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Jewish & Christian Roots of Moses’ “Horns of Light” – Parashat Ki Tissa

Are the horns rising from Moses’ face a result of early Christian Latin translations? Yes, but not only….Dr. Noa Yuval-Hacham shows that Jewish traditions and texts also describe the physical manifestations of horns on faces.  

In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses descends twice from Mount Sinai: The first time with the first set of tablets, before the Sin of the Golden Calf, and the second time, after forty days on Mount Sinai, with the second set of tablets. On this latter descent, we are told that “the skin of Moses’s face karan”. This special situation leads the Israelites to fear approaching him, and therefore Moses henceforth places a veil over his face when he speaks to the Israelites.

What is the meaning of the expression “the skin of his face karan”?

A popular exegetical direction links this expression to light (from the Hebrew word keren, ray of light).

Thus, for example, Onkelos translates the verse: “And Moses did not know, that precious light had increased on his face.” The radiance is a ray of light, which illuminated Moses’s face.

But what was the source of the light that illuminated Moses’s face?

The Tanhuma (Ki Tisa 37) suggests several possibilities:

“How did Moses merit the rays of glory?… and there are those who say that while God was teaching him Torah, he [Moses] gathered the rays of glory from the sparks that flew out of the mouth of the Shekhina.

And Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman said: The tablets were six handbreadths long and three handbreadths wide, and Moses held two handbreadth and God [held] two handbreadths and there were two free handbreadths in the middle – it was from there that Moses took the rays of glory.

Rav Shmuel said: When Moses was inscribing the Torah, a little [ink] remained in the inkwell, and he passed it over his head, and from it were created the rays of glory.”

The light, therefore, is a divine light that shone from Moses’s face after he spent 40 days on Mount Sinai in God’s presence.

But this is not the only interpretation.

In the early Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, created by אב הכנסיה Jerome at the end of the fourth century C.E., the expression “the skin of Moses’s face karan,” is interpreted as relating to horns (from the Hebrew word keren – horn): “Quod cornuta esset facies sua” (= his face received horns). This interpretation had immense influence over the depictions of Moses in western Christian art.

A famous example of this is the statue fashioned by Michaelangelo, the famous Renaissance artist, who carved out Moses’s figure as part of the tombstone he created for Pope Julius II in 1515. In this statue, two animal horns grow out of Moses’s forehead. What does this mean?

It appears that this is linked to ancient traditions in which kings donned animal horns as an expression of military strength. They thus transformed themselves into hybrid figures, which combine human and super-human elements, similarly to the sphinx, which possessed the body of a lion and the face of a man.

It appears that this tradition existed already in ancient Judaism. In I Kings (22:11) we hear of King Zedekiah:

“Zedekiah son of Chenaanah had provided himself with iron horns, and he said: Thus said the Lord: With these you shall gore the Arameans till you make an end of them.”

I will end with a Palestinian liturgical poem – piyyut from the fourth-fifth centuries, in which God invites Moses to ascend to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and among other things promises him that he has nothing to fear from the angels because:

“… I will clothe you in my purple clothing, which possesses fortitude, so that they will not approach you, and I have established rays of glory on your head, so that if an angel approaches – you will bore him with them.”

The phrase “the skin of his face karan,” therefore, which describes Moses when he descends from Mount Sinai, can be understood as a description of a divine light, which the Israelites cannot withstand, leading Moses to place a veil on his face; but there is also another interpretation, which speaks of animal horns, and presents Moses as a figure of a military leader. Due to its widespread acceptance in the Christian traditions, and its many depictions in ancient Christian art, there is a tendency to think of this interpretation as a specifically Christian one, but we have demonstrated that it had roots in Jewish tradition as well.

May we merit peaceful and calm days, and good tidings for the people of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom from Schechter

(image: loggawiggler @ pixabay)

Noa Yuval-Hacham is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer and academic advisor in the Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts tracks.  She earned her PhD in 2011 from Hebrew University. Dr. Yuval-Hacham’s research deals with ancient art in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, with a special emphasis on Jewish art and its relationship with neighboring cultures in late antiquity. She lives in Efrat with her husband and five children.

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