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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Bible Translation

I just returned from a business trip where I stayed up late one night reading the Bible that was in the nightstand. Or I should say, that I tried reading it. The translation was indecipherable, with all the “shall’s” and “thou’s.” Now that my interest has been piqued, I’m wondering if you could suggest a better translation than the one I saw.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Hebrew is a very special language. It is the language God spoke when He created the world. It is the national language of the Jewish people – which best captures the meanings of Jewish life, concepts, and prayers. And of course, Hebrew is the original language of the Bible/Torah.

When the Bible is translated into other languages, it loses much of its essence. For instance, many are familiar with the King James translation. Although a scholarly work, this translation is not rooted in Jewish sources, and often goes against Jewish teachings. Furthermore, the language is archaic and difficult for the modern reader. Our Sages teach that "every day the Torah should be as new" (Rashi to Deut 27:15). This means that archaic or obsolete language may not be used when translating the Bible, because this would give the impression that the Torah is old, not new.

Although many modern translations are more readable, they are often even more divorced from traditional Judaic sources. They may ignore the Talmud and Midrash, which contain the tradition for how to translate the idiomatic language of the Torah. (As an example, the expression in Exodus 13:9 "between the eyes," actually denotes the center of the head just above the hairline.

I recommend the following modern translations that are "Jewishly accurate:" the "Stone Chumash" and the "Stone Tanach." These are translated by top-rate Jewish scholars, who understand the subtleties of the Hebrew language and have a great knowledge of Talmudic sources, and the accompanying commentary fills in the background information.

These are available at any Jewish bookstore, or at www.artscroll.com

Best of luck in your studies!

Moses’s Cushite Wife

Who was the Ethiopian (Cushite) wife that Moses took (Numbers 12:1)? Is she the same wife as Jethro’s daughter Zipporah whom Moses earlier married (Exodus 2:21), and later came back to him in the desert (Exodus 18)? Also, why were Miriam and Aaron upset at Moses for taking a Cushite wife? Did they not like her simply because she was black?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The story of Moses’s Cushite wife is actually quite cryptic. As you observed, we hear earlier of Moses marrying the daughter of Jethro the Midianite. Yet in the Book of Numbers Moses’s sister Miriam is upset about his having taken a “Cushite” wife. Cush is generally translated as Ethiopia (probably the entire region south of Egypt – see Shemot Rabbah 10:2), a place inhabited by blacks. (See e.g. Jeremiah 13:23: “Can a Cushite change his skin, or a leopard its spots?”) Is this a different wife? And where did she come from?

An important introductory point is that the Midrash states that when Moses fled Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15), before arriving in Midian, Moses escaped south to the land of Cush. (Note that Moses was presumably a young man when he fled Egypt, in Midian he married and had two small children, and he was 80 on his return to Egypt at the start of the story of the Exodus. Thus, apparently, many of his early adult years are unrecorded in the Torah.) Moses first served the king of Cush and then upon his death became king himself, ruling for 40 years. He was given the former king’s widow as a wife but he refused to live with her or worship the Cushite god (Yalkut Shimoni Shemot 168).

With that introduction, I will present some of the explanations given of Moses’s Cushite wife. Most commentators do not follow the Midrash above and assume the woman Miriam was referring to was his Midianite wife, Zipporah. Some explain she was referred to as a Cushite because the nomadic, desert-dwelling Midianites somewhat resembled the Cushites, or that Zipporah herself was unusually dark-skinned or homely (Radak, R. Bechaye, Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni). Others explain it was a type of contrary nickname (Targum, Sifri quoted in Rashi). She was actually strikingly beautiful, and it was customary to give a superior person a less-becoming nickname, so as not to arouse jealousy. The Talmud explains differently, that “Just as a Cushite is distinct in her skin [color], so too was Zipporah distinct in her [good] deeds” (Mo’ed Katan 16b, see also Targum Yerushalmi).

Others explain, based on the Midrash, that the wife under discussion was not Zipporah but the Cushite princess, whom Moses had never lived with (Targum Yonatan, Ibn Ezra alternate explanation, Rashbam, Chizkuni alternate explanation). No doubt unlike his righteous wife Zipporah, the Cushite never embraced the faith and became worthy of joining the nation.

Either way, according to almost all interpretations, the issue was not that Moses took such a wife, but that he had separated from her. (The Midrash gives different explanations how Miriam happened to find out they weren’t living together.) Many of the commentators who understood that his wife was dark or homely explain that Miriam suspected he separated from her because he found her unattractive. In any event, the Torah records Miriam complaining about something else – claiming that they too are prophets. The implication was that she suspected Moses separated from his wife because he believed a prophet is too holy for married life – as the Midrash puts it, “The elders, fortunate are they but woe to their wives!” She objected to this, but God explained that Moses was an exceptional prophet who had to maintain especially high standards.

Fingernails

I know that Judaism has something to say about every aspect of existence and our lives. But I never imagined there was something to know about fingernails, until my friend said there is a specific order to cut them. What’s the story?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

There are many mystical practices associated with clipping nails. One of these involves the order in which the fingernails are cut: If you hold out your hands in front of you, looking at your fingernails, the fingers can be numbered on the left hand: 3-1-4-2-5, then moving to the right hand 8-6-9-7-10.

Some refrain from trimming nails on Rosh Chodesh. Further, according to kabbalah, one should not cut the fingernails on the same day as one's toenails. You should also wash your hands after cutting your nails.

It is a mitzvah to cut one's fingernails on Friday in honor of Shabbat, and before Yom Tov. However, one may not cut nails on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since that is one of the acts of forbidden labor. The habit of nail-biting is discouraged, especially since it may lead to biting fingernails on Shabbat, which is prohibited.

Another mystical source says that it can be harmful for a pregnant woman to walk on a cut fingernail. One should therefore be careful to discard fingernail clippings. If a nail does fall and you cannot find it, just sweep or vacuum the area.

To explain this, here’s an interesting bit from ohr.edu:

According to kabbalah, Adam was created with a hard shiny membrane covering his whole body. When he ate from the forbidden tree Adam lost this covering, but it remained on the tips of his fingers and toes.

This concept is a metaphor for a very deep idea: Every person is intrinsically immortal due to his spiritual soul. However, by attaching himself to the physical world through improper actions (Adam's sin) a person becomes vulnerable to death and material destruction (loss of protective covering).

The concept of a fingernail harming a pregnant woman is based on the following idea: The nail, which is dead matter, represents death and the mortality of the human being. The pregnant woman represents creation, life and immortality. In mystical thinking, objects contain “sparks” of the ideas which they symbolize. Opposite “sparks” brought together can cause harm on the spiritual and physical level. Hence, the fingernail – representing death – is kept away from the pregnant woman, life.