The statue of Moses by Michelangelo is one of the most popular attractions for visitors to Rome. Apart from its creation by one of the greatest Renaissance artists, its allure lies in the fact that it features our prophet with horns coming out of his head. This depiction of Moshe Rabbeinu was typical in the Middle Ages and led to the general antisemitic slur that Jews have horns. As recently as the twentieth century, there are accounts in America of people meeting Jews and being surprised that they didn’t actually have horns!
How did this extraordinary misconception arise?
אָמַר רַבִּי אִלָּעָא אָמַר רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ, אוֹמֵר הָיָה רַבִּי מֵאִיר: תַּחַשׁ שֶׁהָיָה בִּימֵי מֹשֶׁה בְּרִיָּה בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָהּ הָיָה, וְלֹא הִכְרִיעוּ בּוֹ חֲכָמִים אִם מִין חַיָּה הוּא, אִם מִין בְּהֵמָה הוּא. וְקֶרֶן אַחַת הָיְתָה לוֹ בְּמִצְחוֹ, וּלְפִי שָׁעָה נִזְדַּמֵּן לוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה וְעָשָׂה מִמֶּנּוּ מִשְׁכָּן וְנִגְנַז. מִדְּקָאָמַר קֶרֶן אַחַת הָיְתָה לוֹ בְּמִצְחוֹ, שְׁמַע מִינַּהּ טָהוֹר הָיָה, דְּאָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: שׁוֹר שֶׁהִקְרִיב אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן קֶרֶן אַחַת הָיְתָה לוֹ בְּמִצְחוֹ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְתִיטַב לַה׳ מִשּׁוֹר פָּר מַקְרִין מַפְרִיס״
Rabbi Ilaa quoted Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: Rabbi Meir used to say: The taḥash that existed in the days of Moshe was a creature unto itself, and the Sages did not determine whether it was a type of undomesticated animal or a type of domesticated animal. And it had a single horn on its forehead, and this taḥash happened to come to Moshe for the moment, and he made the covering for the Tabernacle from it. And then it was hidden. From the fact that it is said that the taḥash had a single horn on its forehead, conclude from this that it was kosher, as Rav Yehuda said in a similar vein: The ox that Adam the first sacrificed, had a single horn on its forehead, as it is stated: “And it shall please the Lord better than a horned and hooved ox.”
By definition, an animal with a single horn is called a unicorn (think, unique-horn). While they don’t exist anymore, the Gemara suggests that Moshe and Adam did encounter such a creature. Why did Adam sacrifice a unicorn? The Kli Yakar (Gen. 22:13) explains that a one-horned animal atones for a single sin, while a two-horned animal atones for multiple sins. While Adam could fulfil his duty with a unicorn, we need a double-horned animal to remedy our multifaceted misbehaviour. What makes our sins multifaceted?
Every transgression is a breach against both God and man. You might think that you’re affecting one, but not the other, but it’s not never that simple. When you hurt your fellow human being, you have automatically sinned against God, who instructs us to “Love your fellow as yourself.” He’s our Father in Heaven. And when His children are in pain, He feels the pain.
And it works the other way around too. When we sin against God, we’re also sinning against our fellow man. How is that so? Firstly, we are all responsible for one another. We’re members of the same team. When one person sins, he lets the whole team down. Secondly, your behaviour serves as an example for those who respect and look up to you. You probably have no idea how many people look to you as a silent example for how they should lead their lives. They might not be consciously aware that they are measuring their standards by yours. But life is full of butterfly and ripple effects. When people see you act in some way less than they’d expect from you, the risk is that they decide to relax their standards, in turn. And so you haven’t only sinned against God, you’ve sinned against your fellow, as well.
When Adam offered a sacrifice, there was only him and God. Nobody else. Therefore, all he needed was a one-horned animal to achieve atonement. When do we achieve atonement with a single horn? On our Days of Awe, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We blow the shofar and Hashem forgives all our sins. On Rosh Hashanah, the ‘unicorn’ appears and saves the day!
Nevertheless, our Sages remind us that Hashem can only forgive those sins between man and God, hence the single horn. If you’ve sinned against your fellow man, the High Holy days won’t wipe clean the sin. You need to make amends with the person whom you’ve sinned against. So it’s clear what unicorn symbolize. When we see unicorns, we should be inspired to be nicer to one another and make this world a better place!
Where does the idea of Moshe having horns come from? It originates in a mistranslation – or, more precisely, a misunderstanding, of the Latin translation – of the verse in the Torah, “And Moshe didn’t know that his face was ‘karan’,” meaning glowing. The same word ‘keren’ means horn. And so the common belief in many circles was that Moshe grew horns as he descended from Mt. Sinai.
While some commentators, such as Rashbam, took umbrage at the fallacy, others were more sanguine about the connection between the word for horn and glow. Rashi suggests that the rays of the sun appear as horns extending outwards from the ball of the sun. Why are rays compared to horns? If your transgressions have a butterfly effect, then your good deeds most certainly provoke a butterfly effect.
When you perform acts of kindness towards your fellow human beings, they will, in turn, be inspired, to act more generously towards others. Little by little, the sunrays will spread further and further, making this world a brighter place. Instead of a horn being used to gore or hurt others, your horns have the power to bring light into people’s lives.
Why does everyone love unicorns? Because they bring light and happiness. Now, more than ever, we need more light to dispel the terrible darkness which is currently enveloping the world. You can be a unicorn. May your deeds bring light and joy to all and have a ripple effect on the entire world!