Tag Archives: Exodus

Body Piercings in Judaism

In the first of this week’s double parasha, Matot, we read about the tribute and offerings that the Israelite warriors brought to Moses and Elazar the Kohen Gadol following their wars of conquest. Among the jewellery we find “armlets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and pendants” (Numbers 31:50). Although the final word in this list, khumaz (כומז), is typically translated as “pendant”, its meaning is far more mysterious. Rashi says here that the khumaz was apparently a pendant in the shape of a womb, and by offering up these ornaments, the Israelites were atoning for the sexual sin previously committed with the Midianites.

Canaanite Jewellery from the Late Bronze Age, c. 13th century BCE (Credit: factsanddetails.com)

Long before this sin, in Exodus 35:22, we already saw how the Israelites donated their own jewellery for the construction of the Mishkan, and the khumaz appears there also as something offered by the righteous Israelite women. Rashi’s comment there is different, citing the Talmud (Shabbat 64a) that khumaz stands for kan makom zimah (כָּאן מְקוֹם זִמָּה), meaning that this jewellery was something placed on the reproductive organ and was used for “lewdness”! The shocking implication seems to be that this was a piercing in the nether regions.

Interestingly, the Talmud here also presents an opinion that ‘agil (עגיל), typically translated as an “earring”, was actually worn on the breasts, perhaps as a nipple ring, or a golden breastplate of some sort designed to accentuate a woman’s features for lewd purposes. The Talmud concludes the passage with Rav Sheshet saying that the Torah lists exposed ornaments (like bracelets and rings) with concealed ones (like the ‘agil and khumaz) to teach you that there is really no difference: a man that ogles at a woman’s exposed features and ornaments (even just a pinky finger!) is equated with one who ogles at her concealed features and is just as wicked.

The Riva (Rabbi Isaac ben Asher haLevi, c. 11th century), a disciple of Rashi and one of the Tosafists, asks how it is possible that a piercing or ornament of lewdness could be donated for a holy purpose? Similar objections were understandably shared by other commentators. This is why the Ibn Ezra says (on Exodus 35:22) the khumaz must simply be a bracelet for the upper arm. Another possibility was that it was indeed placed over the reproductive organ as the Talmud states, though not for lewdness, but for chastity. Perhaps the khumaz was like a “chastity belt” purportedly used in the Middle Ages to ensure a woman remains a virgin and/or to protect her from sexual harassment. The reality, however, is that there is no physical evidence that such belts ever existed, nor can anyone explain how they might have been comfortably worn or how they would have been kept locked in place without the option of easily removing them. Scholars relegate chastity belts to the realm of myth.

The best explanation is probably that the Israelite women only had those types of lewd ornaments and pieces of jewellery because they were taken from the Egyptians. Recall that the Israelites received gifts and riches from the Egyptians as they left (Exodus 12:35-36). So, it is these pagan ornaments that they repurposed for use in the holy Mishkan. (We might conclude that, in so doing, they were able to affect a tikkun, a spiritual rectification.) The Israelite women themselves probably never wore them. And if they did, it begs the question: what is actually permitted halakhically today when it comes to bodily piercings?

The first piercing that comes to mind is earrings, which we know must be fine. Then come nose rings, which we might assume are not fine. Yet, the reality in ancient Israel may very well have been the opposite. We read, for instance, how Eliezer brought Rebecca a nose ring as a gift (Genesis 24:22 and 47). For those who might argue that this was before the giving of the Torah, and since then nose rings are no longer permissible, the Talmud (Sotah 7b) states that a sotah who was suspected of being an adulteress had to remove her nose ring, meaning they were common among Israelite women at least up to the Talmudic era.

The Talmud there mentions three specific types of ornaments: finger rings, nose rings, and necklaces or “chokers” worn close around the neck. Note how earrings are strangely not mentioned, suggesting that nose rings were more popular among Israelite women at the time. Indeed, the Torah suggests that earrings may have been associated with slavery, as we read how one who wished to be a permanent slave needed to have their ear punctured with an awl (Exodus 21:6). There is a big question if the slave actually had to wear an earring afterwards, or if he only required to have his ear punctured once symbolically. Most likely, he did have to wear an earring to identify him as a permanent slave, and the earring may have even identified to whom he belonged. The Talmud (Kiddushin 21b) has an opinion that the puncturing was done specifically in the upper ear, so perhaps there is a difference between an earring on the earlobe for beauty, versus an earing on the upper ear cartilage to indicate slavery.

