Moses: In the Bible & Beyond

The greatest of Jewish leaders and prophets.

Print this page Print this page

"The seventh principle of faith. The prophecy of Moses our Teacher. This implies that we must believe he was the father of all the prophets before him and that those who came after him were all beneath him in rank. He was chosen by God from the whole human kind. He comprehended more of God than any man in the past or future ever comprehended or will comprehend. And we must believe that he reached a state of exaltedness beyond the sphere of humanity, so that he attained to the angelic rank and became included in the order of the angels. There was no veil which he did not pierce. No material hindrance stood in his way, and no defect whether small or great mingled itself with him. The imaginative and sensual powers of his perceptive faculty were stripped from him. His desiderative power was still and he remained pure intellect only. It is in this significance that it is remarked of him that he discoursed with God without any angelic intermediary."

It has to be appreciated that, in addition to the reservations Maimonides goes on to express, he is thinking only of Moses' perception of God through which he received the divine communication. It is only in this that Moses is greater than any other human being, and it is not to be thought that Moses in himself was faultless.

The Considerate Teacher

From Talmudic times the usual appellation of Moses is Moshe Rabbenu, "Moses our Teacher." A passage in the Talmud (Yevamot 49b) states that the difference between Moses and all the other prophets is that they saw through a dim glass while Moses saw through a clear glass. Moses was chosen to be Israel's leader because he was so considerate, to his flock when shepherding for Jethro (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 2:2). In another passage (Nedarim 38a) Moses is said to have been wealthy, strong, and meek since the Holy One, blessed be He, only causes His spirit to rest on a person who has these endowments.

Moses and his brother Aaron are frequently mentioned together as the leaders of the people, Moses being the stern man of law, brooking no compromise, while Aaron is the leader who loves peace and pursues it. Moses died through a kiss of God (Bava Batra 17a) and God Himself buried him (Sotah 14a) in a cave that had been prepared for him since the eve of the Sabbath of creation (Pesahim 54a).

There is no official Jewish attitude to Moses. What matters for Judaism is the role Moses plays in bringing the Torah to Israel and in interpreting the Torah for them. In this sense every teacher of the Torah follows in Moses' footsteps and adds something to the Torah of Moses. This appears to be the idea behind the oft-quoted Talmudic legend (Menahot 29b) that when Moses was miraculously transported into the school of Rabbi Akiba he was at first dismayed that he was unable to understand what Rabbi Akiba was teaching. But when a disciple asked Akiba how he knew something and Akiba replied: "It is tradition from Moses our teacher," Moses' mind was set at rest.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.