Moshe's Speech Impediment/2

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Moshe's Speech Impediment – "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי"

Exegetical Approaches


Commentators offer two main understandings of the phrase "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן" and Moshe's speech problems.  Midrashic sources claim that Moshe's impediment was physical in nature, causing him to stutter or mispronounce certain letters.  R. Yosef Bekhor Shor and the Ran suggest that this even enhanced God's glory.  Others, however, reject the possibility that Hashem sent a messenger with a physical disability.  Thus, Rashbam posits that after years in Midyan, Moshe was simply not sufficiently fluent in the Egyptian language, while Seforno maintains that he lacked oratory skills. Ibn Ezra combines these two approaches, suggesting that the doublet "כְבַד פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן" refers to a dual issue.

Physical Disability

Moshe's speech impediment was of a physical nature and involved difficulties in letter pronunciation or stuttering.

Nature of the disability – There are a couple of possible variations:5
  • R. Chananel specifies that Moshe had trouble with letters pronounced both with the teeth ("כְבַד פֶּה") and the tongue ("כְבַד לָשׁוֹן").‎6
  • Rashi understands Moshe's disability to be a form of stuttering.7
Reason for the disability – The proponents of this approach generally agree that Moshe's condition existed from birth or early childhood,8 however there is some divergence of opinions as to why Hashem did not remedy the condition:
  • Shemot Rabbah and Divrei HaYamim LeMoshe Rabbeinu9 recount a legend of how Moshe's tongue was burnt in the course of a miraculous saving of his life.10 Ramban adds that Hashem may have avoided healing Moshe's condition in order that this miracle be memorialized.11
  • R. Yosef Bekhor Shor suggests that Hashem wanted to demonstrate that the Divine will could be realized even via a messenger lacking a silver tongue.12 Similarly, the RanDerashot HaRan 5About R. Nissim Gerondi states that Hashem intentionally chose a leader who was not a charismatic speaker to insure that all would recognize that the miracles of the Exodus were brought about not by oratorical talents but rather by Hashem's will.13
Temporary or Permanent? These commentators differ regarding how Moshe was able to deliver the lengthy addresses of Sefer Devarim:
  • Hashem removed the impediment while Moshe was still at the Burning Bush – This possibility is rejected by Ibn Ezra and Ramban.
  • The disability was cured at the time of the national revelation at Mt. Sinai – Devarim Rabbah.14
  • Moshe remained disabled, but Hashem alleviated the condition when necessary – Ibn Ezra.15
  • Moshe's speech impediment remained, and Aharon and Elazar (after Aharon's death) continued to serve as Moshe's spokespersons throughout the forty years in the wilderness – Ibn EzraShemot Short Commentary 4:16About R. Avraham ibn Ezra.

Non-physical Disability

Moshe's speech difficulties related to his oratory and language skills rather than any physical ailment.

Nature of the disability – These commentators agree that the disability was not physical, but disagree as to the specifics:
  • Moshe did not know seventy languages, and would thus be mocked at Paroh's court – Tanchuma.16
  • Moshe did not know Egyptian well17 – Rashbam.18
  • Moshe was not an eloquent orator – Lekach Tov, Seforno, Shadal.
  • Moshe could not order his speech in a clear and organized manner – Ralbag.19
  • Moshe did not have any special disability, and his profession of ineloquence was merely an expression of his innate modesty.20
Cause of Moshe's disability – These commentators give various explanations in accordance with their respective understandings of the nature of the disability:
  • Rashbam claims that since Moshe left Egypt when he was young, he did not remember Egyptian well.21
  • Seforno claims that Moshe did not know how to speak before kings, and he suggests that this might have been because of a slow development of the speech organs.
  • Ralbag claims that since Moshe was so spiritual and spent so much of his mental energy on being close to Hashem, he couldn't order his speech to make it comprehensible to other humans.22 According to Ralbag, this imperfection of Moshe began only with Hashem's revelation to him at the Burning Bush ("גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל עַבְדֶּךָ").‎23
Temporary or Permanent?
  • The Tanchuma says that Hashem enhanced Moshe's language faculties, and thus by the time of Sefer Devarim, Moshe could translate the whole Torah into seventy languages.24
  • According to Rashbam, the lack of eloquence in Egyptian was relevant only in Egypt.25
  • Shadal claims that Hashem fixed this disability, and Moshe gradually became more eloquent.
  • Ralbag maintains that the closer Moshe moved toward God, the further removed he became from man. Thus this condition persisted and had ramifications for the rest of Moshe's life. This is consistent with Ralbag's understandings of other flaws of Moshe – see Did Moshe Need Yitro's Advice and Moshe's Character.


Nature of the disability – According to Ibn Ezra, Moshe's condition included both a medical condition from birth as well as a lack of eloquence stemming from not having spoken Egyptian in many years. Ibn Ezra differentiates between "כְבַד פֶּה" and "כְבַד לָשׁוֹן", and derives from the doublet that there was a dual difficulty.