“The Night of the Ducks”: An IDF Drill Gone Wrong

What had all the makings of an April Fools’ prank in 1959 was no joke.

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Photo of IDF soldiers by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel. Photo of radio: Rawpixel, photo of ducks: ZeroOne

This is the story of how the Israel Defense Forces attempted to mobilize its reservists in a drill in 1959 to test the call-up system on national radio, while needing to be sure that citizens didn’t misunderstand the exercise to mean that a war loomed, but neglecting to make that clear in the broadcast, but then having enemies react by mobilizing because they figured Israel really was planning to attack (so did IDF soldiers and Israel’s population), but then red-faced political leaders and IDF brass admitting that this might’ve been a colossal screw-up and then having to prevent escalation into a real war…

Well, the incident came to be lampooned as “Night of the Ducks,” a play on one of the code words the military had selected for the faux mobilization.

Night of the Ducks? It might as well have been Israel’s hybrid sequel to the Marx Brothers’ 1930s comedies A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup, no doubt produced by Chelm Studios.

Wait, wait — there’s more. The episode even involved a Belgian royal, Queen Elisabeth the Queen Mother.

And here’s the kicker: This scenario occurred on April 1.

Rest assured that you, dear reader, are not being pranked this April Fools’ Day, when people like to play practical jokes. The crisis in Israel truly occurred on April 1, 1959.

That Wednesday night, Israel Radio informed listeners that soldiers in three units — codenamed “Water Ducks,” “Expression of Importance” and “Band of Artists” — should report the next day to reserve duty. It was meant to test the military’s responsiveness. Problem was that the IDF didn’t clue anyone in that the call-up was merely a drill.

IDF artillery forces in the 1950s, photo by Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Yitzhak Sadeh collection. Collection source: Yoram Sadeh. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Hearing the announcement, Israelis sensibly figured that a security crisis brewed, perhaps even that war was imminent. So did Arab countries monitoring the radio. In response, for example, Syrian reserve units were called up and Jordan raised its alert level.

Israel’s leaders were left in the dark and fell for it, too. Knesset deliberations on the budget were interrupted as parliamentarians headed for radios to learn what was happening. Rumors spread. One minister announced that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who also served as Defense Minister, was incommunicado.

The mistake was corrected on the radio later that night, and calm was restored. The Foreign Ministry alerted other governments to the blunder and reassured them that Israel wasn’t on war footing. Even Belgium’s former queen and the mother of its then-king, Elisabeth Wittelsbach, during a week-long visit in Israel, had to be persuaded that the country remained safe enough to stay in. (In 1965, two months before her death at age 89, Elisabeth was awarded Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations designation for intervening with Nazi officials to release several hundred Belgian Jews during the Shoah.)

Former IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen Haim Laskov, seen here smoking a pipe. Photo by by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

In fact, in the chaotic moments following the radio announcement, Ben-Gurion sought to reach IDF Chief of Staff Haim Laskov. He telephoned the concert hall where Laskov was attending an event honoring the Queen Mother. An employee there, figuring himself to be the butt of an April Fools’ prank, hung up when the caller identified himself as the Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion called back, and again was hung up on. And yet again. Finally, Ben-Gurion prevailed upon the man to summon Laskov — pronto.

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IDF chief Haim Laskov was forced to explain the mix-up to Belgium’s Queen Mother, from the April 10, 1959 issue of The Detroit Jewish News, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

It wasn’t Israel’s finest hour. Ben-Gurion set up a commission of inquiry. “The failure was not in the call-up but in the broadcasting,” he said. The flub came about, he explained, because, while the call-up drill was planned, its timing hadn’t been decided — and the broadcast occurred without the Defense Minister (himself) or Laskov having approved it.

Laskov (left) and Ben-Gurion (right), pictured about a decade before the incident, when Laskov was still a colonel. Photo by Benno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The fall-out was severe. Two top IDF major-generals, Chief of Reserves Meir Zorea and Chief of Military Intelligence Yehoshafat Harkabi, lost their jobs. A no-confidence motion was brought in the Knesset; the government easily defeated it and remained in power.

