When Moses Was Born the House Was Filled with Light

The Iranian origins of a Talmudic Midrash

The Mother of Moses. Artist: Simeon Solomon 1860. Delaware Art Museum

Moses was born during Pharaoh’s fatal decree against male Israelite babies. His mother Yocheved tried hiding him for three months to save him, driven to help Moses on account of his goodness:

וַתַּהַר הָאִשָּׁה, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא, וַתִּצְפְּנֵהוּ שְׁלֹשָׁה יְרָחִים.
The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how good he was, she hid him for three months.

But what exactly does “good” mean here?  Ancient Bible commentators stepped in to offer a range of explanations.

Moses was Beautiful: Early Jewish and Christian Interpretations

The 1st century CE Jewish historian, Josephus, emphasized Moses’ beautiful appearance. When Pharaoh’s daughter presents the infant to her father as a possible heir to the throne, it is due to Moses’ “godly appearance and nobility of mind.”[1] In addition, Josephus described Moses as mature beyond his young age,[2] and added other distinguishing features concerning his birth, including a wondrously painless pregnancy and birth.[3] Early Christian exegetes understood the description “she saw that he was good,” as referring to Moses’s beautiful appearance.[4]

Moses’ Goodness According to a Baraita

Rabbinic literature also contains a variety of interpretations regarding Moses’s birth, including a baraita (an ostensibly tannaitic text) presenting several interpretations of the phrase כי טוב הוא, “that he was good”:

בבלי סוטה דף יב ע״א [א] תניא, ר”מ אומר: טוב שמו; ר’ יהודה אומר: טוביה שמו; רבי נחמיה אומר: נולד מהול; אחרים אומרים: בן הגון לנביאות היה;
b. Sotah 12a [A] It has been taught: R. Meir said: His name was Tov; R. Yehudah said: His name was Tuviah; R. Nehemiah says: He was born circumcised; Others say: he was one worthy of receiving prophecy.
[ב] וחכמים אומרים: בשעה שנולד משה  נתמלא הבית כולו אורה, כתיב הכא: ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא, וכתיב התם: וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב.
[B] And the Sages say: At the time when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light. It is written here ‘and she saw that he was good,’ and it is written there ‘and the Lord saw that the light was good’ (Genesis1:4).

Most of the opinions collected in this baraita can be found, in one form or another, in earlier rabbinic compilations from the Land of Israel. The first two opinions, attributed to R. Meir and R. Yehudah, read the word טוב – “good” – as alluding to the name Moses’ parents gave him. Similar traditions about Moses’ name are found in Palestinian midrashic literature.[5]

Similarly, R. Nehemiah’s claim that Moses was born circumcised appears often in classical midrashic literature,[6] and is even attested in Josephus and the early, quasi-midrashic work, Pseudo-Philo.[7]

An additional Palestinian rabbinic association between baby Moses and circumcision is adduced by a third-generation Palestinian amora based on Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, who was able to immediately identify Moses as an Israelite:[8]

בבלי סוטה יב ע״א ״ותאמר מילדי העברים זה״ מנין הכירה אותו? אמר ר’ יוסי ברבי חנינא: שראתה אותו מהול.
b. Sotah 12a “And she [Bithiah] said ‘this is a Hebrew child’.” How did she recognize him [as a Hebrew]? R. Yose b. Haninah said: She saw that he was circumcised.

Finally, the interpretation, attributed to the “Others” that he was someone worthy of receiving prophecy (בן הגון לנביאות היה) finds no precise parallel in Palestinian literature. Nevertheless, the Palestinian midrash Esther Rabbah I 5:1 contains a tradition with similar language that describes Moses as הגון לדבר, worthy for “the matter.”[9] In the context of the passage, this refers to serving as God’s emissary charged with leading the Israelites out of Egypt.[10]

Light Filled the House: Part B of the Baraita

At its conclusions, the baraita preserves a tradition made famous due to its citation in Rashi’s commentary on the Torah (ad loc.):

כי טוב הוא. כְּשֶׁנּוֹלַד נִתְמַלֵּא הַבַּיִת כֻּלּוֹ אוֹרָה
“That he was good” – When he was born, the whole house was filled with light.

According to the baraita, this motif is supported by the hermeneutical rule gezeira shava, in which one phrase is used to shed light on another similar phrase elsewhere in Scripture.  In this case, Genesis 1:4 states וירא אלוהים את האור כי טוב, “God saw that the light was good,” while Exodus 2:2 similarly states ותרא אתו כי טוב הוא, “and she saw that he was good,” thus the “good” in Exodus 2:2 is light-related, as in Genesis 1:4.

The fact that the phrase וירא אלהים כי טוב “God saw that it was good” is used concerning almost every day of creation, following the creation of not only light, but also dry land, plant-life, the constellations, marine-life and animals (Genesis 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25), and all of the creations together are more generally deemed  “very good” (v. 31) makes the choice to signal out light far from obvious.  These and other factors suggest the artificiality of its tannaitic provenance.

A Babylonian Addition to the Baraita?

