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Six Approaches to Moshe’s “Heavy Mouth” (Shemot)

Note: A portion of this essay, originally posted in 2015, has been reprinted in Moe Mernick’s The Gift of Stuttering, published by Feldheim Publishers and available here: http://www.feldheim.com/the-gift-of-stuttering.html.


The English language offers us many idioms to describe those who experience difficulty speaking. If one enunciates poorly, we might say he has “marbles in his mouth.” If his voice is raspy, we’d say he has a “frog in his throat.” And if he’s unusually reticent, we’d say that he’s “tongue tied,” or that the “cat’s got his tongue.”

But what does it mean if we say that someone is “of heavy mouth and tongue?” That is how Moshe refers to himself in our Torah portion (Exod. 4:10). Though many of us are familiar with this expression, we don’t often pause to consider its precise meaning. Let’s do that this week. Together, we will look at six approaches to understanding the phrase “כבד פה וכבד לשון:” four proposed by traditional commentators, and two based on cultural context which we’ll piece together ourselves.

Traditional Perspectives: Rashi, Rashbam, Ramban, Maharal

Among traditional commentators, several interpretations of our verse have been advanced. The simplest of these is that Moshe possessed some form of speech impairment. Chazal, in a well-known Midrash, record that Moshe charred his tongue as a young child by placing hot coals in his mouth. For his part, Rashi simply notes that Moshe spoke with a “stutter.” Ibn Ezra, expanding upon this idea, states that Moshe “found it very challenging to vocalize certain letters.” And R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg takes it a step further: in his HaKtav V’Hakaballah, he actually lists one set of phonemes which Moshe struggled to pronounce due to his “heavy tongue,” and a second set which Moshe struggled to pronounce due to his “heavy mouth.”

Yet Rashbam completely rejects the explanation of his grandfather, Rashi. “Is it possible that a prophet who interacted with God ‘face-to-face’ and received the Torah from Him had a stammer when he spoke?” Rashbam wonders. “This notion has no source in the Tannaim or Amoraim.” Rashbam therefore argues that Moshe’s problem was linguistic—not phonetic. “Moshe was not an expert in Egyptian,” Rashbam reminds us. “He had fled from Egypt in his youth.” Hizkuni concurs: “Moshe,” he assumes, “had forgotten the Egyptian language.”

Statue of the Maharal outside Prague's city hall.

Statue of the Maharal outside Prague’s city hall.

Others agree with Rashi in principle, but place their emphasis elsewhere. Ramban, for instance, maintains, as Rashi does, that Moshe suffered from a bona fide speech impediment. Yet for Ramban, it does not appear to be the disability itself which troubled Moshe; rather, it was the fact that “God did not remove it.” According to Alshikh, the main reason Moshe mentioned his disability was to complain that “You [i.e. Hashem] did not heal me, to help prepare me for this mission.” Malbim, for his part, imagines Moshe protesting: “It would have been proper for You to repair my mouth and my tongue at least day or two prior to dispatching me!” At issue here, as far as these commentators is concerned, is more than merely the logistics of loquacity. What Moshe ultimately wants to know is whether he can count on divine support when leading the Israelites, or whether Hashem is going to abandon him as soon as he accepts the assignment.

Finally, there is the Kabbalistic approach of the Maharal. “Moshe was far removed from the material world,” Maharal informs us in his Gevurot Hashem. “Therefore, he did not possess the power of speech—for it is a distinctly physical characteristic.” The mystical mechanics of Maharal’s theory are far too involved for us to delve into here. But R. Akiva Tatz, in The Thinking Jewish Teenager’s Guide to Life, provides a useful summary. “Moshe,” he writes, “was living in a world of truth [and as such, he] knew the essence of things as they really are, far beyond the level of the words which attempt to describe them. Things grasped thus prophetically, essentially, could never be shrunk into words.” Erica Brown, not referring directly to the Maharal, puts it even more simply in her Leadership in the Wilderness: “Moshe… was unable to make small talk. He was preoccupied with heavy, weighty matters.”

In sum, then, the classical mefarshim offer at least four different interpretations of the phrases “heavy mouth” and “heavy tongue.” Yet all of them, in one way or another, present Moshe as a man of substandard oratory skills. That should surprise us. After all, we generally think of history’s great leaders as men of supreme charisma—men like Mark Antony, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King Jr., who knew how to inspire the masses with their words. But by his own admission, Moshe was no public speaker. Why would Hashem choose such a man to lead the Israelites out of Egypt? This decision is most counterintuitive.

As we’ll see, in fact, it is positively countercultural.

