Everyone knows who Tzipporah is, or we think we do.
Tzipporah is most often thought of simply as Moshe’s wife, as the life parter of one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people. Our understanding of Tzipporah as a human being, outside of her marriage to Moshe, is very limited.
What do we know about the wife of our nation’s greatest prophet and foremost leader in the history of the Jewish people?
Let’s go to the text:
Tzipporah’s claim to fame is in parshat Beha’alotcha during the incident in which Miriam speaks poorly of her marriage (12:1). As we learn from the text, Miriam spoke to Aharon against Moshe because of “the Kushite woman he married,” meaning “the dark-skinned woman.”
Again, we don’t know much about Tzipporah, but we do know that she is one of the daughters of Yitro, the priest of Midyan, and is therefore a “Midyanite,” not a “Kushite.” Because of this discrepancy, our sages try to explain this description of her in a few ways. Some say that this doesn’t refer to Tzipporah at all, but rather another wife of Moshe. According to the Radak and the Ibn Ezra, Tzipporah was exceptionally dark for a Midyanite and was therefore called a Kushite to describe her skin color. Rashi says that the word “kushi” means something completely different and is used as a comparative example – just as a Kushite woman is distinct at once, such were Tzipporah’s good deeds.
Regardless of what the intent of the word was, a bigger question remains – why was Miriam talking about Tzipporah? What information are we missing about Tzipporah here?
According to almost all interpretations, Miriam had found out that Moshe had physically separated from Tzipporah and she seemed to be wondering if it was because of the way Tzipporah looks. Maybe Miriam thought that Moshe was no longer attracted to his wife. But the next two sentences of the parsha go straight from Miriam speaking about Tzipporah as the “Kushite woman” to her asking Aharon “Has God only spoken with Moshe? Hasn’t he spoken to us as well?” (12:2). This implies that Miriam thought that Moshe separated from Tzipporah, not because of her appearance, but because he was too holy for marriage, and holier than both Miriam and Aharon. Miriam was actually speaking poorly of Moshe, assuming he was arrogant in his holiness, not Tzipporah. Moshe and Tzipporah did, in fact, refrain from marital relations, not because Moshe was arrogant, but because he needed to remain ritually pure in order to communicate with God at all times.
From these two sentences in Beha’alotcha, we learn that Tzipporah was likely a dark-skinned woman and that she did not have marital relations with her husband – two external features of her life.
Aside from these, who is she really?
In order to learn more about her, we have to turn to parshat Shemot to a lesser known story in which Tzipporah plays a large role. This story takes place as Moshe and Tzipporah head to Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Jews go. They stopped on the way to rest and God came to them with “the intention of killing” Moshe. Tzipporah grabbed a knife and immediately performed a circumcision on her son. God left them alone (4:24-4:26).
The details of this story are very unclear and there are many different interpretations of what actually happened, but if we read the text literally, Tzipporah saved Moshe’s life through quick thinking and action. There are obviously questions about why their son had not already been circumcised and how Tzipporah knew that the lack of circumcision was the problem. The act of circumcision is clearly essential to God if he’s willing to kill his chosen messenger for failing to comply, and somehow Tzipporah understood that. Without her brave intervention, Moshe may never have made it to Egypt and he may never have freed the slaves. Tzipporah was an essential character in determining the future of the Jewish people and saving the life of one of our greatest leaders.
A beautiful, black, and fearless woman with deeper understanding and the ability to act quickly literally changed the course of Jewish history. So instead of thinking of Tzipporah as the wife of Moshe, let us think of her as the savior of Jewish people.