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Why is a black skin strange, unusual or weird?

This question developed after reading the following:

כוש: מה כושי משונה בעורו אף שאול משונה במעשיו

Cush: Just as a Cushite has unusual skin, so did Saul have unusual deeds.

https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/16228/jewish/Chapter-7.htm/showrashi/true][1]

The above word משונה according to the dictionary or translation apps means strange, unusual or weird, which I would readily agree as describing Saul's deeds, but why would strange, unusual or weird, describe a black skin or a skin of a Cushi?

I am looking for a pshat interpretation; as pshat as the word Cushi means black, as in both modern and ancient Hebrew. In Jeremiah 13:23, Rashi equated "Cushi" as אדם שחור.

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    משונה is not strange,It is different. This is not modern Hebrew, this is Mishnic Hebrew. There are some differences in meaning of words. It is a current mistake to read Chazal as if they wrote in modern Hebrew.
    – kouty
    Aug 25, 2023 at 9:02
  • @kouty the use of the word משונה is here used in a negative way as it describes the deeds of Saul. Based on your comment, there was nothing negative about the deeds of Saul but simply "different"?
    – ninamag
    Aug 25, 2023 at 9:16
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    It strikes people as different if they've never seen it before. That's all. Of course, what we do about that makes all the difference ...
    – Shalom
    Aug 25, 2023 at 12:53
  • This has led me into all sorts of wondering (like what the color of Adam's skin was, as he was made from earth (brown) and located in a region not known today for whiteness of skin). I found an interesting article (because I couldn't find the meforshim myself) which discusses related ideas. tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-curse-of-ham
    – rosends
    Aug 25, 2023 at 13:26
  • Relevant: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/127903/27180
    – Shmuel
    Aug 25, 2023 at 15:11

4 Answers 4

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משונה only means "unusual," without any negative connotations.

The Yalkut Shimoni lists a number of places where people were called "כושי" as a metaphor, and many were "unusual" in positive ways.

  • Moshe's wife Tziporah was unusual in her beauty
  • Shaul was unusual in his appearance, as it says "משכמו ומעלה גבוה מכל העם " (From his shoulders and up he was taller than the entire nation)
  • The Jewish people were unusual in that they have more mitzvos than any other nation
  • Baruch ben Naria was unusual in that his actions were different from all the members of Tzidkiyahu's court

The Midrash Tehillim and the Ein Yaakov go through very similar lists.

But in this case, it goes even further. In fact, on the same pasuk you mention, the Metzudas David says that "כוש" refers to David because he was "משונה במעשיו לשבח", unusually praiseworthy in his actions. These "actions" are clearly not referring to his chasing David, but rather all/most of his other, everyday actions. After all, when he was anointed king, it says that there was "no man from the Jewish Nation that was better than him."

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  • Shaul's sinful deeds, as in מה כושי משונה בעורו אף שאול משונה במעשיו is definitely negative; therefore, your comment, 'משונה only means "unusual," without any negative connotations' just does not fit. At the same time, my post asked for a pshat interpretation, knowing full well, that there will be those, as you have done, who will give a "metaphor" interpretation.
    – ninamag
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:02
  • @ninamag did you read my full answer? This isn't referring to Shauls (few in comparison) sinful deeds, but rather the vast majority of his deeds, which were very positive.
    – Esther
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:10
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    The Metzudas David is not known for his metaphorical explanations, this is definitely p'shat.
    – Esther
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:15
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In the case of Shaul, it just means something that stands out. A Black-skinned person among light-skinned people stands out; so did Shaul stand out by his actions.

Technically a Kushi is a descendant of Kush, but the term is broadened to mean anyone dark-skinned, as we see from Rashi to Amos:

Are you not like the children of the Cushites to Me—Why should I refrain from exacting retribution upon you since you do not return to Me? Have you not come from the sons of Noah like the other nations? Like the Cushites whom you resemble, as the matter is stated: (Jer. 13:22) “Will a Cushite change his skin…? So will you be able to improve.”


I'm updating to answer the question asked in the bounty:

Radak ad loc. writes that the Sages meant that just as a Cushite's skin is unusual, so was Shaul unusual in his hatred of David.

The Alshich writes

כמ"ש ז"ל מה כושי זה אינו משתנה מעורו כך שאול אינו משתנה משנאתו עם היותו בן ימיני שהוא משורש קדוש Just as a Cushite does not change from his skin so to Shaul did not change from his hatred of David, despite his being a Binyaminite from a holy source.

The Metzudas David and Rashi to the Gemara say that it means Shaul was unusual in his righteousness. All the linked statements of Chazal I could find on Sefaria interpreted it positively, saying Saul stood out with his good deeds or his tall stature.

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  • The word in question is משונה and you are saying that משונה means to stand out?
    – ninamag
    Aug 25, 2023 at 8:37
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    @ninamag "stand out" is a synonym of "unusual". "Weird" and "strange" are also, but carry much more negative connotations. Reading those connotations into the language seems to be your chiddush? Based on the connection with Saul's deeds?
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Aug 25, 2023 at 11:27
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    @ninamag no, the unusualness of Shaul's deed is positive, not negative. Other meforshim say it specifically, and in all the midrashim that go through a list of places where "kushi" refers to people who were unusual in their actions, their actions are positive.
    – Esther
    Aug 25, 2023 at 17:43
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    @ninamag there is nothing metaphorical about the fact that Shaul was, for the most part, a tzaddik. There is also nothing metaphorical about the fact that describing good people as "kushi" because they were unusually good is done all over.
    – Esther
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:13
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    @ninamag The pshat is a man named Kush ben Yemini. If you say it is Shaul, you are in metaphor territory.
    – N.T.
    Aug 25, 2023 at 23:04
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As others have stated the coloring of a black person stands out to people's who don't have consistent melanin. Even though I'm of Egyptian Ancestry and don't often portray as "white," I do get mistaken for white in winter because my melanin is dependent on the amount of sun I get, which is not the case for black people who maintain their color year round. A truly white person who cannot tan would also stand out amongst middle easterners as their skin would remain white even in summer.

