Skin Deep: Scratching the Surface of Miriam in Numbers 12

Yiskah Rosenfeld


The Biblical story that most extensively explores the character of Miriam is also the one least visible in Jewish ritual life. Chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers tells the story of Miriam speaking with Aaron against their brother Moses. Two alternate versions are offered for the content of their conversation, alerting the reader to a redaction or splicing of different sources. In one, Miriam and Aaron are talking about a “Cushite woman” Moses married; in the other, they complain that they, too, deserve the right to speak directly to God. While what made their conversation so offensive to God is up for Midrashic and scholarly debate, what is clear to commentators is that Miriam is punished for her behavior. After receiving a scolding from God, her skin is turned mztoraat, leprous “as snow.” In a neat show of spiritual delegation, Aaron appeals to Moses on her behalf, and Moses prays to God to heal her with the brief and famous words El na refana la, “please, God, heal her now.” God orders Miriam to go outside the camp for seven days and the people wait for her to be healed before journeying on toward the Promised Land.

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