The Bible says that Ehud, one of the judges in Israel, was a left-handed man (Judges 3:15), as it were many of the warriors of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:16). The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, says that Ehud was an ambidexter, that is, someone who could use both hands alike. By being an ambidexter, Ehud had an advantage in hand-to-hand combat because he could use both hands.
There is a Jewish tradition that says that Moses was left-handed. This tradition is based on a legendary event that happened when Moses was a child. In his article, “Why Did Moses Stammer? And, Was Moses Left-handed,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 88 (May 1995): 256-257, Henry Garfinkel provides the details for the Jewish tradition that Moses was left-handed:
Much of this evidence is derived from the Midrashim, a collection of learned books that search for meanings in the Bible which are not initially apparent. The word Midrash is derived from another word ‘darash’ which means ‘to enquire’ or ‘to investigate’.
Rabbinic legend records that one day the young Moses was playing with Pharaoh and innocently took hold of his crown, placing it on his own head. One can imagine the consternation and horror that swept the palace. Was this an omen that the young Hebrew would one day destroy Pharaoh and his evil dynasty and become the most powerful man in the country? The tension must have been so agonizing, that the onlookers became paralysed and dumb with fear. Probably all background noise ceased and the atmosphere must have been intense.
Eventually a test was devised. Some authorities believe that Jethro, the future father-in-law of Moses, proposed the trial and others that the angel Gabriel, disguised as a human-being, was responsible. It was proposed that two bowls were to be brought, one filled with chunks of shining gold, or, according to another author, a piece of bright onyx, or according to yet another authority, a date, and the other bowl with pieces of burning coal. These basins were placed in front of Moses. Were he to take a piece of the former, it was declared, this would indicate that he would one day usurp the throne of Egypt and he would be killed. On the other hand, were he to take one of the red hot embers, the verdict would be: innocent.
One can imagine, that as the trial started, rhythmic melodies were played and the onlookers, especially Pharaoh, were filled with apprehension and foreboding. Moses, according to some, a mere 3 year old at the time, must surely have sensed that a powerful and compelling drama was taking place. The high tension, the throbbing music and his own feelings of fear all predisposed to a likely trance-state in the youngster.
Tradition teaches that Moses moved his hand towards the bowl containing the gold. When it seemed he was just about to take some of the precious metal, the suspense must have been almost palpable. Midrashic legend explains that the angel Gabriel forced Moses’ hand away from its intended path to the container with the fiery coal. He clutched a lump of the material and probably dropped it instantly. No doubt, he burnt his fingers and brought his painful hand to his mouth to suck and cool the digits. Some glowing splinters probably stuck to his hand so that his lips and mouth also became burnt.
At that moment, the palace atmosphere must have changed completely. Pharaoh probably smiled and then laughed with relief. The royal attendants must have followed his example and started to cheer unrestrainedly.
Moses, already in an almost certain trance-state must have been in mental turmoil. The recent events including his inability to move his hand in the direction that he wanted and then the burns of his fingers, lips and tongue, are likely to have resulted in a terrified youngster, hypnotized, immobile and unable to speak. It is easy to understand how, following such an experience, Moses could have been left with a permanent speech defect.
Interestingly, Louis Ginzberg in his authoritative book The Legends of the Jews writes:
The coal burnt the child’s hand, and he lifted it up and touched it to his mouth, and burnt part of his lips and part of his tongue and for all of his life he became slow of speech and of a slow tongue.
It may be relevant to this discussion to note that one of the prayers Jews are expected to say before retiring to bed at night also contains the name of Gabriel ‘… may Michael be at my right hand, Gabriel, at my left…’. According to Israel Abrahams this passage appeared in a prayer book in the late fourteenth century but there are similar passages in much earlier literature.
This may indicate that the angel Gabriel is somehow protective of the left side of the body. If this supposition is correct then it may have been Gabriel, the guardian of our left, who saved Moses by forcibly moving his left arm and hand. Generally, the dominant upper limb is the one that is likely to reach out for an article and according to this reasoning Moses may, therefore, well have been left-handed.
Tigay (p. 57), in his article discussing Moses’ speech impediment, wrote about the legend of Moses burning his tongue on a hot coal: “For all their popularity, the legend and the interpretation were dismissed as apocryphal as early as the 12th century by Rashbam.”
The Bible does not provide any evidence that Moses was left-handed. The view that Moses was left-handed is based on a Jewish legend about an apocryphal incident that happened when Moses was a child.
Read the companion post, Did Moses Have a Cleft Lip?
Note: The footnotes for Garfinkel’s article can be found in the article cited below.
Henry Garfinkel. “Why Did Moses Stammer? And, Was Moses Left-handed,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 88 (May 1995): 256-257.
Jeffry H. Tigay, “‘Heavy of Mouth’ and ‘Heavy of Tongue’: On Moses’ Speech Difficulty,” BASOR 231 (1978): 57-67.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary