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My Kid Thinks Moses Was Ten Feet Tall!

My Kid Thinks Moses Was Ten Feet Tall!

Midrashic tales and the small child

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Dear Rabbi,

My Chabad rebbetzin nudged me so much—and she was so nice about it—until I put my little boy in their Hebrew School. It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm with which he comes home and tells me all the stories. But some of them are more than a little fantastic.

Moses turns out to be ten feet tall. Pharaoh is one foot tall. Then we get to Moshiach-times, when candy is growing on trees. It only gets wilder from there.

Don’t you think Moses would be at least as believable a teacher and liberator at a moderate 5' 9"? Just as Pharaoh is villainous enough without shrinking him to the height of a cucumber?

The same applies to Moshiach-times. I want my child to understand that we are working towards a beautiful world of peace and wisdom. Candies on trees (as though my little guy doesn’t have enough candies already) only serves to distract from that ideal.

I’ve read that these stories have deeper meanings. But my child takes them at face value.

I’ve read that not all these stories are meant as historical fact, but they all have deep meaning. But my child takes everything at face value. I’m concerned about when he grows up and figures that he was told a string of fishermen’s tales. How will he know what’s for real and what’s fantasy?

Dear Jewish Mother,

Actually, the Talmud says that Moses was ten cubits tall.1 That puts him at about 15 feet. Which doesn’t help you much. Neither will it help that Pharaoh, at one cubit, would have to be an English cucumber.

Also may not help to point out that the issue is more endemic than you may have realized. The child reads, for example, that G‑d struck Egypt with “His strong hand.”2 I guarantee you, as much as any teacher may attempt to explain to a small child how that is just a figure of speech for the indescribable power of the Creator of the Universe, the child will still be stuck with the image of a very large, powerful hand, certainly bigger than the teacher’s, maybe even bigger than the gorilla he saw in the zoo.3

Now that’s a problem. Maimonides (who codified Jewish law 800 years ago) determined that believing in a G‑d who has a body is heresy.4 No, your little guy is not a heretic. He’s just taking the words at face value. That’s the sort of world little guys live in—a very face-value, concrete world. Nevertheless, how could the Torah communicate something to a child (or anybody else who takes things as they are laid out in black on white) that is not true? And not just not true, but the opposite of the truth that the Torah is meant to convey?!

So here’s something that might help:

Let’s look at the face-value world of your adorable little guy. What does the world look like from down there? Let’s ask him to draw a picture—say, a picture of his family. Now read his world out of the picture. How big is Mommy? How big is Daddy? How big is the little baby who has become the centerpiece of family attention for the past two months? And how big is your little guy? What about if he would draw Moses in there—even without having heard the ten cubit figure? My guess is that Moses would take up much of the drawing. Much more than a moderate 5' 9".

Children, being humans, are not really interested in the facts, but in their meaning.

That’s because children, being humans, are not really interested in the facts, but in their meaning. Especially the child.

To the child, meaning is everything. Jean Piaget, the father of developmental psychology, understood that well. He demonstrated that to a child a table is not a board with four legs; a table is something you eat on, sit at, or place things upon.

If the meaning of the table is its function, the meaning of size is importance. The rest is almost irrelevant.

The child has already learned that the world was created with ten sayings, and the Torah was given in ten commandments. A ten cubit Moses, to the child, is a person who is as important and complete as the world that G‑d made and the Torah that He gave.

As the child grows, the literal world and the figurative world pull apart. Size begins to have meaning for the sake of size alone. Drawings become representational of the physical dimensions necessary to deal with our world on its own terms. What you were able to tell to him at six years old by describing a ten cubit Moses, you will now communicate by talking about the power of spirit that breathed inside Moses, how Moses viewed the world from a place far beyond anyone else and how he lived on another plane of reality.

The older child gets more information, through abstract concepts and much more subtle metaphor than you would give the small child. But the idea inside those concepts and metaphors has not changed.

In a way, the small child has a clearer grasp of Moses’ greatness than the adult.

Who Knows Better?

It turns out that in a way, the small child has a clearer grasp of Moses’ greatness than the adult. In the adult’s world, there is a gap between the world of the human spirit and the world of tangible matter and sensation. For the small child, it’s all one. The greatness of Moses’ spirit, for the child, is as real as his physical body.

The same with G‑d’s hand. The child is not interested in the size of a hand for anatomical reasons. He wants to know how far that hand could throw a ball, how tight would be its grasp if it shook your hand, and how much power the person behind that hand might wield through it. So too, when the child thinks of G‑d’s mighty hand, he’s thinking of the meaning behind it: G‑d’s hand is powerful beyond belief.

As he matures and continues learning, his concept of G‑d will also mature. He’ll look back at how he thought of G‑d and His powerful hand as a child and all that he learned will take on deeper meaning.

Further down the path of life, he’ll learn that the kabbalists call G‑d “Infinite Light.” Hard to imagine Infinite Light with a hand sticking out. He may also learn how later kabbalists taught that G‑d is yet beyond the infinite, and certainly beyond light. He may even think deeply into those concepts and develop some inkling of what they all mean. But all the time, he will be building upon the affinity he felt to G‑d’s mighty hand as a small child.

When the Moshiach comes, we’ll all see the world in a whole new way. As deep as you or your child may have understood anything to that point, it will seem more than childish in comparison to what will unfold before our eyes then. No matter how abstractly, ethereally and transcendentally he understood candy on trees, these revelations are going to make it all look like child’s play.

The ascent continues, the leaps and bounds never end. But the essential truth you grasp inside all those packages stays the same throughout. As does the beauty of the packaging itself.

Unlike candies and other toys, with Torah, you never throw out the packaging.

That’s the power of Torah: Unlike candies and other toys, with Torah, you never throw out the packaging. It’s just as beautiful as what’s inside—and maybe more so. Because it’s that packaging that allows G‑d’s infinite wisdom to be found everywhere.

As the sun is reflected in the ocean, in a pond, in a cup of water and in a tiny droplet of dew on a blade of grass—exactly the same sun, just less grand and bright—so the Torah enters into the world of each one of us, each according to the parameters of his or her particular world.

And truth be told, in that tiny droplet, undistorted by the ripples of outside disturbances, the sun’s image shines most pristine and clear.

As a wise rabbi once commented, “When I pray, I pray with the mind of a small child.”5 The adult has ideas, concepts and abstractions. The child has G‑d alone.

The parables, the metaphors, the wild and fantastic tales of the Talmud and Midrash—they are all beautiful, and they are true. At each stage in life, we can find a new depth within them. But they are most true because they communicate truth into the world of the small child. And all of us, as much as we may mature into adults, must always hold on to that small child inside. Because it is there that truth and beauty reside most pristine.


I know you’re asking about your child, but, like the flight attendant tells you before take-off, you’ve got to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your child. Get some of that oxygen and dive beneath the sea of midrash yourself. Look into the classic commentaries and ponder their meaning. In an upcoming series, “Is Midrash For Real?” chabad.org will be mapping out some of that territory.

Footnotes
1.
Talmud Berachot 54b. ibid, Shabbat 92a.
2.
See for example Exodus 13:9, 32:11 and Deuteronomy 3:24.
3.
On this and most of what follows, see Likutei Sichot, vol. 15, page 79. On the incongruence of a ten cubit Moses with the simple meaning of the text, see Sichot Kodesh, 5730, volume 1, page 564.
4.
Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Laws of Teshuvah 3:7.
5.
Rabbi Shimshon of Chinon, cited in Responsa of Rabbi Yitzchaak ben Sheshet (Rivash), #157. See the Rebbe’s interpretation in the maamar Gal Enei, 5737, s’if 7. See also the Rebbe’s talk printed in Sefer HaSichot 5752, page 126, s’if 5 משיחות ליל ה’ פ’ תולדות, אדר"ח כסלו, וש"פ תולדות, ב’ כסלו ה’תשנ"ב.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous NY May 16, 2016

