The Cushite Wife

Double Mitzvah Jewrotica Parsha

Written by Sender Rozesz. Sender Rozesz is a practicing attorney with a background in Jewish pluralistic education for adults. Sender Rozesz is Jewrotica’s resident Double Mitzvah columnist. The views reflected in his writing represent his own personal views, and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations, institutes or associations with whom he may be affiliated.

Rated PG

At the end of this week’s Parshah of Beha’alotecha, there is an interesting and enigmatic passage involving a conversation that drives a wedge between the three power siblings — Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Specifically, Miriam discusses Moses’s married life with Aaron, framing it in an unflattering light. As a consequence, G-d strikes her with a week of leprosy, and the entire Jewish nation puts its journeys on hold until she is cured.

What was the discussion? Here is the actual text:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” And the Lord heard. Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.

Questions abound regarding this cryptic conversation. First of all, why is this discussion taking place now? Moses got married two books ago, in Exodus. [1]

Second, why is Tzipporah, Moses’s wife, referred to here as a “Cushite”? We know that Tzipporah was from Midian, a country in Arabia, named after its founder who was a descendant of Ishmael, the son of Abraham, who himself descended from Shem, Noah’s middle son. Cush, on the other hand, was a country in Africa (commonly thought to be Ethiopia), named after its founder who was a descendant of Ham, Noah’s youngest son. So why would Tzipporah be called a Cushite?

Then the Torah reiterates “for he had married a Cushite woman,” as though to fill us in on a detail that we need for the subject of the conversation to make sense to us. Yet, again — we already know of Moses’s marriage, and we also know that Tzipporah was not in fact from Cush. How does this statement clarify anything?

Third, what was Miriam’s complaint? Did she want to marry a Cushite too? And what did Moses’s choice of wife have to do with whom G-d spoke to?

Finally, why does the Torah follow-up on their complaint with a statement regarding Moses’s humility?

There are several Midrashic commentaries that try to make sense of this passage. Each provides its own fascinating take of this tête-à-tête, which explains some — but not all — of the textual anomalies.

Rashi entirely adopts one particular Midrash in explaining these verses. [2] He explains as follows:

Moses’s wife was not actually from Cush, but she is called a Cushite here because everyone acknowledged her beauty just as everyone acknowledges a Cushite’s blackness. In other words, in those days, colloquially, the term “Cushite” was used solely as a geographical reference. Cushites were apparently so black in color that the word Cushite came to be used as an example of something that was absolute, and beyond debate. Tzipporah was apparently so indisputably beautiful, that Miriam referred to her as a Cushite.

The Midrash supports this conclusion by noting that the alpha-numeric value of the Hebrew word “Cushite” (כושית) is equal to “Yefat Mareh” (יפת מראה), which is the biblical way of expressing great beauty. [3]

Why does Torah then reiterate that Moses indeed married a Cushite — particularly if Cushite was simply an expression of truth? The Midrash explains that this was to emphasize Tzipporah’s beauty, as one who was beautiful in appearance, and pleasant in deed as well. [4]

What was the nature of the conversation involving the beautiful Tzipporah?

Apparently Moses had divorced her, and Miriam was discussing the divorce with Aaron. Why did Moses divorce her, and how did Miriam learn of it?

Later, in Moses’s retelling of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai in Deuteronomy, he relates that after the event G-d said to him: “Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents. But as for you, stand here with Me.’” [5] Moses understood that that Jewish people were being released “to their tents,” i.e. to the marital intimacy that they had avoided in preparation for the giving of the Torah. [6] As for Moses, however, the revelation had not ended; he would continue to be in a state of constant communion with G-d, and so he was not released to return to his wife. Recognizing this, he gave her a divorce.

Immediately before Miriam’s conversation with Aaron, the Torah had related how Moses had asked for assistance in ministering to the Jewish people’s many needs. Consequently, G-d had Moses select 70 elders who would share in Moses’s gift of prophecy, and thus have the spiritual power to assist him in his leadership. Miriam was beside Tzipporah when Moses was told that two of those people — Eldad and Medad — were in fact using their new gift, and prophesying in the camp. When Tzipporah heard this, she expressed sympathy for their wives, who would undoubtedly now be divorced just as Moses divorced her. Thus, Miriam learned of the divorce, and told Aaron.

This explains why Miriam was affronted. She saw the divorce as hubris on Moses’s part; that he now saw himself as too holy to participate in such mortal relationships as marriage, simply because G-d had spoken to him. For “has G-d not spoken to us too”? Yet, we still recognize that it is our purpose to be married, to have a family, and to share our lives. Why should Moses be any different?

Let us put Miriam’s feelings in greater context.

Miriam would not have been over impressed by Moses’s gift of prophesy. After all, as other commentaries point out, [7] Moses did not experience Divine prophecy until he was 80 years old, whereas Aaron and Miriam were 5 and 3, respectively, when they first prophesied in Egypt. So Miriam had been prophesying all of her life, yet this did not interfere with her marriage.

Miriam was particularly sensitive to the problem of holy people getting divorced for ostensibly good reasons — and she had good reason to expect Moses to be sensitive to this as well. As a young girl in Egypt, she was alive when Pharaoh demanded that all baby boys be drowned. Miriam’s father, Amram, then decided to divorce his wife so that they would have no more children. Since he was a leader of the Jewish people, many followed his example. Miriam accused her father: “You are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh’s decree is against the boys; by you are effectively causing there to be no Jewish girls too!” It was through her urging and arguments that Amram remarried his wife, and Moses was born. Had Amram remained separated, Moses himself would never have been conceived.

Thus Miriam likely had the mindset that few things justify divorce. G-d wants us to be married, and to figure out how to blend our family life with our spiritual life; they are not intended to be contradictory, and if they are, we’re doing it wrong.

Miriam was punished, however, for severely underestimating Moses’s stature. As G-d informed her, Moses was not like, and would not be treated as, other men. His communion with G-d was ongoing and continuous, the equivalent of face-to-face conversations, for which Moses had to be in a constant state of readiness. At a moment’s notice, G-d would want to have a conversation, and Moses could have brook distractions in his life that would interfere with the fluidity of these communications. While Miriam’s feelings were correct with respect to everyone else, she should have appreciated that Moses was on an entirely different level.

The Torah makes clear, however, that Moses did not see his own stature in this way. He was an exceedingly humble man, who merely followed G-d’s direction.

Here are the questions that this explanation does not answer:

1. What does Tzipporah’s Cushite-ness (i.e. her physical and spiritual beauty) have to do with anything?

2. The text suggests that they were discussing his marriage to the Cushite woman — not his divorce.


The commentary Rabbeinu Bachya has a slight variation on the Midrash’s explanation. He explains that Tzipporah was called a Cushite derogatorily. She was a Midianite, an Ishmaelite nomadic tribe, a people who dwell in tents. Consequently, they have no whiteness in their complexion because of their constant exposure to the heat of the sun. Thus, they are (nearly) as black as Cushites — but without the benefit of that being their natural skin color.

He goes on to explain that Miriam and Aaron apparently thought that Moses had divorced Tzipporah because she was not beautiful, and criticized him for being so shallow. They rejected the possibility that Moses may have separated from his wife because of his prophecy — for “hasn’t G-d spoken to us too?” Thus, that would not be the reason.

We can add some additional context to this explanation as well, as Miriam would likely be keenly sensitive to a woman being rejected for being considered unattractive.

The Talmud relates that Miriam was born a sickly child, and as she grew into womanhood, she found that nobody was interested in marrying her. She was extremely pale, with an unhealthy greenish pallor. One man, however, saw past her looks to her character. Kaleb married her, nurtured her, and ultimately restored her to perfect health. In fact, she was transformed to such an extent that her beauty outshone that of the women around her; indeed, it is said that her face shone like the midday sun. She was apparently so hot, that for a man to simply behold her would be such a sexually-arousing experience that he would immediately present his wife with an “Etnan” — a gift intended to solicit her for sex. [8]

Thus, Miriam would likely have had little tolerance for any rejection of a woman on the basis of her looks.

The Torah, however, attests to Moses’s humility, thus suggesting that Moses likely did not even consider whether Tzipporah was beautiful or not, as he was far too humble for physical beauty to be a factor when choosing a wife.

The questions left open by this explanation:

1. If that was Miriam’s complaint, then what was G-d’s response?

2. Why did this conversation occur at this particular point?

3. If Tzipporah was ugly, and Moses cared, why would he marry her in the first place? Besides — humble or not, do we really think Moses was the kind of guy that would be so superficial? Could his own sister possibly have felt that way?

