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While reading the book of Numbers (I am a Christian, I don't know if it is referred to something else in Judaism), I came across the passage (Numbers 12:1-15) where Miriam and Aaron were speaking against Moses for taking a Cushite wife. I wanted to know if the term Cushite or Cushi is used to refer people of African descent, or specifically Ethiopia, or if not what exactly it does/did refer to. Obviously google gives results all over the map, it would be nice to get some real facts.

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya and thank you for bringing your question here! I hope you enjoy the site. By the way, the Hebrew name of the book of Numbers is "Bamidbar". ("Numbers" is fine too, but if you're looking specifically for Jewish interpretations via Google, the Hebrew name might help.) – Monica Cellio Apr 2 '13 at 14:07
@MonicaCellio thank you, I was afraid it would get downvoted and I would be chastised! – BigHomie Apr 2 '13 at 14:20
Because you're not Jewish? We are open to all who have sincere questions, and I hope I've alleviated your initial fears. I hope you enjoy the site. – Monica Cellio Apr 2 '13 at 14:33
I just want to add that "Cushi" can have a pejorative context in Modern Hebrew; depending on the situation, it can be HIGHLY offensive to call someone that. It doesn't sound like you're planning to use the word, but you should be aware of this. – eliyahu-g Jan 9 at 18:18
All these are interesting arguments/comments. What one also should add to this is that Ethiopia also was used to extend beyond the red sea into Yemen. The two modern countries share history too. if you go to Rama/ Roha in Ethiopia you may wonder how the artifacts look similar to those in Yemen. In short it is a historical truth that Ethiopia (The land of Kush) was closer both to India and Israel in ancient times before its borders shrinked, so that it is quite possible for Moses to mary an Ethiopian woman. all the descriptions look like she is one of the tanned beautiful women out there. – gene Jun 25 at 16:20

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

See this comprehensive and well sourced paper on the topic by one of our site regulars. Cush was the son of Cham, and the grandson of Noah (Exodus 10:6), and according to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 36:7), he was cursed by his grandfather to be dark-skinned.

In terms of the location of the land of Cush, he writes:

"Cush" is commonly translated as Ethiopia, and "Cushites" are commonly understood to have been Ethiopians. However, most scholars agree that the Biblical geographic area referred to as Cush/Ethiopia was not only in the location of present-day Ethiopia, rather it spanned Northwest of present-day Ethiopia, including parts of the areas of present-day Ethiopia, Egypt, Somalia, Nubia, Eritrea, and the Sudan. The Midrash says (Exodus Rabbah,§10) that the plague of the frogs settled a border dispute between Egypt and Cush because the frogs did not pass the border, which showed where exactly the boundaries of each country lied. Indeed, it will be evident later that Cush was near Egypt. Nonetheless, Rashi (to Yoma 81b) translates "Land of Hindu" as the land of Kush. From here one sees that the terms "Kush" used does not necessarily always mean Ethiopia. In the beginning of the book of Esther (1:1), Scripture establishes that Ahasuerus was king from Hodu to Kush. The Talmud records (Megillah 11a) that Rav and Shmuel disputed whether Hodu and Kush are close to each other (Shmuel) or far from each other (Rav). The accepted translation of Hodu is India. If one is to assume that Kush refers to Ethiopia, how then could Shmuel say that Kush was close in geographical proximity to India? Rabbi Yaakov Emden (1697-1776) answers (see Hagahos Ya'avetz to Megillah 11a) that there are two places known as Kush. One "Kush" is in Africa and was Ethiopia, while the other "Kush" is in Asia was close to India. The dispute between Rav and Shmuel was which "Kush" the Torah referring to in describing the boundaries of Ahasuerus' rule. Indeed, an Asiatic mountain range known as "Hindu Kush" runs along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

The essay explores many possible interpretations of Moshe's wife being called a "Cushite". Many explain that she was not actually Ethiopian, but was described as a "Cushite" as an expression of her beauty (see Rashi to Numbers 12:1).

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just to be clear, it was Cham that was cursed, not Canaan. - see also Sanhedrin 108B – Menachem Apr 4 '13 at 18:04
@Michoel Perhaps a secular source can provide some insight to the (admittedly already resolved) dispute of where exactly "Hodu to Kush" is. The Persian Empire at the time of Megilat Esther was the Achaemenid Empire. This spanned from Romania (north-west) to Lybia and Egypt (south-west) to the western edges of China and India (north- and south-east) A map can be found at – A L Jul 2 '13 at 1:58
It's also interesting to note that Hindu and Hodu sound similar. – A L Jul 2 '13 at 2:04
Regarding the Kush that is near Hodu (The hebrew word for India/Hindustan) – Clint Eastwood Aug 18 '14 at 23:12
Just to be clear, the Midrash says אותו האיש was cursed and from the context it appears it is referring to כנען, although one opinion in the Midrash says it was the direct result of his relations in the teivah and Rashi on that Midrash says it refers to the child who came out of that instance of relations. And Rashi in Sanhedrin 108b is very clear that the result of the black skin occurred to Kush, not Canaan. – Yahu Nov 2 '14 at 22:57

i find it interesting that people will quote sources from commentators thousands of years after the Tanakh, and historians later still, but no one points to a pretty clear Biblical reference on using Cushi to have it refer specifically to someone of a particular skin color:

Jeremiah 13:23 כג הֲיַהֲפֹךְ כּוּשִׁי עוֹרוֹ, וְנָמֵר חֲבַרְבֻּרֹתָיו; גַּם-אַתֶּם תּוּכְלוּ לְהֵיטִיב, לִמֻּדֵי הָרֵעַ. 23 Can the Cushite change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

So it is definitely fair to assume that Cushi can mean someone who is black (or dark) skinned. We can argue all day long where the geography of the Cushites were considered to be.

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From your source how do you know cushi isnt reffering to an extremely pale nation? – user6591 Apr 7 at 20:49
#1. Leopards don't have white spots. – Aaron Apr 8 at 16:34
#2. Since it is customarily used to refer to dark skin later in Jewish history rather consistently, it seems much more likely that the meaning of the word remained the same throughout. Your argument is akin to saying "If it says that Ezra was a scribe, how do you know scribe didn't originally mean an ignoramus?" – Aaron Apr 8 at 16:36

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