With the passage of 65 years, the episode can be shrugged off as an amusing anecdote, even a footnote.

Indeed, Yoav Gelber, a retired professor of Israeli military history who at the time was a 16-year-old student at a military boarding school in Haifa, chuckled about the incident during a telephone conversation this week.

But the backstory he related was no laughing matter. It was a story he learned of years later directly from Laskov, who Gelber said was “a good friend” of his.

In short: There was never meant to be a call-up. The duck hunting was all a decoy.

In those days, Gelber explained, Egypt flew surveillance planes into Israel at night, certain that doing so carried little risk: By the time the Israeli Air Force responded, the Egyptians would have photographed the areas they desired and departed. So the IAF’s commander in chief, Ezer Weizmann (later to become Israel’s president), set up an ambush. Announcing the IDF’s mobilization would draw Egypt’s surveillance planes. IAF planes by then would be aloft, ready to shoot down the Egyptian planes.

For some reason, Egypt didn’t bite and its planes stayed away.

Maj. Gen. Ezer Weizmann, head of the Israeli Air Force and future Israeli President, pictured speaking at an IDF ceremony in 1959. Photo by Boris Karmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, he National Library of Israel

That night, Gelber recalled, military commanders at his school ordered students to report to the armory to take weapons. Gelber went to sleep alongside a Czech rifle. When he woke up, things had returned to normal.

Gelber said that at the time, he was cognizant of the date, so he first suspected that the call-up order was a gag. He then decided it was real because, he reasoned, “it was at night, and April Fools’ jokes you generally do in the morning.”

The incident “wasn’t funny at all. It was very serious,” said Gelber.

Not that he resisted temptation decades later.

Gelber related a story from his days as a battalion commander in the reserves. This was in 1982, soon before the Lebanon War broke out. Gelber told his soldiers that because of the security situation, he was cancelling all vacations and leaves.

His men groaned.

“Everyone swallowed it. No one suspected,” Gelber said, giggling like a comedian struggling to restrain himself from revealing the punch line.

“Then I told them to look at the calendar. It was April 1.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected].

I, Woman: Janet Asimov Tells Her Story

Both were writers, both were doctors - she in psychiatry, he in chemistry. But does the name Janet Opal ring a bell if it isn’t attached to the famous surname she received from her husband? Janet Opal Asimov was her husband Isaac’s right hand throughout their years of marriage. She shared credit with him for quite a few books, short stories, and essays she wrote, and edited many of his writings. But even though her work was often overshadowed, she was a fascinating woman who deserves to be remembered in her own right.

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Janet and Isaac Asimov, from the American edition of their "shared" book "Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot"

“One of the deepest desires of a human being is to be known and understood.”

With this sentence, Janet Asimov begins the very personal epilogue she attached to her husband Isaac Asimov’s biography, which she edited. In trying to describe Isaac’s fascinating life story, she may have been telling us a little something about herself as well.

Did she feel like the world knew her? Understood her?

If you search for “Janet Asimov” in the National Library of Israel’s online catalog, you will only find a handful of results. One is It’s Been a Good Life, Isaac Asimov’s biography which she edited. Another is a small Hebrew edition of the book Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot,with an old-fashioned-looking cover where their names appear side by side: “Janet and Isaac Asimov”.

We will come back to this book later.

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The Hebrew edition of Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot can be loaned at the National Library of Israel

This selection, of course, is far from an accurate reflection of the scope or quality of her literary work, most of which the publishers in Israel chose not to translate.

Janet Opal Asimov (née Jeppson) was a doctor of medicine, as well as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, long before she began writing. Her written work incorporated quite a bit from her professional training, which she used to raise issues of identity, self-determination, and consciousness.