4. As with the earlier explanation, the text suggests that they were discussing his marriage to the Cushite woman — not his divorce.


There is a third explanation.

Moses originally left Egypt in his youth. Some say when he was 18 when he fled Pharaoh, some say when he 40 — regardless, he was at a relatively young age. He returned to Egypt and liberated the Jews when he was 80. Where was he for all of the intervening years?

The chronicles of Moses’s life fill in some of the gaps.

When Moses left Egypt, the king of Cush had left with his armies on a military expedition to subdue his vassals to the northeast. He left Bala’am (whom we will encounter again in a few weeks) in charge of the kingdom in his absence. Bala’am, however, plotted a coup, and when the king of Cush returned to his kingdom, he found the palace gates barred. Moses attached himself to the king’s camp, as he laid siege upon his own capitol city.

The siege last for nine years, during which Moses distinguished himself as a strong and wise man, and a brilliant military strategist. The king died during the siege, and left leaderless, the king’s servants approached Moses, crowned him king, and promised him his predecessor’s wife — all in exchange for Moses’s commitment to take back the city. Moses successfully did so, and he entered the capitol city of Cush as its victorious king. True to their word, the Cushites gave the king’s royal widow to Moses as a wife. Moses recognized the diplomatic and political necessity of this; nevertheless, he did not physically consummate his marriage to her.

After many years of ruling Cush, the queen approached the royal council with a complaint. In all these years, she said, Moses has not so much as touched me. He is fundamentally a foreigner; he doesn’t worship our gods, and he should not continue to be our king. Rather, let us anoint my eldest son, who is the rightful heir to the throne. In this new era of peace and prosperity, her words fell on fertile soil, and the Cushite ministers coronated the queen’s son as king. They were, however, reluctant to harm Moses in any way, both out of fear and gratitude for what he had done for the kingdom, so they lavished him with expensive gifts, and sent him from Cush with great honor. From there he traveled to Midian, where he met his wife, Tzipporah. [9]

Several commentaries [10] explain that the Cushite in our Parshah was actually a reference to the Cushite queen whom Moses had married. Aaron and Miriam knew that he had married her, but didn’t know that he had not approached her intimate throughout the marriage. Miriam criticized him for it, arguing that he had no special dispensation to marry outside of the Jewish people — why did he not marry one of his own? Miriam saw Moses’s actions as being those of someone who saw himself apart from and above everyone else. Why would this be, she asked. Is it because G-d has spoken to him that he sees himself so differently? Did not G-d speak to us as well?

Torah, however, attests that Moses did not at all consider himself above anyone, as he was the most humble person.

This explanation resolves the Cushite question nicely, but still raises the following questions:

1. Why is this complaint coming up now? And why is the brunt of her concern the Cushite wife, and not Moses’s more recent marriage to Tzipporah, who was also an outsider?

2. Is G-d’s response that Moses does have special dispensation because of its frequent and clear prophecy? Does this somehow translate into Moses’s ability to marry whomever he wishes? Or does it suggest that nothing that Moses does is without Divine approval, and perhaps even at Divine instruction?

So, unfortunately, we are left with unresolved questions; we may perhaps never know what, precisely, Miriam said to Aaron. Hopefully, however, we now have a greater appreciation of Miriam’s motivations and perspectives, as well as a fuller understanding of Moses’s missing years.

Works Cited

[1] Exodus, 2:21.

[2] Tanchuma, Tzav 13.

[3] See, e.g., Genesis, 12:11; 29:17; 39:6.

[4] The Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan, 16b, offers a variation of this view. It explains that just as the appearance of Cushites is conspicuously distinct from others, so too were Tzipporah’s deeds on an entirely different level than her peers.

[5] Deuteronomy, 5:27-28.

[6] See Exodus, 19:15.

[7] See Or Hachayim.

[8] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah, 12a. It seems that Miriam’s transformation would have occurred prior to exodus, as Miriam did not have children until she was healed, and Chur — Kalev and Miriam’s son — was already an adult during the initial war with Amalek shortly after the splitting of the Red Sea.

[9] This version of events presents Moses to Tzipporah quite differently than the parched, dehydrated and bedraggled Moses depicted in the Prince of Egypt. Based upon this, it seems likely that he arrived in Midian well-attired, well-fed and wealthy.

[10] See Rashbam and Daat Z’keinim.