Moshe, Miriam, Aharon ​​​​​​​ and the "Cushite Woman"

Questions on Bamidbar-Numbers Chapter 12

1) What is the meaning of the word "Cushite"?

2) Who is this Cushite woman?

3) Why does the Torah repeat 'for he had married a Cushite woman.'?

4) What is the content of Miriam and Aaron's criticism of Moses?

5) What is the connection between Miriam and Aaron's words in the second verse: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses..." and the complaint regarding the Cushite woman in the first verse?

6)Who is saying and Moshe was most humbe and what is the point?

7)How does G-d Respond to their criticism?

etc. etc.

Sifrei (Numbers 99)
But was she a Kushite? No, she was a Midianite, as is stated, “the priest of Midian had seven daughters” (Exod. 2:16). Then what does the text mean by “Kushite”? Just as a Kushite stands out because of his [dark] skin, Zipporah stood out among other women because of her beauty.

Targum Unkeles
Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses because of the beautiful woman he had married, for he had separated from the beautiful woman he married.

She was called Kushite because of her loveliness, in the same way as a man calls his good-looking son “darky” so that the evil eye not have power over him.

When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses on Sinai before giving the Torah that the people should sanctify themselves, and he said to them for three days do not approach a woman (Exod 19:15), they separated from their wives and Moses separated from his wife. After the giving of the Torah, the Holy One said to him, “Go tell them that they may return to their tents” (Deut 5:27), but you stand here with me and do not return to standard marital relations.Thus, Tzipporah said [after Eldad and Meded prophesied in the camp] “Woe unto those men’s wives since they are needed as prophets and they will separate from their wives just as my husband has separated from me.

Just then one of the Israelites came and brought a Midianite woman over to his companions, in the sight of Moses and of the whole Israelite community who were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting

talmud b. Sanhedrin 82a):
He (=Zimri) said to him (=Moses): “Son of Amram! This one (=Kozbi) is forbidden but this one (=Zipporah) is permitted?!” If you say mine is forbidden, who permitted Jethro’s daughter to you?”

Rashi on talmud: Moses’ marriage predated the giving of the Torah and when the Torah was given, they were all (including the Israelites) simply Noachides, and she entered the covenant of mitzvotwith them just as the many other converts among the mixed multitude did.

Babylonian Talmud (b. Yebamot 62a)

Moses did three things on his own initiative and his opinion coincided with that of the Omnipresent. He separated himself from his wife… He said, ‘If to the Israelites, with whom the Shechinah spoke only for a while and for whom a definite time was fixed, the Torah nevertheless said, Come not near a woman, how much more so to me, who am liable to be spoken to at any moment and for whom no definite time has been fixed’. And his view coincided with that of the Omnipresent; for it is said, Go say to them: Return ye to your tents; but as for thee, stand thou here by Me.

Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

Miriam and Aaron said improper things about Moses with regard to the Kushite woman that the Kushites married to Moses when he escaped from Pharaoh, and he divorced her, for they married him to a Kushite princess, and he separated from her.

Kush is the Hebrew name for Ethiopia (modern day Sudan and Ethiopia).
The Greek LXX

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on account of the Ethiopian woman whom Moses had taken, because he had taken an Ethiopian woman.


כי אשה כושית לקח, as reported in the biography of Moses (compare Yalkut Shimoni, edition by Heiman-Shiloni on Exodus page 34, glossary 18) According to that version, Moses ruled for 40 years as king over the land of Cush, took himself a woman as his queen but never slept with her, as reported there. Miriam and Aaron were never aware of the fact that Moses had not consummated that union. This is the plain meaning of our verse.

If, as some believe, Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses and Tzipporah, what need was there for the Torah to describe Moses’ wife as אשה כושית when everyone is well aware that Moses married Tzipporah the daughter of Yitro who was a Midianite, not a Cushite.

Tzipporah could not have been described as Cushite seeing that the Cushites are descended from Cham, and the Midianites are descendents of the sons of Keturah, Avraham’s concubine, who bore 6 sons for him one of them being Midian. [Rash’bam’s argument is tenuous, for if Keturah was the same person as Hagar, according to most commentators, seeing that Hagar was an Egyptian, a woman descended from her could be described as Cushite, seeing that Mitzrayim, Egypt, was a descendant of Cham, also. Ed.]


ותדבר AND [MIRIAM AND AARON] SPAKE — The term דבר in every passage where it is used implies harsh language, for so it stales, (Genesis 42:30) “The man, the lord of the land spake (דבר) roughly to us”. The term אמר, however, is always an expression denoting supplication, for so it states, (Genesis 19:7) “And he said (ויאמר) ‘I beg of you (נא), my brethren, do not so wickedly” ; (verse 6 of this chapter) “And He said (ויאמר), Hear, I pray you (נא), My words’ — for the word נא always expresses supplication (Sifrei Bamidbar 99).