The 24 Ornaments of a Jewish Bride

As explored in the past, the Torah gives us 24 ornaments that an Israelite bride would be adorned with in ancient times. The prophet Isaiah lists them in the third chapter of his book, and they are:

  1. anklets [‘achasim] עֲכָסִ֛ים
  2. ribbons (or headbands) [shvisim] שְּׁבִיסִ֖ים
  3. crescents [saharonim] שַּׂהֲרֹנִֽים
  4. pendants (or earrings) [netifot] נְּטִפ֥וֹת
  5. bracelets [sheyrot] שֵּׁיר֖וֹת
  6. veils [ra’alot] רְעָלֽוֹת
  7. headdresses [pe’erim] פְּאֵרִ֤ים
  8. armlets [tza’adot] צְּעָדוֹת֙
  9. sashes [kishurim] קִּשֻּׁרִ֔ים
  10. corselettes (or talismans) [batei hanefesh] בָתֵּ֥י הַנֶּ֖פֶשׁ
  11. amulets [lehashim] לְּחָשִֽׁים
  12. rings [taba’ot] טַּבָּע֖וֹת
  13. nose-rings [nizmei ha’af] נִזְמֵ֥י הָאָֽף
  14. aprons (or festive robes) [mahalatzot] מַּֽחֲלָצוֹת֙
  15. shawls [ma’atafot] מַּ֣עֲטָפ֔וֹת
  16. hair-coverings [mitpachot] מִּטְפָּח֖וֹת
  17. girdles (or purses) [charitim] חֲרִיטִֽים
  18. robes (or gowns) [gilyonim] גִּלְיֹנִים֙
  19. fine linen (or linen vests) [sadinim] סְּדִינִ֔ים
  20. headscarves (or kerchiefs) [tzenifot] צְּנִיפ֖וֹת
  21. mantles (or capes) [redimim] רְדִידִֽים
  22. perfume [bosem] בֹּ֜שֶׂם
  23. belt (or apron) [chagorah] חֲגוֹרָ֤ה
  24. hair curls or braids [petigil] פְּתִיגִ֖יל

In this list, we see no mention of the ‘agil or khumaz, lending further evidence that these really were inappropriate piercings. We do have netifot, literally “drops”, which some interpret to mean earrings that are like droplets hanging from the earlobes. The only other piercing mentioned is, once again, the nose ring. The term used is nezem af, with the second word seemingly superfluous. If nezem already means a “nose ring” then why add af, “nose”?

This dilemma might be solved by looking at the Golden Calf incident. Recall that Aaron had told the men to “take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives…” (Exodus 32:2) The term for “gold rings” is nizmei hazahav (נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב), but Aaron says to remove them off of their ears! So, a nezem might be referring to any piercing, whether on the nose, ears, or otherwise. Finally, in Ezekiel 16:11 (which parallels Isaiah 3, above) we read that God bedecked the Jewish people with “a ring in your nose, and earrings in your ears, and a splendid tiara on your head.” Here, a nezem is clearly a nose ring and ‘agilim are undoubtedly earrings. So, a Jewish women could sport a modest nose ring and earrings, but other piercings are unlikely to be kosher.

On the whole, there are three major things to consider regarding piercings: first is tzniut, that the piercing should be elegant and modest. Second is darkei Emori, the prohibition of imitating pagan practices. If the piercing is a type that is widely acceptable and universal, like earrings or nose rings, then it is most likely okay, while if it is clearly associated with pagan or gentile practices, then it is not okay. Lastly, there is the issue of beged ishah, that men cannot adorn themselves in the manner of women. Since piercings are generally considered a woman’s form of adornment, they would be entirely prohibited for Jewish men. This is all the more important today, when secular society seeks to completely blur the gender gaps, so we should be all the more punctilious in clearly defining and differentiating between men and women.

Shabbat Shalom!

Israel’s Greatest Enemy (Short Video)

Who is the Erev Rav, the “Mixed Multitude”, that came out of Egypt along with the Israelites? Find out in this short video exposing the identity of the real enemy of the Jewish people throughout history, and today.

For more information and an in-depth analysis of the Erev Rav, please see here.

Archaeology Discovers Moses

One of the most common questions that people ask about the Exodus is: where is the evidence? The truth is that there is a great deal of evidence supporting the subjugation and liberation of the Israelites from ancient Egypt. Much of the evidence has been deliberately suppressed (as explained here), and other pieces of evidence are just not discussed or not well-known. Perhaps the greatest of the latter variety is the Mose Stele. This incredible archaeological find is possibly the best proof that we have of the existence of Moses, and the details of his unique life.

The Mose Stele, currently housed in the Roemer und Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany.

The Mose Stele was found in the village of Qantir, just two kilometres away from the ancient Egyptian city of Pi-Ramesses. The Torah states explicitly that the Israelites built the city of Pi-Ramesses (Exodus 1:11). We know that Pi-Ramesses was built atop the more ancient city of Avaris, which was actually a Hyksos city. Recall that the Hyksos were Semitic foreigners who migrated to Egypt and, at one point, even took over much of the kingdom. Excavations at Avaris (in the northeast of Egypt, a region the Torah calls “Goshen”) show architecture in Canaanite and Syriac style. Amazingly, archaeologists have even found numerous seals bearing the name “Yaqub”.

For these reasons, among others, scholars both ancient and modern believe that the Hyksos and the Israelites are one and the same. Already two millennia ago, Josephus identified the Hyksos (which he translated as “shepherd kings”) as the Israelites. If not completely one and the same, it is also highly possible that the Israelites were part of a larger wave of Semitic migration, and were initially a small group among the Hyksos. Whatever the case, the Hyksos as a whole were officially defeated by Pharaoh Ahmose I, who established the 18th dynasty around 1550 BCE.