The comparison of cushite to the leopard is a good point in showing how "unusual" doesn't mean negative as we perceive spots on animals as somewhat unusual without attributing negativity to it. We expect animals to have more consistent coloring, which makes a dalmatian stand out because of their spottedness.

I would also point out that I think it might be strange in a Biblical sense to be too white, or albino. Lavan the cousin of Jacob is literally named white, and considering how the Bible uses names (like Edom for Esau) it wouldn't surprise me if Lavan was called white because of his complexion, it probably made him stand out.

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  • Shaul's sinful deeds, as in מה כושי משונה בעורו אף שאול משונה במעשיו is definitely negative; therefore, your comment, that there is no negativity being attributed to the use of the word משונה does not fit, unless you can prove that the use of the word משונה is positive or neutral in the skin-sense of the Cushi and negative in the sin-sense (or sinful deeds) of Shaul.
    – ninamag
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:08
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    why are you focusing on Shaul's sinful deeds and not his positive deeds? Shaul was, overall, a good person with good deeds. It's almost like you want to read negativity into this.
    – Esther
    Aug 25, 2023 at 18:12
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+25

I don't quite know why you are looking to focus on the negative?

This phrase is used in Moed Katan 16b and Rashi explains expressly:

משונה במעשיו - צדיק גמור

Unusual/Different in his actions - as he was a complete tzaddik (righteous person).

The Ben Yehoyada explains similarly:

מַה כּוּשִׁי מְשֻׁנֶּה בְּעוֹרוֹ, אַף שָׁאוּל מְשֻׁנֶּה בְּמַעֲשָׂיו. נראה לי הדמיון הוא לענין זה דשינוי עור הכושי מחמת רוב שחרותו הוא נרגש לכל אדם תכף בהשקפה הראשונה אפילו מרחוק כן שאול המלך ע"ה לרוב תוקף צדקתו נרגש ונראה לכל אדם שהוא צדיק גמור ובעל מעשים טובים תכף ומיד בהשקפה הראשנה. ועוד נראה לי לפי דברי רבינו האר"י ז"ל הנזכר לעיל דנשמת שאול היתה נקיה מן הסיגים אם כן כשרון המעשים אצלו בטבע כמו שחרות עור הכושי שהיא בטבע מיצירתו ולא נשחרו על ידי סיבה שקרה לו

Just as a Cushite is distinguished by his dark skin, so too, Shaul was distinguished by his actions - It seems to me that the resemblance is for this matter; the skin of a Cushite is different due to the fact that its majority is blackness and it is immediately noticeable to any person at the first sight, even from a distance. So too with King Shaul, may peace be upon him, the majority of his righteousness is immediately apparent and it can be felt and seen that he is a complete tzaddik and full of good deeds immediately at first sight. And furthermore, according to the words of the Arizal, he mentioned prior that the soul of Shaul was clean of any waste, thus the competency of his actions is as natural as the blackness of the Cushi's skin which is natural from his creation and was not darkened by a reason that happened to him .

If you are desperately looking for something that alludes to a potential shortcoming of Shaul - Refer to Tehillim 7:1 upon which the Radak writes one interpretation as follows:

כי קראו כושי, מה כושי זה אינו משתנה בעורו, כך שאול לא היה משתנה בשנאתו אל דוד

And they say that he calls him "Cushite" as a Cushite is one who does not change his skin, so too, Shaul did not change in his hatred towards David.

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  • Then the quote that you said Radak wrote, which refers to Tehillim 7 just proves my original point. Because the statement that started all this, which is מה כושי משונה בעורו אף שאול משונה במעשיו, is also from Tehillim 7. So, if you are saying that Radak, references Tehillim 7, and speaks of Shaul's bad deeds, namely, his hatred of David, then the word משונה is both used in the negative sense both against the sin of Shaul and against the skin of Cushi.
    – ninamag
    Aug 28, 2023 at 12:06
  • As per my answer, the sources predominantly point to it being a positive reference to Shaul, but because you are so keen to find something negative, this is the only source I found that alludes to a shortcoming of Shaul HaMelelch. Most commentaries point to it in a positive understanding
    – Dov
    Aug 28, 2023 at 12:26
  • @ninamag that particular peirush didn't even use the word "meshuna" - it said "doesn't change his skin." That is something he can't control; there is no way it could be anything other than neutral.
    – Esther
    Aug 28, 2023 at 14:21
  • @Esther The parralel comment to Chazal's מה כושי משונה בעורו אף שאול משונה במעשיו is by Radak: כי קראו כושי, מה כושי זה אינו משתנה בעורו, כך שאול לא היה משתנה בשנאתו אל דוד. This means, some authorities, such as Radak, refers to Shaul's hatred in regards to אף שאול משונה במעשיו. The word משונה is not substantially different from משתנה? The former is masculine and the latter is feminine, no?
    – ninamag
    Aug 29, 2023 at 11:18
  • @ninamag that is not strictly true - משונה means strange/unusual whilst משתנה means changes
    – Dov
    Aug 29, 2023 at 11:37

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