And Moshe finished speaking with them; and he placed a veil over his face. – Shemot/Exodus 34:33
Moshe has just come down from forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai with HaShem. Unaware that his face is glowing – the Torah says, “the skin of his face was radiant” (Shemot 34:29, JPS) – he has called Aharon and the leaders of the assembly to him to share what HaShem has been telling him and now, alerted by their behaviour towards him, covers his face so that he does not frighten or alarm people. The first verb in the text – vaychal– is the Pi’el 3ms prefix form of the root calah, to finish, complete or end (Davidson) with a vav-conversive to make it past tense narrative: and he finished. The second verb –midaber , a contraction of the full mitdaber– the ms participle of the Hitpa’el iterative or reflexive stem from the root davar, to speak, tells us what Moshe ended: speaking. In its most usual Pi’el stem, davar means speaking to someone; in the Hitpa’el stem, it has a more conversational tone: speaking with someone. Moshe was not simply lecturing Aharon and the other community leaders, he was in animated conversation, sharing what HaShem had told him and making sure that they understood what had been going on and what had been said up on Mt. Sinai.
The last word in the verse masveh– is from the unused root savah that probably means “to cover” (Davidson), so is a covering or veil; it is only used in this one place on the Hebrew Scriptures: Shemot 34:33,34,35.
Targum Onkelos translates it with the Aramaic term used in the Talmud for a cloth placed around the eyes. Umberto Cassuto  explains that, “he put over his face, out of a sense of humility and modesty, a kind of veil, like the veil or head-scarf that women in Israel usually wear over their faces during summer to protect themselves from the sun’s glare. Such a veil permits one to see out, but is able to reduce the brightness of the light.” But why would he want to cover this face?
Hirsch suggests that “Moshe’s modesty would not allow him, except when he went before G-d, or when he had to speak in the name of G-d, to show himself with the skin of his face radiant.” Gunther Plaut thinks about the safety of the people: “here the sense is clearly that the divine glory is dangerous to behold even when merely reflected; and, while in the ANE  a mask was sometimes worn by the priest when communicating the divine message to the people, here the reverse is true: Moshe removes the veil when speaking in G-d’s name.”
Ibn Ezra believes the phenomenon of his face glowing was only temporary and for a specific purpose – “He would come out and tell Israel what he had been commanded, and the radiance was a reliable witness that G-d has indeed spoken with him. The light from his face would stay all the while he was speaking with them, but he would then put the veil over his face so that the eyes of the ignorant should not see that the light would then depart, and his face would return to its ordinary state” – a sign given to the people that when Moshe’s face shone, he was indeed speaking for G-d. On the other hand, the Ralbag thinks that Moshe used the veil as a means of getting time off-duty: “the replacing of the veil represented a deliberate act of disengagement from contact with the transcendental and holy”.
Either way, our text is clear. When Moshe spoke to Aharon and the leaders, he did so without a veil. The Sforno thinks that this is important. He points to the example of Rabbi Judah the Prince who declared: “The only reason why I am keener than my colleagues is that I saw the back of Rabbi Meir, but had I had a front view of him I would have been keener still, for it is written in Scripture: ‘But you eyes shall see your teacher’ (Isaiah 30:20) (b. Eiruvin 13b). Rashi helpfully expands Rabbi Judah’s words to say, “When I studied under him my seat at the academy was in the row which had a back view of Rabbi Meir.” It seems that Torah can best be transmitted when the students see the face of their teacher. This was the case with Moshe, Nechama Leibowitz asserts. He was open and transparent about what he said and taught: “Just as [Moshe] received God’s message without a veil so he transmitted it. He did nor hide behind it or make Judaism into an esoteric cult for the initiated only, but imparted it to all Israel without discrimination, just as he received it at the hand of G-d.”