In May 1966, she had her first story published. It was a short mystery story that was sold to a publication called The Saint. Eight years later, her first science fiction novel, The Second Experiment, was published. Since then, she never stopped writing and publishing – novels, novellas, short stories, anthologies, and essays.

While working on her budding writing career, Janet was also extremely busy with other matters. She had a full-time job at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis & Psychology, published many medical articles, and also fell in love with and married a quite well-known man named Isaac Asimov.

She first met Isaac in 1956. She was still a psychiatry intern at Bellevue Hospital, and he was already a famous author. Janet attended a convention for science fiction fans and went to get an autograph from Asimov, who was cold toward her. At the time, Isaac was suffering from kidney stones, and Janet got the impression that he was not a pleasant person.

They met again three years later, at a festive dinner honoring mystery writers hosted by Veronica Parker Johnson. They were seated next to each other, and this time they immediately clicked.

Janet and Isaac kept in touch, even though he was still married to his first wife, Gertrude Blugerman – the mother of his two children. In 1970 he separated from his wife and moved in with Janet. The divorce proceedings took three years, and in 1973, when the process was officially completed, Asimov and Janet got married in a modest ceremony at their home.

Isaac Asimov was a proud Jew. He insisted, for example, that the Hebrew translations of his books use his Hebrew name, Yitzchak. For some reason, the Israeli publishers managed to get away with using the name י. אסימוב (“Y. Asimov”) on the covers until the seventies, when they all decided to completely ignore his request and he remained אייזק  (“Isaac”, not “Yitzchak”) to his Israeli readers. Janet, on the other hand, had Mormon roots. But this inter-religious connection was not an issue for them. They were both humanists, and their marriage ceremony was based not on religion but rather on ethical principles.

From the day they moved in together, Janet began playing an active role in her husband’s work. She was writing science fiction before she met him, with her stories mostly published under the name “Janet O. Jeppson”, but now she had begun to collaborate with one of the most prolific, original, and famous writers in the genre. While continuing her work as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, she edited many of his works (including his autobiographical books), co-authored many of his essays, and the two even wrote several non-fiction works together.

How to Enjoy Writing, not just science fiction – one of the non-fiction books that Janet and Isaac Asimov wrote together

Isaac loved Janet and valued her writing and her opinions. “My letters to you are first drafts,” he once wrote to her, “…and I leave it to you to get past the maunderings and potterings and see my meaning. In fact, it is very wonderful to be able to leave it to you to do that –in full confidence and trust.”

But even if Isaac felt that she was a partner in his creation, as far as the world was concerned, she often disappeared in his shadow. He was the star of this relationship. Her own stories, good as they were, got a bit lost in the oblivion of literary history.

Let’s go back for a moment to the little book we found in the collections of the National Library of Israel: this one slim book, 107 pages in all, might be able to demonstrate more than anything else how Janet was overlooked due to the fame of her husband.

Norby, the Mixed-Up Robot was the first book in a series of twelve that describe the adventures of an independent-minded robot named Norby and a young fellow by the name of Jeff who had the privilege of being his owner. This is a children’s science fiction series full of things that today have become commonplace in children’s literature and film. Back then, these were still relatively new, and truly awesome inventions and literary innovations: space shuttles and interstellar “jumps”, ancient dragons, aliens, computers that run the household, flying transportation, and most of all – robots that transcend their basic programming and develop independent personalities.

These are funny, light, and captivating stories and it is a shame that only the first book in the series was translated into Hebrew. But Isaac Asimov, whose name appears on the cover as one of the writers, hardly had anything to do with them.

According to his own testimony, these were Janet’s stories. At the request of the publisher, Isaac intervened a bit in the editing just so that his name could appear on the cover – purely for marketing reasons.

The cover of one of Janet Asimov’s books, The Package in Hyperspace, an accessible science fiction book for children – that did appear under her name

If Janet was hurt or felt disrespected by this request, she never let on. Her relationship with Isaac seems to have remained strong and loving. They had their share of arguments. Life at home was not always easy, but they didn’t hold grudges and stayed dedicated and loyal to each other.

