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Moses's Speech Disorder in Commentaries on the Torah--Final Essay

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Moses's Speech Disorder in Commentaries on the Torah

The views of Jewish Torah commentators on disability vary widely depending on the disability, the personal beliefs that each commentator seeks to advance, and the time of their commentary. Nowhere in the Torah is this more apparent than in the commentaries on Exodus 4:10, in which Moses, pleading with God to release him from the duty of bargaining with Pharoah, says, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue" (JPS). While many Jewish authors agree that Moses is referring to a speech disorder (most commonly a stutter), some differ.  In Judaism, commentaries are essential to understanding the Torah and are typically read and discussed alongside the actual Torah text. For this reason, the debate in the commentaries over whether Moses is actually disabled, and, if so, what the implications are, is not an esoteric theological matter, but one reaching most Jews who study the Torah. Interpretations of the Torah in which Moses does not have a speech disorder either explicitly view leadership as being incompatible with having a speech disorder or completely fail to engage with pre-existing interpretations of Moses as disabled. In commentaries where Moses is disabled, many, but not all, different authors' readings fall into exotic, wondrous, and punitive narratives of disability.

Samuel ben Meir, better known as Rashbam, argued that Moses could not have been disabled because of his closeness to God. Of the commentaries denying that Moses had a speech disability, his is the most influential. Rashbam, the grandson of the first major Torah commentator Rashi, wrote his commentary in c. 1145. Rashbam preferred to hew as closely as possible to the literal text, rejecting the traditional folklore known as midrash filling in gaps in the Torah. Rashbam interpreted Moses's statement that he was not "a man of words" to mean that he was not "fluent in the Egyptian spoken by the upper classes of the aristocracy" because he had fled Egypt before completing his education. In an argument against disabled Moses, Rashbam wrote: 

Is it possible that a prophet who could communicate with G’d freely, i.e. “face to face,” and who received the Torah from Him and communicated it to his people should have been afflicted with a stutter? Nowhere in our traditional literature of Tannaim and Amoraim is there such a view expressed, and we certainly have no reason to accept such views when they are expressed in hagiographical writings.

It is surprising that an author who preferred to base his interpretations on the actual Torah text should himself create an explanation that relies on such a great supposition. The literal translation of Moses's "slow of speech and slow of tongue" is "heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued", and God responds by comparing him to the "dumb or deaf, seeing or blind", all categories that reference disability. Rashbam's belief that holiness, leadership, and disability are incompatible seems to have superseded his typical literalist method of interpretation. Alternatively, Rashbam's literalist approach may have led him to reject the idea that Moses had a speech disorder because this idea was fairly prevalent in non-'canonical' Jewish tradition, seeing it as one of the baseless pieces of folklore that he sought to put an end to with his commentary. If so, it is still notable that Rashbam declares that it is not just unsupported by the text, but impossible for a great leader and prophet such as Moses to have a stutter. Instead of saying that there is no evidence for Moses to have had a stutter, which leaves open the possibility, he says that anyone who did such great deeds could not possibly have had a stutter. 

Another, later, Jewish author who wrote commentary on Exodus 4:10 arguing that Moses was nondisabled was Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno. Sforno wrote his commentary on the Torah c. 1500. Like Rashbam, he distrusted Jewish mysticism and his commentary tended to rely on the surface level of the text. He interpreted Moses to mean, "I am not experienced in knowing how to address people in authority, such as kings." While he never explicitly makes an argument against Moses having a speech disorder, it is extremely unlikely that, writing as late as 1500, Sforno would not have encountered the view of Moses as disabled. Like Rashbam, in order to reject mysticism and more metaphorical approaches to the Torah, Sforno also rejects a portrayal of people with speech disorders that goes against his biases. 

The third and final commentary with a nondisabled Moses is the Daat Zkenim, which has a similar interpretation to Rashbam's. The Daat Zkenim is a collection of Franco-German Jewish authors' writings produced around the twelfth century. The Tosafot, the group that wrote it, was founded by Rashi's sons-in-law and grandsons, including Rashbam. As such, its interpretation takes obvious inspiration from Rashbam, claiming that "Moses pointed out that he had been asked to face Pharaoh and his advisors who had command of all seventy languages, and would ridicule him when addressing him in any of these languages which he did not have any command of. They would then add: 'In whose name and language do you come to speak to us?'" While the figure of seventy languages as opposed to one has changed, the basic concept remains the same, only more detailed. Like Sforno, however, the Daat Zkenim never actually makes an argument against a disabled Moses, only for an abled one. 


