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Did Moses have horns?

by Rabbi Shais Taub

  

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Not only did Moses not have horns but actually no Jews have horns contrary to what the old anti-Semitic myth purports.  The whole thing is obviously ridiculous. 

But since this bizarre idea has enjoyed quite a bit of dissemination in the past, it is worthwhile to ask: just how did this whole misconception get started?

Let’s go back to the Bible.  Moses was on the mountain top to receive the tablets twice.  (Remember, he broke the first set and had to return to receive a second copy.) 

When Moses descended from Sinai the second time, the Torah tells us1   “the skin of his face was radiant.”  In fact, to protect the people from being overwhelmed by his glowing aura, Moses put on a veil at all times, except when teaching Torah.2

It is unknown whether or not Michelangelo understood the Biblical verse properly and was just trying to represent beams of light in stone or if he actually thought that Moses had horns
Anyway, the Hebrew word meaning to be radiant or cast a glow which is used in the above-quoted Biblical passage is “karan.”  When Jerome’s Vulgate, the Catholic Church’s Latin translation intended to be the definitive interpretation of the Bible, was composed in the 5th century CE, Jerome took the verb “karan” to be a literal form of the noun “keren” which means a horn. 

So rather than meaning, “to emit rays,” he understood it to mean “to grow horns.”  (You can see the connection between the two ideas and why the etymology would be similar, but context makes it pretty obvious that we’re not talking about antlers here.) 

When Michelangelo sculpted what he imagined to be the likeness of Moses, he included odd protrusions jutting out from the sculpture’s forehead.  It is unknown whether or not Michelangelo understood the Biblical verse properly and was just trying to represent beams of light in stone or if he, like Jerome, actually thought that Moses had horns. 

What matters is the popular perception and that to most people, these strange bumps sure looked like they were supposed to be horns.  From there, this likeness became widely accepted and was copied by other artists spreading the misunderstanding far and wide.

Footnotes

  • 1. Exodus 34:29.
  • 2. Interestingly, it was not after the first time on Mt. Sinai when he first received the Torah that Moses’ face began to shine. It was after the second time, when he went to beseech mercy for the people on account of the sin of the Golden Calf. Thus, it was his selfless dedication to his flock, not enlightenment through Torah, that put the glow on his face.

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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.