In 1983, Isaac Asimov underwent a bypass surgery that was ostensibly a success, but from that day on, his health began to deteriorate. The doctors couldn’t understand the connection between the various symptoms he began to develop, but Janet, who was a doctor herself, had an idea. She asked them to test him for HIV.

The prejudiced doctors initially objected to testing for the virus, which in those years was considered a source of terrible shame and almost complete social isolation. But she insisted, and the test results proved her right, much to her great sorrow. Asimov contracted the virus from blood transfusions he received during his bypass surgery. At the time, this diagnosis was a death sentence and all that was left to do was to wait and see when it would be carried out.

Janet left her job at the William Alanson White Institute and devoted her time to caring for her husband. She fed him in his sick bed and also took care of other matters of interest, like their joint writing, completing essays he was unable to finish, and editing drafts and letters so that they would be fit to print.

About a year before his death, he wrote the book Asimov Laughs Again, and in the summary of the manuscript he added the following:

“I’m afraid that my life has just about run its course and I don’t really expect to live much longer […] In my life, I have had Janet and I have had my daughter, Robyn, and my son, David; I have had a large number of good friends; I have had my writing and the fame and fortune it has brought me; and no matter what happens to me now, it’s been a good life, and I am satisfied with it.”

He died with Janet and his daughter by his side. Janet used to say that the last sentence he said was “I love you too.”

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Janet and Isaac Asimov. Photo: Jay Kay Klein

After his death, she continued both their joint work and her independent writing. She went back to publishing science fiction novels under the name Janet O. Jeppson, but she didn’t abandon Isaac’s legacy: For a while, she took over writing the popular science column he used to write, she edited two biographical books of his writings – one of which she entitled It’s Been a Good Life – and she even edited his 400th essay in Fantasy and Science Fiction entitled “A Way of Thinking” from letters he wrote to her and fragments of drafts he left behind.

Despite the objections of his doctors, she insisted on publicizing the cause of his death, and she did so, albeit belatedly, in the epilogue to the book It’s Been a Good Life. She believed that this would help in the fight against prejudices, stigmas and the lack of awareness that surrounded HIV and claimed so many lives.

Janet passed away in 2019, at the age of 92. Most reports about her death referred to her as “Isaac Asimov’s widow”.

Here and there, some websites or science fiction magazines also mentioned her own writing. In one of them, Don Kaye wrote:

“Janet Asimov, one half of one of science fiction literature’s great power couples, has passed beyond the realm of human understanding.”

What would have happened if Janet Opal Jeppson hadn’t become half of this couple? What would have happened if she hadn’t met Isaac Asimov? Did we lose another Ursula K. Le Guin because Janet Asimov didn’t have the freedom or space to develop her own unique style and language? Or did Asimov act as a close mentor who improved her writing and opened up a whole world to her?

We won’t get answers to these questions, but even without them we can say that it’s a shame that history doesn’t remember her enough, and it’s a shame that more of her work wasn’t translated into Hebrew. She was an excellent writer who combined humor and flowing plotlines with great psychological and human questions, and she deserves to be recognized as Janet Opal Jeppson, a writer in her own right.

The Mystery of the Spanish Esther Scroll

"¡Que tengas un feliz Purim!" - That’s Spanish for: Have a happy Purim! A 17th century megillah stands out for being penned in the language of descendants of the inquisitions’ survivors.