In comparison to the commentaries arguing for a nondisabled Moses, far more of them state that Moses had a speech disorder. Shlomo Yitzchaki (better known as Rashi), often called the "father of all commentators" and Rashbam's grandfather, who wrote his Torah commentary c. 1070, found Moses's disability so obvious that the only comment he makes in his commentary, apart from a literal translation, is "stutterer". But Rashi makes no further note of the significance of Moses's stutter and the fact that God does not care about it, or that Moses does not ask God to cure it. When Chananel ben Chusiel, the pupil of the last generation of Talmud-writers, wrote his commentary c. 1000, he notes, "The very fact that Moses mentioned both these deficiencies of his separately is a clear indication that he had difficulty in formulating certain words which are articulated with the teeth. The consonants he had difficulty with were זשרצס, and when he referred to difficulty as כבד פה, he had in mind the letters דתל'ט." Rashi and Chananel were comfortable thinking about what Moses's speech was like, but the oldest generation of commentators saw little significance of it past the bare fact. 

Abraham ibn Ezra offers perhaps the most disability-friendly interpretation, urging accommodations and acceptance over cures. Ibn Ezra's commentary was influential, though it mainly focuses on grammar rules and literal meaning. He wrote it c. 1150, shortly after Rashbam's. In it, he says, Moses's speech disorder 

was not removed but remained as it was. The one who says that Moses forgot Egyptian is incorrect, because Moses mentioned two things, viz., slowness of speech and slowness of tongue.Furthermore, we can learn from God’s answer [...] that Moses was not referring to the Egyptian language. The upshot of this is that Moses was born with slowness of speech [...] However, he was able to pronounce some of them with difficulty. This is the meaning of, and I will be with thy mouth, and teach thee what thou shalt speak; i.e., God told Moses that He would teach him to speak with words that do not contain letters that he had difficulty enunciating. 

From ibn Ezra's mention of "the one who says that Moses forgot Egyptian," it is clear that he is reacting to Rashbam's commentary. His counterargument that, based on Moses's wording and God's answer, Moses had a speech disorder could be an attempt to correct Rashbam's error before it became repeated more widely. If so, he was only partly successful. More interesting is how the God of ibn Ezra's writings responds to Moses's speech disorder. Instead of 'curing' Moses, God instead intends to, in essence, give Moses an accommodation for his speech disorder by tutoring him in easily pronounceable language. The proper way to help people with disabilities, this commentary implies, is not to try to cure them but to help them deal with them. Indeed, ibn Ezra stresses that Moses's speech disorder never went away. Even though Moses refused to become high priest as was intended, he still is capable of leading his people with a speech disorder. Disability, in ibn Ezra's commentary, is not a guarantee of failure or a problem to be fixed, but something that is as much a part of the disabled person as any other part of themselves.

If ibn Ezra was notably perceptive regarding disabilities, the same is not true of the Shemot Rabbah, which--albeit benevolently--places Moses into the supernatural disability narrative. The Shemot Rabbah is a collection of midrash on Exodus from many Jewish scholars c. 1200. In it, one midrash explains that when Moses was a small child in Pharaoh's palace, he would often take Pharaoh's crown, arousing the suspicion of soothsayers, so one advisor proposed a test in which Moses should be brought a bowl of coal and a bowl of gold, to determine whether Moses as a toddler actually understood what he was doing or just liked shiny objects. When they did so, Moses reached first for the gold, but the angel Gabriel "came and pushed his (Moses’) hand, and he grabbed the coal. He then brought his hand along with the coal into his mouth and burned his tongue, and from this was made (Exodus 4:10) 'slow of speech and slow of tongue.'" In this midrash, Moses's disability is the result of nonhuman supernatural influence. This is an example of a supernatural disability narrative, in which either a person becomes disabled because of the supernatural's influence on them, or becoming disabled gives them supernatural (and nonhuman) qualities. In either case, the supernatural narrative portrays disabled people as partly nonhuman, and disability as fundamentally nonhuman. The Shemot Rabbah's authors found it implausible that Moses was simply born with a speech disorder. This may be because if Moses's speech disorder was the result of divine intervention, the authors could reconcile the reverence Judaism holds Moses in with any ableist views against contemporaries with speech disorders. Moses's disability is only acceptable because it has supernatural roots, legitimizing prejudice against 'heavy-mouthed' people.  The Shemot Rabbah may not have been the first text with this explanation for Moses's disability but it seems to have popularized it; before its publication, mentions of this story in other commentaries are rare, but become much more common after 1200. Over time, ableist narratives about disabled people become part of the lens that people view them with.