ותדבר מרים ואהרן AND MIRIAM AND AARON SPAKE — She opened the conversation, therefore Scripture mentions her first. And whence did Miriam know that Moses had separated himself from his wife (for this was the statement she made; cf. Rashi below)? R. Nathan answered: “Miriam was beside Zipporah When it was told to Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’ (Numbers 11:17). When Zipporah heard this, she exclaimed, Woe to the wives of these if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just has my husband has separated from me!” It was from this that Miriam knew about it, and she told it to Aaron. Now what was the case with Miriam who had no intention to disparage him? She was punished thus severely! How much the more will this be so in the case of one who intentionally speaks in disparagement of this fellow”! (Sifrei Bamidbar 99).

האשה הכשית THE CUSHITE WOMAN — This tells us that all agreed as to her beauty just as all agree as to the blackness of an Aethopian (cf. Sifrei Bamidbar 99).

כושית — The numerical value of this word (736) is the same as that of יפת מראה, a woman of beautiful appearance.

על אדות האשה BECAUSE OF THE [CUSHITE] WOMAN — because of her having been divorced by Moses (cf. Note on previous passage).

כי אשה כשית לקח FOR HE HAD MARRIED A CUSHITE WOMAN — What is the force of this statement? (It appears superfluous; since על אדות וכו has been explained to refer to Moses having divorced his Cushite wife, it is unnecessary to state afterwards that he had married her)! But it is made to suggest the following: You may find a woman who is pleasant an account of her beauty but who is not pleasant by reason of her deeds (conduct); or one pleasant because of her conduct but not because of her beauty. This woman, however, was pleasant in every respect (Sifrei Bamidbar 99).

האשה הכשית THE CUSHITE WOMAN — Because of her beauty-she was called, “the Aethiopian” just as a man calls his handsome son “Moor”, in order that the evil eye should have no power over him (Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13).

כי אשה כשית לקח THAT HE HAD MARRIED A CUSHITE (a beautiful) WOMAN, and had now divorced her.

הרק אך FOR HAS INDEED THE LORD SPOKEN with him alone.

הלא גם בנו HAS HE NOT ALSO [SPOKEN] WITH US, and we have not separated from our spouses! (Sifrei Bamidbar 100).

פתאם SUDDENLY — He revealed himself to them suddenly just when they were unclean as a result of marital intercourse, so that they cried; “Water, water!” (for purification). He did this to give them to understand that Moses had acted rightly in that he had separated from his wife, since the Shechinah used to reveal Itself to him at all times and there was no definite time fixed for the Divine communication (Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13).

צאו שלשתכם GO OUT YOU THREE [UNTO THE APPOINTED TENT] — This tells us that the names of all three of them were mentioned as one utterance, something that is impossible for a human mouth to articulate and a human ear to catch (Sifrei Bamidbar 102).

בעמוד ענן [AND THE LORD CAME DOWN] IN THE COLUMN OF THE CLOUD — He came alone to punish them, not as is the manner of human beings: when a human king goes to war, he goes with numerous troops, but when he goes forth peaceably, he goes forth with only a few. But the manner of the Holy One, blessed be He, is that He goes to war alone — as it is said, (Exodus 15:3) “The Lord alone is the man of war, but He goes forth for peace accompanied by His hosts, as it is said, (Psalms 68:18) “The chariots of God are twenty thousands, even thousands of angels of peace (שנאן)” (Sifrei Bamidbar 102).

ויקרא אהרן ומרים AND HE CALLED: “AARON AND MIRIAM!” — that they should proceed further, and go forth from the court towards God (more lit., the Divine Speech) (Sifrei Bamidbar 102).

ויצאו שניהם AND THEY BOTH WENT FORTH — And why did He bid them go further and so separate them from Moses? Because there is a rule that one should utter only a part of a man’s good qualities in his presence, but that the whole of them should be told only in his absence. Similarly we find in the case of Noah, that in his absence (i.e. when Scripture speaks about him) it says of him: “a righteous and whole-hearted man” (Genesis 6:9), whilst in his presence (i.e. where God is speaking to Noah) it states, (Genesis 7:1) “for thee I have seen righteous before me”, (and it does not add: whole-hearted) (Sifrei Bamidbar 102). — Another explanation is: God bid only Aaron and Miriam to draw near in order that he (Moses) should not hear the reprimand administered to Aaron.