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The Book of Esther, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

A partial list of key figures in the story of Purim, the festive holiday that will begin on Saturday night (Sunday night in Jerusalem), includes the following descriptors:

King Ahashverosh: Rey Ahasueros

Queen Vashti, Queen Esther: Uasti la Reyna, Ester la Reyna

Mordechai the Jew: Mordehay el Iudio

Haman, son of Hamdata the Aggegite: Haman hijo de Hamedata el aghageo

Shushan the capital: Susan la metropolitan

At least, that’s how the words appear in the Book of Esther in an all-Spanish megillah (scroll) handwritten in 1684 in Amsterdam that is in the collection of the National Library of Israel.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The Amsterdam megillah’s being written in a language other than Hebrew makes it unique. In synagogues throughout the world, the Book of Esther is read aloud from scrolls on the eve of Purim and again the next morning — always in Hebrew.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Why would the Amsterdam megillah have been written, and presumably recited on Purim, in a different language? After all, even in today’s congregations, where prayers sometimes are led by cantors and intoned by worshippers in the native land’s tongue — such as French in Reform synagogues in France or English in the United States — it’s inconceivable that Torah scrolls are not written or chanted in Hebrew. Ditto for the Book of Esther and other megillot recited on Jewish holidays.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Of course, in homes and synagogues of all Jewish denominations throughout the world, printed books of the Torah and other portions of the Bible are commonly published, read and studied in translated form alongside the facing pages’ Hebrew original. Non-Jews reading the Bible commonly do so in their native languages, too.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Maybe, then, the Amsterdam megillah was a variation of that: a Spanish-only translation that was not intended to be read publicly on Purim.

No, said Aliza Moreno, NLI’s Judaica specialist and coordinator for Latin America, who is sure that the Amsterdam megillah was written for the purpose of being read publicly.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The proof, she said, lies in the three complete blessings that appear before the megillah’s text begins. The first words of each, Bendito tu ANDR, meaning, “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe,” is a standard opening for Jewish prayers. The megillah’s prayers are chanted only when the scroll is read publicly — and not, for example, when someone reads or studies it at school or at home.

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Bendito tu ANDR – “Blessed are You, our God, king of the universe”, an Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“Unfortunately, we can’t determine who read it or to whom, but it’s clear that the person who wrote it did so for the purpose, like a Torah scroll, of reading it in public to fulfill the mitzvah,” Moreno said of the Amsterdam megillah.

The “larger, more interesting” questions, she said, are: Why was it written in Spanish, why in Amsterdam and why in the late 17th Century?

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“The story is this,” Moreno began, launching a sensible supposition encompassing Jewish history, migration and tradition — in short, the real life experienced by Jews of the day.

Following the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century, some of those who had outwardly converted to Christianity and remained in Spain and Portugal, continued to practice Jewish customs in secret. Some of their descendants eventually settled in Amsterdam beginning about a century after the expulsion, where they were able to reconnect openly with the Judaism of their ancestors.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

Because they couldn’t read Hebrew, for the first time in Jewish history, we see a pattern of communities translating multiple Hebrew texts into languages written in Latin script, Moreno said.

One of the most notable cases, she explained, was the Biblia de Ferrara, a translation of the Bible into Spanish published in the northern Italy city in 1553. NLI’s collection includes one such first edition. The Biblia de Ferrara was later published in Amsterdam in the 17th century.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

“We do know that the most important community [of descendants of conversos] was Amsterdam, and we know that the style of the congregation is that the cantor prayed in Hebrew, but some of the worshippers had siddurim [prayer books] in Spanish and said the prayers in Spanish,” she said.

“This is important to state: One year before the Biblia de Ferrara was translated to Spanish, the siddur was translated to Spanish. It was a parallel phenomenon in the translations of both the siddur and Tanach [Bible],” Moreno said. The Amsterdam megillah “reflects the use of Spanish in historical context,” she added.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

In the 1560s, Sephardic diaspora communities — including Salonika and Kushta (contemporary Istanbul) — who maintained Jewish observance and were not lacking in Jewish knowledge, published a limited range of Jewish texts in Ladino, such as a prayer book for women and a partial translation of the Shulkhan Arukh (Code of Jewish Law), known as Shulkhan HaPanim.