Moses Ten cubits I have a few problems with your explanation of this issue:
1- According to your explanation the Talmudic statement that Moshe was 10 cubits tall was only aimed at children, not at adults. But Talmud is aimed at adults, not children.
2- From the context of the Talmudic statement in Berakhot it is clear that the Talmudic Sages did in fact take it literally, since a practicable halachah is predicated on it. (See the Mishnah there. Also see in Tractate Shabbat were it is clear that they even believed literally that not only Moshe, but the other Levites were also that tall if not taller, since there is a dispute as to the height of the outer alter in the Mishkan, some maintaining that it was 10 cubits high, which would require the Levites who carried it on their shoulders by the staves that were also almost 10 cubits above ground to be able to reach the staves. Rambam in fact rules this to be the Halachah.)
I could not read the reference you made to the late Lubavitcher Rebbi's talk on this Reply

IZ new york, ny via chabadw60s.com December 19, 2013

Moses No, Moses was probably not like Charlton Heston. He was likely near 6 feet and, because of a speech impediment, used Aaron as his mouthpiece. Fantasizing about Moses' appearance and personage is very common. We expect leaders to be larger than life. Moses learned about leadership from Jethro and from G-d. The cool thing was that Moses was human and fought with G-d to protect humanity, according to Torah. Moses' story was and is significant but not from what children and people deem as significant. Significance lies in dreams and fantasies. Each person sees Moses differently. Charlton Heston was a pretty good choice but not t5he epitome of who Moses was actually. Reply

Chavah Kwiatkowska Latvia August 23, 2013

Re: Ten Cubits So, is it possible to explain this Talmudic narrative in the following manner: Moses' spiritual power was so great that killed Og both physically and spiritually (Og's ankle = his wickedness, basis of all his convictions)? Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn August 22, 2013

re: Corporeality Rabbi Freeman, thanks for your response. In your answer to my question you wrote "Maimonides' ruling has become generally accepted, so the dispute has become a moot point." Without getting into too broad a discussion, what constitutes "generally accepted"? Yemenite Jews are a small minority within the Jewish people today, yet they perpetuate beliefs that contradict widespread kabbalistic concepts and continue to decide halacha from the Mishneh Torah despite that fact that most observant Jews have accepted the Shulchan Aruch our the framework for deciding practical halacha. Reply

Matis Friedman WOODMERE, New York via thechaicenter.com August 22, 2013

Ten Cubits None of that is meant to be taken literally. If Moshe - Moses was 10 cubits tall, hitting Og with his 10 cubit staff only to reach his ankle, would place Og at a staggering height, that of a building. Yet in the Torah we are told of the dimensions of Og's bed, though well beyond a standard king size, it was not nearly the height of a building. Reply

Tzvi Freeman August 21, 2013

Re: midrash vs. peshat The issue with corporeality is not so simple. Maimonides' ruling has become generally accepted, so the dispute has become a moot point.

At any rate, Raabad argued that people who believe G-d has a body because they take the text of Torah at face value are not heretics, but he certainly agreed that they were wrong. G-d is one, and if He had a body, He could not be truly one. If someone would know that we don't believe this as Jews, or understand that G-d could not be a true oneness if He had a body, and still insist that G-d is corporeal, then Raabad would probably agree that he's a heretic. Reply

Jonathan Shine London August 21, 2013

Moses and Genocide? I read two consecutive barmitzvah portions as my Dad belonged to two synagogues; the second of the two was Matot (Numbers 30); 30 years after having read it, I noticed that our Great Teacher was angry because a militia he had commanded had failed to slaughter all the women and children. I am troubled by this aspect of Moses and would be grateful for your thoughts on the matter. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn August 21, 2013

midrash vs. peshaT I love the essential message of teaching children something colorful and fun so that they can build upon that understanding and mature to a deeper comprehension as they grow up. Thanks for this beautiful insight.

Maimonides forbade attributing corporeality to the creator, but my rebbe is always reminding me that we don't make halachic decisions like the Maimonides. I read that the RABaD and other great sages disagreed with the Maimonides on this point. Is there a source for the idea that one who believes that Hashem has a body is a heretic? Reply

Dr Bill Los Angeles August 20, 2013

Moses, allegorically was 100 feet tall. A master of the mitzvahs and selected by HaShem. No prophet ever was or will be as great as Moses, our teacher.

However, the Torah does not state if anyone else will get a greater reward in the World-to-Come.