The following dynasty, starting in 1292 BCE, was founded by Ramesses I. His grandson was Ramesses II, the Great (r. 1279-1213 BCE), who ruled for a whopping 66 years. It was Ramesses II who built Pi-Ramesses and made it his new capital, and it is Ramesses II who is typically identified as the pharaoh of the Exodus. This is disputed for several reasons, including that the timing of Ramesses’ reign is both too long after the Hyksos defeat and a bit too late to fit with traditional Jewish chronology (which holds that the Exodus was in 2448 AM, or 1312 BCE). However, Ramesses’ reign is quite close to the Jewish dating and the chronology of ancient Egypt is not exactly known and may very well have discrepancies.

One of the artifacts that we have from the time of Ramesses II is the Mose Stele. It describes a great general in Ramesses’ army. The general’s name is Mose (hence the name of the stele). In ancient Egyptian, this word simply meant a “son” or “begotten by”. Ramesses, for instance, means “son of Ra” or “begotten by Ra”, Ra being the sun god and one of the chief deities of the Egyptian pantheon. We find many Egyptians with mose or mses as a suffix in their name, including Ahmose, Thutmose, and countless others. “Mose” would just mean “son”, which is strange at first glance, since it carries no qualifying prefix. However, it makes perfect sense when we go to the Torah and remember that the daughter of Pharaoh adopted baby Moses and named him. While the Torah says she named him Moshe because she took him out (meshitihu) of the water (Exodus 2:10), it is highly unlikely that an Egyptian princess would give the baby a Hebrew name. She would have named him Mose, in Egyptian, meaning the long-awaited “son” she always wanted. Moshe is indeed his true Hebrew name, as God intended, which is why the Torah records the proper Hebrew etymology. Of course, in Hebrew both Moshe and Mose would be spelled exactly the same anyway (משה), since the shin and sin are one letter with interchangeable sound. Thus, he could simultaneously be “Moshe” to his Hebrew brethren, and “Mose” for his fellow Egyptian royalty among whom he grew up!

The Mose Stele says that Mose was a victorious soldier, and Ramesses is shown lavishing gifts upon him. Ramesses declares: “How good is what he has done! Great, great!” Was the Biblical Moses a soldier? The Torah doesn’t quite say so explicitly, but the Talmud and Midrash do describe Moses as a warrior in several places. The most famous is where Moses is described participating in the battle against Og, and smiting the giant himself (Berakhot 54b). Lesser known is the Midrash that says Moses was once a great general in the land of Cush (see, for instance, Yalkut Shimoni I, 168). This is how he ended up marrying a Cushite woman, as the Torah later mentions in Numbers 12:1 (for more on this see ‘Did Moses Have a Black Wife?’) While the Midrash generally assumes that this happened after Moses fled Egypt and before he came to Midian, Josephus provides an alternate account that says Moses fought in Cush while still an Egyptian prince (Antiquities, II, 10:239). Before he fled, Moses was a highly decorated general in the Egyptian army, and helped the Egyptians subdue their Cushite neighbours.

The Mose Stele fits perfectly with Josephus’ ancient account. Moses returns from battle with Cush as a victorious general, and is praised by Ramesses. The stele adds that Mose is “beloved of Atum and greatly favoured by him”. Atum was none other than the Egyptian creator god, the first of their gods, and the originator of all the others. It is fascinating to note that while Ramesses’ patron god was Ra, the stele describes Mose as being favoured by Atum, not Ra. We can learn from this that Moses was already something of a monotheist among the Egyptian royalty: he made sure that they knew he worshiped only the one true creator God. For the Egyptians, the closest thing to that was Atum! This is how Moses could have masked his Hebrew beliefs while growing up with idolaters in the palace.

There is one last connection to Moshe in the Mose Stele. Ramesses is quoted as saying that he is “pleased with the speech of [Mose’s] mouth”. The Torah tells us that Moses was “heavy” of speech, and Moses himself humbly sought to shy away from oration. The fact that the stele mentions the speech of Mose is unlikely to be a coincidence. Perhaps Ramesses put it there specifically to address the critiques of others who disparaged Moses for his speech difficulties. Moses silenced his critics, and Ramesses declared that he is pleased with the speech of Moses, despite what others might say.

All in all, the Mose Stele is an amazing piece of evidence that strongly supports the existence of the Biblical Moses. It was likely commissioned by Ramesses II while Moses was still a young Egyptian prince and general, before he fled, and long before he returned decades later to liberate his people. We can imagine that after the events of the Exodus, the angry Egyptians would have destroyed any mention of Moses, and would have tried to expunge any relic of his name or life. Thankfully, at least one piece of evidence has nonetheless survived, buried and hidden away for millennia. What other incredible treasures are still lying deep under the sand, waiting to be uncovered?

For more on dating the Exodus and finding scientific evidence, see Did the Jews Build the Pyramids?