By the time the Amsterdam megillah was written, nearly two centuries had elapsed since the inquisitions began.

According to the Amsterdam megillah’s inscription under the blessing, the scribe was Benyamin Senior, and the work was commissioned by Ishak de Matatia Aboab.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

The megillah’s writing is straightforward and all-text, lacking adornments and colors and illustrations. Moreno called the calligraphy “very, very beautiful” for the size of its letters and the gaps between them. “It’s beautiful, professional and readable,” she said.

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An Esther Scroll, handwritten in Spanish, Amsterdam, 1684, the National Library of Israel collections, photo by Shir Bram

So much so that the megillah was exhibited at a meeting at the National Library in mid-March of the U.S.-based Samis Foundation, which last year provided a generous grant to NLI dedicated to the Moreshet Sepharad (Sephardic tradition) collection.  

Moreno found no document explaining how the megillah came to reach the Library. Nor is she sure how it was used. “In a synagogue? In a home? Was it never read? It’s very curious for me,” she said.

If it was never recited, why was the megillah written, given the cost and time invested in producing it?

“That’s a very good question,” Moreno said, “but I can’t give a definitive answer.”

Writer-editor Hillel Kuttler can be reached at [email protected]


Books and manuscripts in disguise? The items in the special Purim video below have been “dressed up” to appear as something they are not… Happy Purim from the National Library of Israel!

The Mystery of Moses’ Horns

Michelangelo, the great Renaissance artist, left an incredible cultural legacy behind, along with a fascinating mystery: Why did he choose to add horns to his famous sculpture of Moses?

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Michelangelo’s "Moses". Photo: Ulrich Mayring

By Daniel Lipson

In the eternal city of Rome, not far from the Colosseum, sits the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli. Behind the church’s relatively modest façade is one of the world’s most famous works of art, which has made this somewhat ordinary-looking house of worship into a famous location: the sculpture Moses, erected as part of the monument for Pope Julius II.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the most prominent artists of the Renaissance, created the sculpture on the orders of the Pope himself. The work began in 1505, ending ten years later. The Pope, who had commissioned the work for his own tomb, died two years before and did not get to see the finished product.

The sculpture presents the figure of Moses, and in addition to the long beard and the divine tablets he holds, it’s a little surprising to discover that Moses also has a small pair of horns. Two strange bumps protrude from his head in a rather unflattering manner. Some claim that Michelangelo added these in order to mock the Pope, but the more common view is that this artistic decision was based on an error in interpretation.

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Michelangelo’s Moses. Photo: Ulrich Mayring

But how can it be that such an esteemed artist, who spent a decade working on his creation, could make such a mistake?

The story is as follows: Michelangelo and many preceding generations of European Christians were familiar with the Vulgate version of the biblical text – largely the work of a man by the name of Jerome.  Jerome, who would later be raised to sainthood, was a priest, theologian, and translator who translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century CE, relying on previous Greek translations and even studying Hebrew to understand the text of the Old Testament in the original.

Back to Moses’ horns. The solution to the mystery can be found in the last few verses of the weekly Torah portion or parshah of Ki Tissa, in the book of Exodus. Here is the text in question (Ex. 34:29-30, 35), as it appears in English in the Douay-Rheims Challoner Bible, which is still used by certain Catholic congregations today:

“And when Moses came down from the mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned [karan in the original Hebrew] from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned [karan], were afraid to come near… And they saw that the face of Moses when he came out was horned [karan], but he covered his face again, if at any time he spoke to them.”

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Biblia sacra, Antwerp 1599, open to the verses describing Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai (second column from left)

The Hebrew root k-r-n can indeed mean “horn” – as in animal horns. But it has other meanings as well: k-r-n can also mean a ray of light, and the original Hebrew verses here were in fact referring to a verb or action, not a noun. The verb essentially means, “to shine” or “to glow”. The original Hebrew text indicates that Moses’ face was shining, not horned. Jerome was almost certainly familiar with both meanings, but chose to translate karan as “horned”, a mistake which earlier translators had successfully avoided.