At the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15, James reminds the council that “From ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues” (Acts 15:21, ESV); and when Yeshua visited the synagogue in His home town, Nazareth, “He stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to Him” (Luke 4:16-17, ESV). It is and has been for millenia, the custom of our people to gather on Shabbat and read the Scriptures – the Torah and the Prophets. The three prayer services every day include whole Psalms and many extracts from the Torah and Prophets. All the festival services contain more readings, the special readings for the holidays. Lifecycle events engage with the Scriptures and Bar/Bat-Mitzvahs have to learn quite large sections of text plus their cantillation as well as portions of liturgy to demonstrate their proficiency. Although not, perhaps, with the same attention to chapter and verse addresses found in some Christian contexts, many of our people are familiar with the text and narrative of the Bible in a way that would amaze Christians. We are not called “the people of the Book” for nothing. And yet, Yeshua rebuked the people of His day saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40, ESV. What is it that stops much of the Jewish world seeing Yeshua in the pages and texts of the Hebrew Scriptures?
Rav Sha’ul provides the explanation: “Their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Messiah is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moshe is read a veil lies over their hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:14-15, ESV). The veil that Moshe put over his face so that the people should not see the glory of G-d shining in his face is still over the faces of our people. When the Torah is read, it is as if the text is closed to many Jewish people; they know what it says and so it has become sterile without the active intervention of the Ruach. When Jewish people do come to faith, the veil is lifted and they can see what the Scriptures say about Yeshua and much else: “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed” (v. 16, ESV). This applies to all of us, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (v. 18, ESV).
What, then, lies across the faces of the thousands of men and women in this country and around the world who cannot see Yeshua? What is it that stops them from seeing what seems so obvious to us? Why do the words of Scripture not speak to them, stir their hearts and spirits, in the way they do ours? Many today long for a time like Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost, when people will be “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37, ESV) and cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (ibid., BIBLE(ESV)). They look back to the tent meetings of former years, the rallies held by Moody and Sankey, the outdoor preaching of John Wesley, when many responded to the gospel, gave their hearts and lives to Yeshua and saw a complete turn-around; repentance, confession, baptism and new birth into the kingdom of G-d. And, like Peter’s sermon, most of the messages were actually quite simple, quite short, and yet so powerful in the Spirit that many responded and became believers.
There is a tendency to romanticise the past in one of two ways and hence to deny the lessons to be learned. One is to say that the people of the past were simple, ignorant folk who didn’t have modern technology or much in the way of education; they didn’t know any better and were just swept along in the emotional flow of the moment. Then they became locked into church or chapel, it became their social life and their family and they never left; they did as they were told and didn’t ask questions as we have been trained to do today. The other is to claim that the numbers of people responding were massively over-reported by those running the events; that where contemporary reports claim that four hundred people came forward, that probably meant forty genuine enquirers and perhaps another forty who got caught up but got out again as soon as they could. Sadly, there is evidence of such over-emphasis in some missions today where conversions equals cash and the financial support of the mission workers is thought to depend on the number of people converted. But these are all lies spread about by the enemy, in order to put a veil over our hearts and eyes, to deny the power of the gospel and our call to share it with those around us.
The secret of growth in the kingdom is open-hearted simplicity. We must not try to talk people into faith, appeal to their emotions or fears, or persuade them with clever words and overcoming their objections. Instead, we must simply and casually tell them the truth, in a plain and straightforward way, then leave the rest to the Ruach. We have to remove the veil from their eyes and show them the face of Yeshua. Only He can change lives; our job is to tell the story and make the introduction. Everything else is up to Him!
1. – Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, Jerusalem, 1983, 965-223-456-7
2. – ANE – Ancient Near East, a scholarly term for Israel, the Levant, Egypt and their immediately surrounding areas.
Further Study: Judges 7:2-7; 2 Corinthians 4:4-7
Application: Has your communication become so complicated that it places a veil over people’s faces and their eyes glaze over when you tell them about the L-rd? Follow Moshe’s example and share directly and openly what G-d has done for you, then get out of the way and leave the rest up to Him!