The Masveh of Moshe
By: Gideon Schor
March 13, 2009
After speaking with G-d and teaching His word, Moshe wore a masveh on his face. What is a masveh and why did Moshe wear one?
Artscroll, recalling Purim, translates masveh as “mask.” I confess that the word “mask” – suggesting masquerades and grimaces – is partly what intrigues me about the masveh. But masks are too Halloweenish, too attention-grabbing, to be consistent with Moshe’s humility. For this reason perhaps, “veil” is the more common rendering. Certainly, etymology favors “veil.” The root of masveh means clothing or covering, as in Yaakov’s blessing of Yehudah, “He will launder his garments in wine and his robe (sutoh) in the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11). The same root appears in “Sivan,” the month when vegetation covers the ground (according to the Hirsch/Clark dictionary). In short, the masveh simply covers the face and does not reimagine or recast it.
As for why Moshe covered his face, some say that the Divine radiance left Moshe whenever he stopped speaking with G-d, and therefore, to avoid shame, Moshe used the masveh to conceal the light’s absence. But Saadia Gaon corrected this view by stating that the radiance continued unceasingly for the rest of Moshe’s life: As the Torah says of Moshe (Deut. 34:7), “His eye had not dimmed.” (Hence Rashi maintains that the masveh is especially a covering for the eyes.) Saadia explains that the masveh was intended to make disputants less afraid to approach Moshe for assistance.
Ibn Ezra, emphasizing guidance rather than fear, observed that Moshe did not wear the masveh when teaching. Moshe wanted the people to see the radiance only when he spoke words of Torah. By this association, the words of Torah themselves would come to have the same radiance that emanated from Moshe’s face.
According to Rashi, the masveh was intended neither to reduce fear nor to enhance Torah, but rather to promote respect for the radiance, so that people would not feast their eyes on it, like a glutton gorging on food.
But the Daat Mikra says that Moshe covered his face out of modesty. Moshe was not comfortable showing publicly that the radiance of the shechinah (or Divine Presence) was upon him. As we read in Psalm 45, “kol kevudah vat-melech p’nimah” (“The king’s daughter is all-glorious within”). That is, we keep our treasures private. We don’t draw attention to ourselves. This view, stressing Moshe’s modesty, tells us definitively that “mask” is not nearly as proper a translation as “veil.”
In our efforts to lead modest lives and avoid drawing attention to ourselves, may we all be worthy of following Moshe’s example.