Ancient Near Eastern Perspectives—Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant

To fully appreciate the significance of Moshe’s verbal handicap, let us now consider the role of speech in the society to which he was being sent. There is one ancient Egyptian text, composed around 1850 B.C.E, which is particularly instructive for our purposes. It is known as the Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, and it is one of the longest Egyptian literary tales to survive complete.

Cover art from Loren R. Fisher's translation of The Eloquent Peasant.

Cover art from Loren R. Fisher’s translation of The Eloquent Peasant.

Whether the Eloquent Peasant is a comedy or a tragedy depends on your perspective. It is the story of a poor merchant, Khun-anup, who is maneuvered into leading his donkeys through another man’s property, and then accused of theft when his donkeys eat that man’s grain. Khun-anup knows that he has been framed and pleas for justice to the Pharaoh’s high steward, Rensi. Upon hearing the case, Rensi immediately realizes that Khun-anup is innocent. Instead of delivering his verdict, however, the nobleman chooses to keep Khun-anup in suspense: Rensi is so enamored with the peasant’s eloquence that he detains him, and forces him to petition his case for nine more days. During those nine days, Rensi remains silent, hoping that, under the stress of the situation—and under the pain of beatings—Kun-anup will grow even more articulate. Only after he has had his fun does Rensi formally acquit the peasant.

What is particularly perverse about The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant is the way in which Khun-anup’s oral talents—talents which should help him hasten justice—actually end up delaying it. Rensi and the Pharaoh are too busy basking in the rhetorical elegance of Khun-anup’s address to notice the suffering which motivates it; so transfixed are they by its form, they completely fail to hear its content. To them, this is all a sport—an entertaining pastime.

If this was the attitude towards speech in ancient Egypt, then small wonder Hashem chose as His messenger a man of “heavy mouth and tongue.” Let the monarch who swoons over stylistic sophistication meet a Hebrew whose hallmark is his humility. Let that monarch listen to a delegate of the slave class whose message relies not on flair and flourish, but on the quiet confidence that comes with knowing that you’re in the right. Let nobody claim that it was their leader’s powers of persuasion, or of pretention, which ultimately won the Israelites over to Moshe’s cause.

The Torah’s lesson to us here is that truth need not get dressed up before it speaks to power. Truth does not require the aid of rich hyperbole or sensational imagery in order to make its case. Truth may be aesthetically pleasing, but it need not necessarily be. After all, it is not the beauty of truth which ultimately compels us; what compels us is its moral or metaphysical validity. For this reason precisely, even an “ineloquent peasant” can communicate truth effectively.

Ancient Near Eastern Perspectives—Mesopotamia: Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta

There is yet a second Ancient Near Eastern text that we must look at if we want to understand the meaning of Moshe’s “heavy mouth.” It is the story of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. This Mesopotamian legend, composed around 2000 B.C.E., is a typical etiological myth: it purports to explain how the cuneiform system of writing developed in the Sumerian city of Uruk.

Cuneiform tablet, c. 2400 BCE.

Cuneiform tablet, c. 2400 BCE.

In the legend, Enmerkar, the king of Uruk, seeks to impose a forced tribute upon the wealthy citizens of Aratta. Naturally, the Arratans refuse. But Enmerkar won’t leave them alone, so the Lord of the Arratans suggests that Enmerkar duel one warrior from each city which he wishes to enslave. Enmerkar accepts the challenge, on one condition: if the warriors lose, then the Aratans will pay even more tribute than had originally been proposed; otherwise, Enmerkar will destroy them entirely. The terms of this deal are straightforward enough. At this point, however, the herald who has been delivering messages between Enmerkar and the Lord of the Arratans loses track of the details. That sets the stage for the following climax:

Enmerkar’s speech was very grand, its meaning very deep,

The messenger’s mouth was too heavy, he could not repeat it.

Because the messenger’s mouth was too heavy, and he could not repeat it,

The lord of Kulab patted some clay and put the words on a tablet.

Before that day, there had been no putting words on clay;

But now, when the sun rose on that day—so it was:

The lord of Kulab had put words as on a tablet—so it was!

In this passage, “heavy mouth” means, approximately, “overburdened memory.” The image is of a herald who’s incapable of coping with all of the information he’s responsible for remembering; it is as if he can find no more room in his mouth to store the data he’s being asked to transmit. So his master innovates a new technology—writing—as a result. It is a technology that comes into existence for the most nefarious of purposes: to aid a tyrant in his efforts to subjugate innocents.

It is fascinating to study this week’s Torah portion in light of the legend of Enmerkar. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the man to whom our Tanakh attributes a “heavy mouth,” like Enmerkar, also ends up recording the terms of a royal covenant upon a set of “tablets.” But how different these two covenants are! The covenant of Sumer is an oppressive covenant, initiated by a narcissistic king of flesh-and-blood, who is bent on theft and violence. The covenant at Sinai, by contrast, is a divine covenant, initiated by the King-of-Kings, whose message is one of piety and lawfulness.

There is a subtle polemic here, it seems. To be sure, our Torah never once challenges the Sumerian claim to the invention of writing. But what our Torah does challenge, in its own way, is the immoral ends which the institution served in Sumerian mythology. Writing should be a means of empowering the masses, not of disempowering them; it should be a tool of peace, not an instrument of war. That is why our Torah, through carefully planted literary clues, makes a point of undermining the legend of Enmerkar. Note, in that vein, that the root כ.ת.ב, in the Torah, appears most frequently (and in fact, almost exclusively) with reference to the tablets Moshe received on Sinai—the tablets whose instructions for us are: “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not kidnap. Do not lie. Do not covet what isn’t yours.” That is what writing ought to communicate, our Torah emphasizes; that is the sort of message worthy of being recorded. It is the ethics of Sinai—not those of Sumer—which deserve to be set in stone.

Other Approaches?

“Ben Bag Bag.” Musical rendition by Yaakov Shwekey.

It was around this time last year that we examined the motif of Pharaoh’s “heavy heart” together, in much the same way as we have looked at the meaning of Moshe’s “heavy mouth” here this week. The purpose of such studies, we pointed out at the time, is not necessarily to emerge from our Torah portion with a single “moral” or “takeaway”—though hopefully we have collected a few of those along the way. It is, rather, an attempt to experience the depth of Torah “לשמה”—for its own sake. What we said last year, then, applies this year as well (with a few modifications):

Our sages teach us that “there are seventy faces to the Torah”—that is, there are seventy ways to interpret the teachings of our tradition. The search for multiple layers of meaning within our texts is, in no small part, what makes its study so enjoyable and personally rewarding for those who engage in it. Together we have looked at six different approaches to understanding what the Bible means when it speaks of Moshe’s “heavy mouth.” There are certainly many more approaches one could take, and I would love to hear other insights if you feel you have something to share!

In the meantime, we close now, as we did last year, with the timeless of words of the Tanna, Ben Bag Bag:

“Ben Bag Bag says: ‘Turn the Torah over, then turn it over again — for everything is to be found within it.” (Avot 5:25)

Shabbat shalom!


7 Comments

  1. Paul Albert says:

    I see Moses as an INTJ. Introvert, Lives in the world of ideas (Justice), Thinker, thus slow of speech as he has to think things through before he responds and Judgmental. He is a high level doer.

  2. Benji Richter says:

    Really enjoyable, thank you!

    >

  3. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    Seen from the “Parsha Potpourri Parshas Shemos – Vol. 7, Issue 13 Compiled by Ozer Alport”:

    Moshe argued that he was unfit to serve as the redeemer of the Jewish people because he was “heavy of mouth” and “heavy of speech.”
    What is the difference between these two seemingly identical phrases?
    Rabbeinu Chananel writes that “heavy of mouth” means that Moshe was unable to pronounce letters which are said with one’s teeth (namely: ז, ס, צ, ר,ש), and “heavy of speech” means that he was also unable to properly say letters that are pronounced with one’s tongue (specifically: ד, ט, ל, נ, ת).

    Based on this explanation, the Kesef Nivchar suggests an original understanding of Moshe’s request ואמרו לי מה שמו מה אומר אליהם (3:13)
    – when the Jews ask me, “What is the name of the G-d Who sent me to redeem them,” what shall I answer them? Moshe was expressing his frustration over the fact that every one of Hashem’s names with which he was familiar contained at least one of the aforementioned letters that he was unable to pronounce. In other words, he was asking Hashem for an alternate name which he would be able to say clearly. Hashem therefore taught him the name (3:14) “אהי-ה,” which contains only letters that even the hard-of-speech Moshe could pronounce.

    • alexmaged says:

      Such a fascinating approach! I’m amazed by the sensitivity required to notice that. It’s a real lesson in empathy…
      Thank you for sharing Mr. Naiman 🙂
      Shabbat shalom!
      Alex

  4. Shalom Carmy says:

    Excellent SC ________________________________________

    • Ephrayim Naiman says:

      Reviewing this again …
      The empathy extends to all of us …
      It shows us that with any handicap we have – be they mental, physical, spiritual, etc – Hashem is willing to reveal another facet Himself to allow us to fulfill our Tafkid in life. Remember, according to the Midrash, Moshe argued for 7 days to convince Hashem that wasn’t up to the task!

  5. Elizabeth Kattler says:

    Dear Alex,

    This is fantastic. It will take me some time to unpack it, but it is so rich with new ideas to me. I love it!! Thank you so much for this work you do.

    Warmly, Elizabeth

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