The famous Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint explains that Moses’ face was “glorified” or “glorious”, which is a reasonably accurate translation. But Jerome also made use of the Greek translation done by Aquila of Sinope. Aquila grew up in what is now Turkey in the second century. He converted to Judaism, and some identify him with Onkelos, whom we know as the man who translated the Torah into Aramaic.

In any event, Aquila indeed translated the Hebrew root k-r-n as meaning “horn”. It may sound strange to us, but in ancient times horns symbolized power, which is why horns were sometimes attached to the helmets of warriors. To be fair, Aquila was careful to write that Moses had the “appearance” of horns rather than physical ones.

Jerome followed Aquila and used the word cornutam / cornuta in Latin, meaning animal horns, not rays of light.

From a copy of the Vulgate, France, 13th century

According to one explanation, the use of the word cornatum may have an antisemitic dimension. Both the New Testament and the Christian faith as a whole attribute the presence of horns to monstrous creatures and even Satan himself. Even though the Old Testament is also holy to Christians, it could be that Moses, as the representative of the Jewish People, was described implicitly as being the leader of an evil people or nation, and the horns thus served as a means to demonize the Jews.

Another possibility is that Jerome, like Aquila before him, got the idea from an entirely different source:

There is a certain early piyut (a Jewish liturgical hymn) that appears in some of the older Ashkenazi prayer books for Jewish holidays. This piyut tells of Moses receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, and it was customarily recited during the festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah, when the Torah is read in the synagogue.

The piyut was written in ancient Aramaic in the dialect of the Land of Israel, and it incorporated Greek words as well. The language and structure of the piyut dates it to the era of the Byzantine Empire before the Muslim conquest, but according to scholar Joseph Heinemann, it is based on a folk song, handed down orally from much earlier.

The piyut is comprised of 22 lines, built as an acrostic following the Hebrew alphabet. It was translated into Hebrew in 1966 by Avraham Rosenthal. The piyut opens with the words Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai (“God bent Heaven to Sinai”), later describing God placing rays of glory on Moses’ head. So far, so good in aligning with the biblical text. But then, towards the end of the piyut, the angels appear before God and are afraid of Moses, as they claim he might gore or headbutt them.

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Arkin Hashem Shemaya Le-Sinai piyut, Rome Machzor, 1441

It may be that this combination of Moses’ physical description (the Hebrew wording being open to interpretation) with his supposed ability to headbutt or gore someone (possibly based on a common, popular understanding which arose during this period), is responsible for creating the image of Moses as actually having horns on his head.

It might be that this was the source Aquila relied upon, which Jerome then copied when preparing the text of the Vulgate.

But is Michelangelo’s work based on this mistranslation?

Art historian Ruth Mellinkoff proved that the association of animal horns with Moses was a common theme in many Christian artistic works in the Middle Ages, and not always negatively so. Sometimes Moses appeared with one horn, a hat from which horns emerged, and even hair in the form of two horns. It would appear that Michelangelo was following a well-established artistic tradition when he decided to add his horns.

Art scholar Malka Rosenthal showed that Moses appeared with horns in Jewish literary illustrations as well. A number of books published in the German city of Fürth between 1741 and 1750 show the figures of Moses and Aharon on the cover, with Moses holding a staff and tablets while a pair of horns appear on his head.

Passover Haggadah, Fürth, 1741
אשל אברהם 1741

Medieval Jewish commentators like Rashi, Rashbam, and others reject this view, of course. The words of Ibn Ezra concerning a particular heretic named Hivi sum it up fairly dramatically:

“May the bones of the criminal Hivi be crushed, who said that since [Moses] ate no bread, Moses’ face became as dry as a horn. And that the reason [the People of Israel] feared [approaching Moses] was because his face was ugly. And how did this accursed [Hivi] not open his eyes…”