It shows the greatness of HaShem and the potential greatness of humans. Reply

Aharon Massachusstts August 20, 2013

Midrash for real? I am very excited to hear that you are doing a series called is Midrash for Real. This is important and I think it may be the first time a Chabad Organization has taken on this issue in a public way. I hope look into the Maharsha on the story of Moshe killing Og... 10 cubits 10 cubits 10 cubits. Mountains and ants etc... (Masechet Shabbat). Looking Forward! Reply

Peter Spiro Stevenson, WA August 20, 2013

Moses' ten feet Maybe not. But he came down from the mount with ten mitsvot.

Peace. And many blessings. Reply

Esther Sarah Evans Yerushalayim August 20, 2013

According to my mentor rabbi, I can remember that Moshe Rabbeinu was about 15 feet tall. Recently, human remains from about his time were found in the Sinai, and they measured about that height. Your little guy's on the right track - just a little off the mark. According to the 15 feet version, if he were allowed to come here now, he would be just a little under a third of the very highest point on the Kotel and a third of most of the rest. I for one keep praying and waiting for him to appear some day there just like that. (I'm almost sixty-five). Reply

Gil Great Neck August 20, 2013

Moses10 Cubits in Height Moses had a deficit. No it was not in height it was in speech. He was suffering from a speech dysfluency. He needed his brother Aaron to speak for him when he approached Pharaoh. Hashem chose Moses because he was humble. IMO because Moses stuttered people would pay attention to his speech. They followed him as their leader, and liberator. Today, people tend to pay more attention to someone who stammers or stutters. This speech dysarthria is termed a dysfluency. Reply

Moshe August 18, 2013

10 cubits tall Let's not forget, there's another place in the Talmud that said all Levites were 10 cubits tall. Presently at 5' 7" guess who's hoping that returns. Maybe after Moshiach comes. Reply

Chavah Kwiatkowska Latvia August 10, 2013

Moses' axe of ten cubits Dear Rabbi, could you please explain also the meaning of Moses' axe of ten cubits with which he, according to the Talmud, killed Og (Berakhot 54a)? As far I know, the size of different objects in the Talmudic tales depends on the person's merits.

Thank you in advance. Reply

Steve Zuack Los Angeles August 10, 2013

Thank you once again Rabbi Freeman! Your written articles and videos never disappoint me! And, this is one beautiful, beautiful piece! Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario August 9, 2013

Re: Truth or Fiction Perry, great to see people are asking the right questions. How do you know what to take as history and what to take esoterically? That's one of the major issues we tackle in the upcoming series.

But one simple rule of thumb: The Talmud tells us that no matter how many allusions and deeper meanings any in the Hebrew Bible may have, it never surrenders its simple meaning.

So yes, Adam and Eve were real people. So was Abraham, so was Moses.

But in the simple interpretation of the Hebrew text, Moses could not have been 15 feet tall. For one thing, if he had been, that would certainly be something the text would mention. Especially when the daughters of Jethro come home and say, "An Egyptian saved us from the shepherds!" Wouldn't they say, "A giant saved us?" Reply

Chavah Kwiatkowska Latvia August 9, 2013

Height = spiritual greatness Thank you. Reply

Anonymous USA August 8, 2013

Moses Ten Feet Tall This is a beautiful article. Very explicitly written. I do not believe in idolatry. I believe in an Almighty G-d who's earth is the stool of His feet. No one has ever seen Him. Except for Moses. Abraha Aveinu, had three visitors who look like men. Torah written words: G-d made man in His image. He is not like us, but yet He transforms Himself into a man, whenever He desires us to see Him. He is All Knowing, Mighty G-d. He does not have a body, but He can make a vision of Him to look like a man so that we are able to understand His Power. But I truly believe that He came make Himself visible when there is a great need. He is that Humble also in His Infinite Love and Compassion. For to me these are all His attributes. Could we just tell a child this simple words? Or are they too hard for a child who is seeking the truth. For children take things and other people as face value. That is the beauty of childhood. That is the reason we should come to Him as children? Reply

Aviva Boca Raton, L August 8, 2013

Midrash Rabbi Freeman, As always I look forward to your writings. However today's was one of your best! Oh to be a child again, or a young Mother trying to comprehend how my child see's the world... My mind now is very busy thinking how I can pass this on to my beautiful granddaughter Nicole Natanya. Blessings, Reply

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