Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat VaYigash

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorshiip of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity, with assistance of the Shoresh Charitable Fund and the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.


Parashat Vayigash 5759/1998

Dr. Luba Harlap

The Unit for Hebrew Composition

"You can see for yourselves, ... that it is indeed I who am speaking to you"

Views of Early Commentators on the Nature of Biblical Hebrew

Nahmanides' commentary on this week's reading, VaYigash, conveys his views on the origins and development of the Hebrew language. We refer to his interpretation of the verse in which Joseph speaks to his brothers, trying to convince them of his true identity, and says to them: "You can see for yourselves, and my brother Benjamin for himself, that it is indeed I who am speaking to you" (Gen. 45:12). Literally, the Hebrew reads: "For it is my mouth (pi) which speaks to you." Commentators found it difficult to understand this proof of Joseph's identity. Onkelos translated the verse as follows: "For I am speaking to you in your language." Rashi, citing Genesis Rabbah 93, wrote: "Behold, your eyes see my glory, and that I am your brother, for I am circumcised just like you, and further it is my mouth that speaketh to you in the holy language." That is, Joseph presented two proofs: circumcision and speaking the holy language.

Nahmanides, commenting on this verse, cited Onkelos and continued, "Perhaps speaking to them thus was merely a pretext for pacifying them, for the fact that someone in Egypt spoke the holy language is no proof [of being a Hebrew]; since, as far as I know, it was the language spoken in Canaan, and many Egyptians knew it because of the country's proximity." It follows from Nahmanides' remarks that knowing the holy tongue was no guarantee of Joseph being a Hebrew since, in his opinion, Hebrew was the language spoke by the Canaanites and was clearly not unique to the patriarch's clan.

Nahmanides offered another explanation of Joseph's intentions (see his commentary on verse 12), but what concerns us is the way Nahmanides incidentally revealed his opinion on the origins of the Hebrew language.

Midrashic and talmudic comments on the virtues and antiquity of the Hebrew language are well-known.[1] Some of these sources refer to Hebrew as the "holy language." The views of the Kuzari[2] and of Maimonides[3] are also known. These as well as others[4] stress the importance of the Hebrew language. Medieval grammarians also commented on the special status of Hebrew. For example, in his introduction to Sefer Ha-Rikmah, R. Jonah Ibn Janah said: "... The [Holy One, blessed be He] set aside Hebrew above all other languages, giving his sacred Torah in that language, and using it to explain his pure commands." He went on to explain the religious importance of studying the language. R. Abraham Ibn Ezra, too, in his introduction to his gramatical book Safah Berurah (2a), set out to establish which is the first and foremost of all languages and concluded that the "holy tongue" is foremost, superior in various regards to Aramaic and Arabic. Apparently these determinations about the importance of Hebrew influenced the thinking of medieval Jewish scholars, given the flourishing of Arabic grammar and literature in this era and the pride of place held by it as the spoken language in the region.

In this setting, some of the views expressed by early Bible commentators appear surprisingly modern for their time. For example, consider Nahmanides' view on the Canaanite nature of Hebrew which we saw above. Also consider Ibn Ezra's interpretation of the verse, "In that day, there shall be five towns in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18): "The language of Canaan -- from this we learn that the Canaanites spoke the holy tongue." In other words, he considered that Hebrew was the language of the Canaanites.

It seems that Ibn Ezra's remarks, as well as Nahmanides' interpretations, necessarily imply a different understanding of the concept of "holy language." Hebrew was a Canaanite language, spoken in the Semitic world by various groups including Hebrews.[5] If so, as a living spoken language it was surely susceptible to external influences, resulting from interaction among the languages of the region, and to the usual internal developmental processes that take place in any living language. How, then, is Hebrew different from other languages? By what merit did it come to be called the "holy tongue"? The answer can be found in Nahmanides' commentary on Exodus 10:13:

As I see it, the reason for the Rabbis calling the language of the Torah the holy tongue is that the words of the Torah and of the prophets and all sacred utterances were all spoken in that language; it is the language that the Holy One, blessed be He, speaks with His prophets and with His people, saying, "I am ...," "Thou shalt not have ..." and the remaining commandments and prophecies; it is the language by which He is called in his sacred names... and in which He created His universe, gave names to heaven and earth and all therein, giving his angels and his host names -- Michael, Gabriel, etc. -- all in that language, and in that language naming the saintly people in the Land, such as Abraham, Isaac, and Solomon.[6]

In short, according to Nahmanides the sanctity of the language is due to its being used for sacred purposes, from Creation and throughout history, to write the Torah and words of prophecy.[7]

The greatness of the holy language is that it gains new vitality and sanctity through us and for us, every day.

[1] Cf. Sifre Deuteronomy on Haazinu 32:43 (also cited in Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 113a and elsewhere); Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1.9; Bab. Shabbat 12b; Sotah 33a; also Genesis Rabbah, 18 (summarized by Rashi in his commentary on Gen. 2:23).

[2] The Kuzari, 1.26; 2.68.

[3] Cf. Guide for the Perplexed, 3.8.

[4] For example, Abarbanel on Genesis 2:23; Rabbi Azariah De Rossi, Meor Einayim II, 57; R. Jacob Emden (Yavetz), Migdal Oz, Aliyat ha-Lashon.

[5] Compare this to the scientific view of Hebrew as a Canaanite dialect together with Old Canaanite, Phoenician and Moabite, belonging to the family of northwestern Semitic tongues,. (Cf., for example, J. Blau, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, 1976, p. 1).

[6] Further on, Nahmanides rejects Maimonides' explanation of the sanctity of the language as presented by the latter in Guide for the Perplexed: "For in this holy language no word at all has been laid down in order to designate either the male or the female organ of copulation...." Nahmanides remarks, "If that were the reason, it would have been called the clean language."

[7] Also see Yavetz, Migdal Oz (loc. sit., chapter 2): "As for Hebrew being called the holy language, more so than others,... it is because the Holy One, blessed be He, used it to create His world, and because the holy Torah was given in that language."