The final pair of commentaries belong to Moses ben Nachman (Ramban) and Bachya ben Asher (Rabbeinu Behaye) and depict God not curing Moses as punishment. Both were prominent Spanish rabbis who incorporated kabbalism, a form of Jewish mysticism, into their religious teachings. Ramban wrote his commentary c. 1250s; Behaye wrote his c. 1300. Ramban writes in his commentary that his interpretation of God's response to Moses is 

the reason He did not desire to remove his defective speech from him was because a miraculous event [...] happened [...] 'I could heal you. But now since you did not want to be healed, nor have you prayed to me about it, go and I will be with thy mouth. and I will cause you success in My mission.' It is also possible that there is a hint in the verse, And the anger of the Eternal was kindled against Moses, that He did not want to heal him, and that He sent him against his will.

Behaye's commentary is similar, except for explicitly stating that "Moses had been remiss in not praying to be cured. The reason he did not pray to be cured was so as to avoid having no excuse to refuse this mission." Both accounts attribute God not 'curing' Moses's speech disorder to Moses not praying for a cure, continuing the theme found in ibn Ezra's commentary that God will not eliminate disabilities without the disabled person's consent. But in these commentaries, Moses not praying for a 'cure' is a sin and his speech disorder remaining is God's punishment. Behaye dismisses any genuine worries Moses might have about his speech impediment's effect on the effort to free his people as making excuses. In Ramban and Behaye's view, if Moses, as a disabled person, wanted desperately enough to be cured and prayed hard enough, he would be cured. The fact that he is asking to not be tasked with an important holy mission requiring him to talk at length because of his speech disorder, while not seeking to be 'cured', means that his concerns over his disability are not genuine and he just wants to abandon responsibility. This is not quite the supercrip wondrous narrative of modern American times, since Moses could actually ask for 'healing' from God, but it does seem to follow much of the same logic. Disabled people accepting their limitations are merely lazy, and disabled people who see their disability as an aspect of themselves that they do not hate either do not exist or have settled.


Interpretations of the Torah in which Moses does not have a speech disorder either explicitly view leadership as being incompatible with having a speech disorder or completely fail to engage with pre-existing interpretations of Moses as disabled. In commentaries where Moses is disabled, many, but not all, different authors' readings fall into exotic, wondrous, and punitive narratives of disability. Rashbam and Sforno, both intent on breaking with what they saw as folktales, dismissed the idea that someone with a speech disorder could be a prophet as something that could only happen in a story. Due to Rashbam's high standing, the Daat Zkenim reflected this ableist narrative and passed it down. Their commentator forebears--Rashi and Chananel ben Chusiel--acknowledged Moses's disability, but made no other note than to speculate on how exactly that disability might have manifested. Neither went so far as to consider any ramifications it might have in his conversation with God, a task that later Jewish authors such as ibn Ezra, Ramban, Behaye, and the writers of the Shemot Rabbah took up. Even if these authors acknowledged disability, that did not always make them significantly less ableist in their commentary on Exodus than their counterparts who erased disability. The Shemot Rabbah turned Moses's speech disorder into the result of supernatural happenings, setting him apart from all others with speech disabilities and the rest of humanity. Ramban and Behaye argue that Moses should have asked God to cure him, reflecting the old trope that disabled people can overcome their disabilities by simply putting in enough effort, and that disabled people should always seek to cure themselves. However, the mention of Moses's speech disorder has also had interpretations that fall in line with some of the ideas central to disability activism today. Ibn Ezra's commentary stresses that people should provide accommodations to disabled people instead of trying to cure them, especially when the disabled person themself does not want a cure. Over time, Jewish commentators on the Torah have offered different interpretations on what Moses meant when he referred to himself as "heavy-mouthed and heavy-tongued", with some being supportive of disabled people and others not

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