פה אל פה MOUTH TO MOUTH [I HAVE SPOKEN WITH HIM] — I have Myself told him to separate from his wife. And where did I tell him this? On Sinai, when I said to him, (Deuteronomy 5:27 Deuteronomy 5:28) “Go, say to them (to the people), ‘Get you into your tents (rejoin your wives). But as for thee, remain thou here by Me, [and I will speak unto thee]’” (Shabbat 87a; cf. Sifrei Bamidbar 103).

Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) offers the following elaboration:

"When we look through the whole of the Torah for some relation between marital conditions and prophecy the only case we find is in Exodus 19:15 where the people who are to be deemed worthy of receiving the Word of God directly from Him, as a preparation for that were to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives. As a matter of fact tradition also explains that the condemnatory remarks of Miriam and Aaron were solely referring to Moses abstaining from sexual intercourse with his wife, a fact which only became known to them on the occasion of the prophecy of the appointed elders. The complaint was entirely in the interest of the wife, for they found it wrong and thought it was nothing about which Moses had been commanded, as they themselves and the Patriarchs before them had been considered worthy to receive the Word of God without thereby having to suffer interruption in their conjugal lives. They overlooked the difference between the stage Moses had reached and their own, and did not know that, when at the conclusion of the Revelation on Sinai the people were told 'Return to your tents' (Deut. 5:27) to return to family life and conjugal intimacy, Moses was commanded to remain separated and given the duty with the words 'But you remain here with Me.'"


II The Humility of Moses

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers the following explanations:

"'Now Moses was a very humble man.' This [is stated] to tell us that God Himself was zealous for Moses' sake on account of his [great] humility, since he would never pay attention to injustice [meted out to him] even if he were to consider it such [and therefore God vindicated his innocence]. And Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explained [the meaning of this phrase] by saying that Moses never sought superiority over any person, nor did he ever pride himself at all about his high position, and certainly not in relation to his brother, thus they [Miriam and Aaron] sinned by speaking against him for no reason.

III. God's Intervention

Rabbi Bekhor Schor
"Come out you three, to the Tent of Meeting" (12:4) - "Like a man who says, "the three of you, come to court and we will determine who is in the right, you or Moses, for that [the Tent of Meeting] is where the people went to be judged as is written "Whoever sought the Lord would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp." (Exodus 33:7).

Ramban offers a second explanation:

"... The reason [why He said at first] 'Come out you three' and [then in the following verse it says] 'and He called Aaron and Miriam [excluding Moses] is that God wanted him to be present [in the Tent of Meeting] and to see how He is zealous for Moses' honor; and so that he would be available [to forgive them], for God would not forgive them unless he did, after they would beg him and he agrees to [forgive] them."

Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508)

"Now God only spoke to Aaron and Miriam and not to Moses so that Aaron and Miriam would see with their very own eyes the difference between the stature of Moses and their own. Therefore, He commanded that the three leave their tents and go to the Tent of Meeting and they went there... and then God commanded Aaron and Miriam to go to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting since God did not want that the three stand in the same place in the holy tent since they were not equals. Therefore God told Aaron and Miriam to leave since they are not worthy of standing in the same place that Moses stands."

IV. Miriam's Punishment

Rashi comments on this verse:

"She [Miriam] began speaking first, therefore scripture places her first."

We would expect Aaron to appear before Miriam. The Torah purposefully changes the order to inform us that Miriam was the instigator and the major driving force behind the critique of Moses. The Ibn Ezra further infers from the singular feminine form of the word 'va-tedaber'- she spoke, instead of the plural 'va-yedabru'- they spoke, that only Miriam spoke against Moses but Aaron listened silently and did not protest. Although even this silent acceptance of Miriam's words did arouse God's anger against Aaron, it was Miriam who received a harsh punishment for she played a more central role in critiquing her brother Moses.

V. Remembering what God Did to Miriam

Miriam's sin is mentioned once more in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy: "Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam"(Deuteronomy 24:9).

The Ramban offers the following elucidation of this verse:

"'If you wish to guard yourself against being stricken with leprosy, do not speak slander.' This is Rashi's language. And in my opinion this actually is a positive commandment, like 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.' (Exodus 20:8); 'Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt' (Ibid. 13:3); 'Remember what Amalek did to you' (Ibid. 25:17) - which are all commandments. If so, this verse, too, is like those, it being an admonition against speaking slander. He commanded by way of a positive precept that we remember the great punishment which God inflicted upon the righteous prophetess who spoke only about her brother upon whom she had bestowed her mercy and whom she loved as herself. And she spoke nothing wrong to his face, but only, in privacy, between herself and her holy brother [Aaron]. Yet all her good deeds were of no avail to her!" (Deuteronomy 24:9).