I came across an argument that the word Cushi can be used for both non-blacks and gentiles. They argued that Moses married a Cushi, yet Moses' wife, according to Rashi, was not actually black. Therefore, the word Cushi can be used to refer to those who are not actually black and, in extension, can be used to refer to gentiles in general.

I wasn't so sure what to make of this. Is this interpretation far-fetched? Are there examples of the word Cushi being used to refer to those without dark-skin in traditional sources (Talmud, Midrashim, etc.)?


3 Answers 3


The plain meaning of Cushi refers to someone of the Cushite Nation, and indeed there's a midrash that suggests that Moshe first married a Cushite princess before marrying Tzippora. With that said, "Cushi" was sometimes interpreted to refer to someone who stood out in their actions. There are a few examples I'm aware of:

  1. King Shaul:

"The response to this admonishment is found in the verse, as it is written: “Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord, concerning the words of Cush the Benjaminite” (Psalms 7:1). Is Cush his name? Saul is his name. Rather, this is a designation that indicates: Just as a Cushite, a native of the ancient kingdom of Cush in eastern Africa, is distinguished by his dark skin, so too, Saul was distinguished by his actions, as he was absolutely righteous and performed many good deeds." (Moed Katan 16b)

  1. Michal, daughter of Shaul and wife of David:

"Rather, we must say that it is this tanna who maintains that Shabbat is a time for phylacteries, as it was taught in a baraita: Michal, daughter of Kushi, King Saul, would don phylacteries, and the Sages did not protest against her behavior, as she was permitted to do so." (Eruvin 96a)

  1. Baruch the Scribe:

One Scripture saith, "And Ebedmelech, the Cushite, said" (Jer. 38:12). Was it Ebed? Was he not Baruch, son of Neriah? But just as this Cushite is different in his body from all other people, so was Baruch, son of Neriah, different in his deeds and good ways from the rest of the sons of men. Therefore was he called a Cushite." (Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer 53:6)

  1. King Tzidkiyahu:

"The Gemara continues: Similarly, you can explain the verse: “Now when Ebed-Melech the Cushite heard” (Jeremiah 38:7). Is his name Cushite? Zedekiah is his name. Rather, just as a Cushite is distinguished by his dark skin, so too, Zedekiah was distinguished by his righteous actions." (Moed Katan 16b)

The People of Yisrael:

"Similarly, you can explain the verse: “Are you not as much Mine as the children of the Cushites, O children of Israel?” (Amos 9:7). Is their name Cushite? Israel is their name. Rather, just as a Cushite stands out because of his dark skin, so too, the Jewish people are distinguished by their actions, and they are different from all the other nations." (Moed Katan 16b)

  1. And of course, the same gemara suggests this understanding about Tzippora herself:

"The Gemara notes: Similarly, you can explain the verse: “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses due to the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had taken a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1). But is her name Cushite? Zipporah is her name. Rather, just as a Cushite is distinguished by his dark skin, so too, Zipporah was distinguished by her actions."

  • 2
    In all these cases, Cushi still means black, but the blackness itself is the metaphor.
    – N.T.
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 18:55
  • 3
    @N.T. Cushi actually doesn't mean black. It means someone from the Cushite Nation, who happens to be a nation of dark-skinned people. Presumably, they are the dark-skinned nation that had the most interactions with the Nation of Yisrael, hence the rise of this particular metaphor.
    – Harel13
    Commented Apr 13, 2021 at 19:57
  • 1
    See Mishnah Sukka 3:6 where a black esrog is described as Cushi.
    – N.T.
    Commented Apr 14, 2021 at 2:29

As others have answered the word Cushite could be used to refer to people who aren't necessarily black. But in my opinion the amount of mental gymnastics the commentators use to justify such a non literal reading isn't usually helpful. Cushite's most common and straightforward meaning is blackness. So much so that it allows Jeremiah to make the following statement without any confusion to the reader:

Jeremiah 13:23

הֲיַהֲפֹ֤ךְ כּוּשִׁי֙ עוֹר֔וֹ וְנָמֵ֖ר חֲבַרְבֻּרֹתָ֑יו גַּם־אַתֶּם֙ תּוּכְל֣וּ לְהֵיטִ֔יב לִמֻּדֵ֖י הָרֵֽעַ׃

Can the Cushite change his skin, Or the leopard his spots? Just as much can you do good, Who are practiced in doing evil!


The term Cushi can be used in both the physical and metaphorical sense. For example, The Cushite Woman explains:

Tzipporah, the wife of Moses, is referred to as a Cushite. Why is she described as a Cushite when she actually was a Midianite?

The Cushites historically were a dark-skinned people. A dark-skinned woman is a rare visage in the Torah; thus, the Torah is metaphorically describing that Tziporah was unusual in her deeds. (Talmud, Moed Katan 16b)

Commentaries explain that just as a dark-skinned person is immediately noticeable, so too an individual described as a Cushite possesses a character that is obvious and clear to all. (Ben Yehoyada, ibid.)

What was so great about Tzipporah? She was exceptionally modest and unassuming in her actions. (Talmid Rabeinu Yechiel of Paris, ibid.)

Alternatively, she was capable of transforming the physical into spiritual and darkness into light. (Shaloh, Shavuot 242 and 247).

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