In fact, a similar tradition is attributed to Babylonian amoraim in a subsequent section of the sugyah.

בבלי סוטה דף יב ע״ב – יג ״עא ״ותקח מרים הנביאה אחות אהרן וגו’״ אחות אהרן ולא אחות משה?
b. Sotah 12b-13a And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took etc. (Exodus 15:20) The “sister of Aaron” and not the sister of Moses?!
אמר רב עמרם אמר רב, ואמרי לה אמר רב נחמן אמר רב: מלמד, שהיתה מתנבאה כשהיא אחות אהרן ואומרת: עתידה אמי שתלד בן שמושיע את ישראל;
R. Amram said in the name of Rav, and according to others it was R. Nahman who said in the name of Rav: It teaches that she prophesied while she yet was the sister of Aaron only and said: “My mother will bear a son who will be the savior of Israel.” 
וכיון שנולד משה, נתמלא כל הבית כולה אור, עמד אביה ונשקה על ראשה, אמר לה: בתי, נתקיימה נבואתיך! וכיון שהטילוהו ליאור, עמד אביה וטפחה על ראשה, אמר לה: בתי, היכן נבואתיך!
When Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light; and her father arose and kissed her upon her head, saying “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled”; but when they cast him into the river, her father arose and smacked her upon her head, saying: “Where, now, is your prophecy!”
והיינו דכתיב:[11] ותתצב אחותו מרחוק לדעה מה יעשה לו, לידע מה יהא בסוף נבואתה.
That is what is written: “And his sister stood afar off to know what would be done to him” (Exodus 2:4)— what would be the fate of her prophecy.

Significantly, a tannaitic version of the Bavli midrash,[12] which is motivated by similar exegetical concerns and seems closely related to the Bavli passage, makes no mention of light filling the house upon Moses’s birth. The literary construction of this Bavli midrash suggests that it was reworked considerably from tannaitic sources:[13]

מכילתא דרשב”י בשלח, שירתא י ותקח מרים הנביאה, וכי היכן מצינו שנביאה היתה מרים אלא שאמרה לאביה סופך אתה מוליד בן שמושיע את ישראל מיד מצרים מיד וילך איש מבית לוי ויקח וגו’ (שמות ב א) ותהר ותלד בן וגו’ ולא יכלה עוד הצפינו. נזף בה אביה אמ’ לה בתי היכן נבואותיך ועודה מחזקת בנבואתה שנ’ ותתצב אחותו מרחוק לדעה מה יעשה לו ואין יציבה אלא נבואה
Mekhilta dR. Ishmael Beshalah, Shirata, 10 “And Miriam the prophetess took etc.” (Exodus 15:2). Where do we find that Miriam was a prophetess?  Rather she had told her father, ‘You will have a son who will save Israel from Egypt’. Immediately ‘a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman…she conceived…and bore a son etc… when she could hide him no longer’ (Exodus 2:1-3); her father became angry with her, saying: ‘My daughter, where is thy prophecy!’ But she maintained her prophecy, as it is written: ‘And his sister stood afar off to know what would be done to him’ (Exodus 2:4)— standing refers to prophecy.

Several reasons suggest that the light tradition was added later to the baraita, in Babylonia.

No Palestinian Parallels– Unlike the previous opinions, the tradition about the light-filled house has no parallel in extant Palestinian literature.[14]

“Others say” – Whenever a baraita includes an opinion attributed to “Others,” it usually appears as either the final[15] or the sole opinion[16] of a tannaitic text and only rarely precedes other rulings, yet here the opinions of the “Others” is followed by that of the Sages.[17]

The style of aggadic gloss – Whereas the baraita itself consists of terse statements regarding the meaning of “that he was good” (כי טוב הוא), the opinion of the Sages is structured as a longer self-contained unit, providing narrative context and a derasha.

Aramaic – The use of Babylonian Aramaic for the prooftexts (כתיב הכא   וכתיב התם  “it is written here…it is written there) attests to its Babylonian provenance.

Plot Problems – Finally, putting aside the provenance of the teaching, we should note that unlike other proposals, the light-filled house tradition seems at odds with the biblical narrative surrounding Moses’ birth, which describes the pains which his mother took to conceal him. A house filling with light would on the face of it attract the attention of the Egyptians who would likely have been particularly attentive to expecting Israelite women.[18]

How then are we to explain this later Babylonian addition to the baraita?[19]

Moses’ Radiant Face

One possible source for the light tradition may be the later biblical account where Moses’ face radiated light when he descended Mount Sinai:

שמות לד:כט וַיְהִי בְּרֶדֶת מֹשֶׁה מֵהַר סִינַי וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת בְּיַד מֹשֶׁה בְּרִדְתּוֹ מִן הָהָר וּמֹשֶׁה לֹא יָדַע כִּי קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו בְּדַבְּרוֹ אִתּוֹ. ל וַיַּרְא אַהֲרֹן וְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת מֹשֶׁה וְהִנֵּה קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו וַיִּירְאוּ מִגֶּשֶׁת אֵלָיו.
Exodus 34:29  When Moses came down from Mount Sinai bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face radiated (horns?), since he had spoken with Him. 29:30 Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant, and they shrank from coming near him.

