noun “keren” (same consonants, different vowels) is common. Keren means ray or beam, but also horn. As the Torah was translated from Hebrew into Greek (the Septuagint) and from Greek into Latin (the Vulgate), the text no longer said that Moses’ face was radiant, but that it had horns.

If you have seen Michelangelo’s statue of Moses (or a picture of it), you surely noticed that it portrays Moses with small horns above his forehead. And, of course, you can imagine how this image played out in medieval Europe, where the Church often demonized the Jews. In fact, I once heard someone explain quite seriously that the reason Jews never removed their hats was to hide their horns (and, obviously, their connection to Satan).

Fortunately, the Catholic Church has, for the past 55 years, taught that God has never abandoned His covenant with the Jews and that anti-Semitism is a sin. The Christian Bible no longer reports that Moses had horns. It’s too bad that not everyone has gotten the message.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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