The Stuttering Servant

By Samuel Davidkin
Thursday, April 12, 2012

Stuttering, the curious speech impediment that causes a few percent of the mostly male population to succumb unpredictably and unwillingly to occasional muteness, most recently received attention with the Oscar-winning film The King's Speech, the story of Britain's wartime King George VI.  The discussion engendered by the film reminds us that the origin of stuttering remains mysterious.  None of the purely physical theories—involving brain function, genes, or speaking technique—has yielded a clear explanation.  Psychoanalytic theory offers more interesting clues: It observes that stuttering often begins after an early childhood event, and it builds on the general observation that most stutterers do not stutter when they speak alone.

These observations are particularly interesting from the Jewish perspective, because Moses himself likely stuttered. Indeed, the story of Moses may hold a key to the origins of stuttering.

First, though, was Moses a stutterer at all?

In the first parsha of Exodus, God speaks to Moses at the burning bush after his flight from Egypt, announcing that He will liberate the Israelite slaves and instructing Moses to return to Egypt to lead the mission.  Moses is reluctant to accept, and from Moses' own mouth we hear the reason for his reluctance: He is kaved peh, heavy of mouth.  God seems to acknowledge the impediment, assuring Moses that He "will be with your mouth and teach you what to say."  Moses begs God to send someone else; God is angry but finally agrees to send Moses' brother Aaron with him as his spokesman in Egypt.  Aaron performs this function until, toward the end of the Five Books, Moses gains a stunning eloquence.

Still, how do we know that Moses' speech impediment was stuttering and not something else? There are differences of opinion from the earliest commentaries.  Some say Moses had acquired a foreign dialect after his many years in Midian.  Others say he felt his older brother Aaron merited the position.  But stuttering is the most credible candidate.

Rashi says that kaved peh approximates the verb balbe in Old French, "to stutter."  Also, the common Hebrew word for "stutter" is the onomatopoeic gimgum.  Recall Moses' plea to God at the burning bush: "I am not a man of words, not since yesterday, nor since the day before yesterday, nor since You first spoke to Your servant, for I am heavy of mouth and heavy of speech."  In Hebrew, not, nor, and nor since are all the word gam (also).  Moses is saying gam . . . gam . . . gam—very like gimgum.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German rabbi renowned for his etymological mastery of the Hebrew language, explicitly refers to Moses as a stutterer.  Of Moses' protestation that he is orel sfatayim, "uncircumcised of the lips," Hirsch says that in the Torah's nomenclature, orel (uncircumcised) means "unpliant," referring to "one who has no control over the faculty with which he is naturally endowed."  This is a perfect description of stuttering: There is no physical impediment or injury but, at times, an insurmountable lack of control.  "Moses is saying," explains Hirsch, "'Even if I overcome the clumsiness of my vocal organs, I still lack the actual power of speech, the right words fail me.'"  Indeed, one might ask whether God would have appointed Moses as His emissary if Moses had suffered from an actual physical malformation, since stringent provisions in the Torah make persons with such physical defects ineligible for important tasks of Divine service.

There is one more clue: The second parsha of Sh'mot tells us that when Moses spoke to the Israelites, they did not heed him "because of shortness of breath and hard work."  Commentators have said that the phrase refers to the condition of the overworked Israelite slaves, but it may just as well refer to Moses himself.  For a stutterer, speaking before a multitude is hard work; the effort to finish one's words typically leads precisely to a shortness of breath.  Perhaps the Israelites lost patience and faith as they watched Moses desperately struggling to get words out of his mouth.

If, indeed, Moses was likely a stutterer, we must return to the question of origin: How did it start?  The rabbis of the midrash were not unaware that stuttering usually begins after some childhood incident.  As recounted in Bialik and Ravnitzky's Book of Legends, the midrash says Moses was so handsome that "whoever saw him could not turn his eyes away from him."  Young Moses, for his part, "used to grab Pharaoh's crown and put it on his own head."  Court magicians prophesied that Moses would usurp Pharaoh's power, and some counseled killing him:

But Jethro [the priest of Midian and Moses' future father-in-law], who sat among them, said, "This child has yet no understanding.  Why not test him?  Place before him a vessel with a gold piece and a burning coal in it.  If he reaches for the gold, he has understanding, and you may slay him.  But if he reaches for the coal, he has no understanding, and a sentence of death is not called for."  

The items were presented to Moses, who reached for the gold; but the angel Gabriel shoved the child's hand aside, "so that Moses not only seized the coal but also put the hand with the coal into his mouth and burned his tongue.  As a result, he became slow of speech and slow of tongue."

So, it seems there was a definite starting point to Moses' stutter. But should we take the midrash literally when it says Moses burned his tongue, causing a physical impediment? Probably not. Midrashim are often allegorical, alluding to something that may not be immediately apparent. Here, it is deceptively easy to imagine that Moses, his hand shoved away from the gold, would seize the coal; it is easy to envision small children putting things in their mouths. But the angel merely shoved Moses' hand away from the gold; why did the child grab the coal? And why would he put not just his hand but the hot coal in his mouth? Hadn't the coal already burned his hand? Aren't we hard-wired to drop a coal that is burning hot?

We must view the result as somehow self-inflicted, with a degree of intention.  What we may have here is a protest, an affirmation of self-control after such control was momentarily lost with the angel's shove.   Moses did something that the benevolent angel could not have intended.  He asserted his self-control in the most unassailable way possible, although it meant grievously wounding himself.

If this is the case, we are faced with another fundamental question: Why does a wound that is not physical persist into adulthood?  A person changes profoundly between three years old and eighty (the age at which, according to tradition, Moses spoke to Pharaoh); why does the susceptibility endure?

It must be that the first manifestation of a stutter is not a culminating result of some underlying cause, like a trauma, with the rest of one's stuttering life a residue, but rather a humble beginning.  The child experiences something for the first time; that something is a theme that stays and grows with him and is, perhaps, never undone.

In Moses' case, of course, it seems to have been undone.  That, too, is far from explained.

Samuel Davidkin is a writer living in Helsinki, Finland.  He can be reached at [email protected].

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