Although there is no direct mention of light (אור), there is reference to Moses’ skin radiating [20] (קרן עור). The radiance of Moses was so exceptional that he was ultimately compelled to cover it when he communicated with the people (Exodus 34:35). Moses’ illuminated face after receiving the Torah may be seen as foreshadowed by the Bavli tradition concerning his radiance at birth.[21]

Although this exegetical justification is certainly possible, it does not adequately explain  its appearance specifically in the Bavli. For that we need to turn to the broader context in which the Babylonian Talmud was composed

Zoroaster’s Radiance at Birth

Recent years have seen a rise in scholarship exploring the Sasanian Iranian religious and literary context of the Babylonian Talmud.[22] Evidence from these studies indicate that the rabbinic circles that produced the Bavli were in contact with the surrounding Iranian culture. The motif of light filling the house upon the birth of Moses appears to be an example of such a cultural borrowing, reflecting the central role divine light plays in the cosmologies of Eastern religions that were current in Sasanian Persia. Specifically, it parallels a central element of Zoroastrian doctrine as reflected in the accounts of the births of Zoroaster, the religion’s founding prophet.[23]

Zoroastrianism is essentially dualistic,[24] with light serving as the embodiment of good that combats evil/darkness. Light/fire, therefore, figures prominently in the narratives describing the births of Zoroaster, Zoroastrianism’s founding prophet,  and his mother, as recorded in the Dēnkard, “Acts of the Religion,” a compendium of the Zoroastrian religion.[25]

Although compiled during the 9th-10th centuries, the Dēnkard (hereon Dk.) contains much older material from the Sassanian period. Book VII, a legendary biography of Zoroaster, offers a detailed account typical of the hero’s nativity (likewise seen in Moses’s birth narrative), describing how Zoroaster was born into a life-threatening situation and saved by his mother. Prior to his birth, Dk. VII. 2.56 states:

2.56 When there was three days left before his birth, in the manner of the sun before it rises, when its first light spreads out… the entire Village of Pōrušasp was luminous.

Earlier on in the Dk. (Book V 2,6.1) we read  “when he (the prophet) was born, there was a light like the blaze of fire-a glare and a twilight –irradiating from his house in all directions.”

Zoroaster’s light was so radiant that the neighboring residents feared that a fire had erupted in their village. Only when they saw that there was no fire did the people realize that “a man full of brilliance was born there, in this house.” (DK. VII 2.58)

Zoroaster Radiates the Glory / Light of Creation

The light Zoroaster radiates is a result from the xwarrah, or ‘glory,’ that the supreme Zoroastrian god, Ohrmazd, placed in him. Xwarrah was created during the initial act of divine creation, and was intended by Ohrmazd for Zoroaster (Dk. VII.2:3-4). Throughout ancient and late ancient Iranian texts, including the Avesta and Middle Persian literature, xwarrah and light are linked,[26] and Zoroaster’s radiance reflects this doctrine. The light embodied proof of his goodness and possession of a divine spirit.

The Bavli’s connection between the birth of Moses and the light of creation may further reflect how the motif in its Zoroastrian context associates creation, light, goodness, and Zoroaster’s radiance at birth; the Zoroastrian idea may have inspired the selective talmudic gezera shava which associates Moses’s birth with the light of creation.

Between Moses and Zoroaster 

This possible influence should be considered more broadly against the many similarities between the prophetic figures of Moses and Zoroaster. For example, both received their initial revelation through the appearance of light;[27] both are singularly regarded as the greatest prophet to have lived, privy to special communication by God, and the conduit through which the divine law was given;[28] and both are described splitting bodies of water.[29]

It is therefore unsurprising that the authors of the talmudic midrash would have depicted the singularity of Moses and his innate goodness by adapting an apparently popular motif into the narrative of his birth. Conceivably, the midrash might have functioned as a polemic against claims to the superiority of Zoroastrianism. Regardless, whether the midrash emerged as an intentional appropriation of a Zoroastrian motif or the unconscious incorporation of a prevailing contemporary religious image, it offers evidence of how the rabbis of Babylonia encountered, negotiated, and ultimately incorporated aspects of Sassanian culture into their own religious lore.



Dr. Shana Strauch Schick is a post-doctoral fellow at The Center for Inter-disciplinary Research of the Cairo Genizah at Haifa University. She received a Ph.D. in Talmudic Literature from Bernard Revel Graduate School at Yeshiva University where she also completed an M.A. in Bible, and has held a joint Postdoctoral Fellowship in Jewish Culture in the Ancient World at Haifa, Bar Ilan, and Tel Aviv Universities. Her publications include, “The Middle Persian Context of the Bavli’s Beruriah Narratives,” in Zion. In addition to academic research, she completed the Graduate Program in Advanced Talmud at Stern College and teaches in women’s learning institutions and midrashot in both New York and Jerusalem.