Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center
Bereshith 5761/ 14-21 October 2000
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 sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's
International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Publication by the Center for IT & IS Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
Parashat Bereshit 5761/ 28 October 2000
"And man became a living being"
(Gen. 2:7) - "A speaking soul" (Onkelos, loc.
On Language - Ancient and Modern Views
Dr. Lubah Charlap
Unit of Hebrew Expression and Ulpan
Parashat Bereshit tells how all things began, how the world and all
it contains, including human speech, came into being. Questions such as what
language primordial man spoke, what is the origin of speech, how speech is
acquired, have concerned thinkers throughout the ages, Jews and gentiles alike.
This essay addresses two points: the importance of speech (in any language) as a
universal concept and the origins of speech, both of which we shall discuss in
relationship to this week's Torah reading.
The process of creating human beings, according to Scripture, combined both
matter and spirit -- "the Lord G-d formed man from the dust of the
earth" and "He blew into his nostrils the breath of life"
(Gen. 2:7; also see Rashi's comment on this verse) – with the
result, stated at the end of the verse, that "man became a living
being." The Sages addressed themselves to the significance of this
expression. Onkelos explained that "the breath became in man a speaking
spirit," and Rashi wrote, "also the animals and beasts were called
living creatures, but man was highest of them all, for he had the additional
faculties of intellect and speech."
Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin
Rabba created a man, and sent him to appear before Rabbi Zeira. R. Zeira
spoke to him, but the golem did not answer. So he said to him,
"You are an assembled creation and not a human being; go back to the dust
from which you came."
In the eyes of the Sages, the ability to speak signified human life.
Maimonides was of the opinion that the human soul is one: "Realize
that the human soul is one, and it has many diverse functions, some of these
functions being called souls" (Maimonides, Shemonah Perakim
1). This was in contrast to the opinion of the
who held that human
beings have many souls. Maimonides too emphasized the superiority of the human
soul as a "speaking soul, i.e., a soul whose mode of expression is
In his commentary on
Maimonides, Leibowitz shows that "speech" also expresses "the
word itself" as well as its content, and hence the connection that
Maimonides makes between thinking and speaking.
The ancient Greeks, as well as philosophers from the Middle Ages until our
times, recognized that speech is the "soul" and is the unique vital
force of human beings, making man superior to the beast. To be a human being
meant to have the "faculty of speech," as Wittgenstein said:
"The boundaries of my speech are the boundaries of my
Speech as a means of communication is the understanding of Ibn Ezra. For
example, see his Short Commentary on Exodus 23:20: "Facility in speech is
not intrinsic wisdom, except insofar as there is someone else who understands
what has been spoken."
Ibn Ezra compared
the relationship between speech and thought to the relationship between the
physical body (expressing the word, the language) and the soul (expressing the
content, the meaning). For example, "Words are like the body and reasons
are like the soul; and the body to the soul is like an instrument"
, 20:1). Also, "I shall speak in ideas, which are like
the soul, where the words are like the body" (Safah Berurah
The communicative role of language has been stressed in modern linguistics,
especially under the influence of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, with
the attention of post-modern linguistics being directed towards the relationship
between text and context, especially stressing the circumstantial-social context
in which the communication takes
The Greeks addressed the question of the origin of language.
believed that words have meaning by
. In line with his theory of Ideals, names are the ideals
of objects. He tried to prove the natural connection between objects and their
names by means of etymological explanations based on sounds and instinct, what
we would call folk etymology.
group of words - onomatopoeias - appears to support this
Aristotle's theory, in contrast, was that language is the result of
social convention, thaesae
. Following the Greeks, Latin grammarians
continued to investigate these questions. Also the Arabs were concerned with
these issues, although in their discussions the notion of language coming from
nature was replaced by the idea of language being from G-d. The Aristotelian
theory was the one to gain acceptance by modern
and in line with this theory
linguistics pushed aside all the weighty questions about the origins of language
and turned its attention primarily to synchronic aspects, i.e., to describing
the state of a specific language (or languages) at a given time. Even the
diachronic linguistics of the nineteenth century concerned itself with
"facts" and did not take time to speculate on the general question
of what language is. It did not consider language as a general universal
concept, rather it examined various languages (cf. Bronowski, note 6 above, p.
31). Asking questions about the essence of language became the concern of other
disciplines, primarily philosophy and psychology.
Contemporary linguistics attempted to redress this situation. It returned
to the questions asked by the Greeks and the Indians, to the arguments of Plato
and pondered universal questions: what is language "in and of
itself," how does it function, and what impact does it exert? Bronowski
.) notes that structuralism, an overall approach that can be
applied in many areas, finds expression in linguistics in attempts to set forth
the underlying structure of language, the algebra of human speech, in which the
various tongues spoken by different peoples are its arithmetic. Establishing a
universal grammar became one of linguistics' objectives, and a distinction
was drawn between "speech" (as a superstructure) and languages (its
applications). With the emergence of Chomsky's generative school, these
discussions received considerable impetus. Chomsky maintained that human beings
are naturally endowed with capabilities that enable them to form sentences, and
stressed the trait of creativity as a fundamental characteristic of language.
The ability to speak is an innate competence, a uniquely human trait independent
of external factors (such as environment, condition,
What approach do we find to language in traditional Jewish sources? Jewish
texts that discussed the origin of language generally emphasized the place of
Hebrew as an ancient tongue. Nevertheless, certain rabbis also approached the
question from a universal perspective. Ibn Ezra (Safah Berurah
wrote that language (any language) is a product of social convention and not
inherent in human nature, nor is it divine. He based this idea on verses from
this week's reading: "And the Lord G-d formed out of the earth all
the wild beasts and all the birds of the sky, and brought them to the man to see
what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that
would be its name. And the man gave names to all the cattle and to the birds of
the sky and to all the wild beasts" (Gen. 2:19-20). According to Ibn
Ezra's interpretation of these verses, the first names were given by man,
and therefore they were not a creation of G-d. It follows from his remarks,
however, that on a certain level there was divine intervention in determining
the names; for in leaving man to choose names for the animals and birds, G-d
trusted that man would "have the wisdom to know the nature of all the
species so that the name given to each would signify its nature" (Safah
, 2.1). In other words, G-d created man with the necessary
characteristics such that He could entrust him with the task of giving names,
i.e., language. According to this explanation, Ibn Ezra distinguished between
the faculty of speech, which is given to man by G-d, and its applications in the
human languages that developed as a creation of human society. As he wrote
further on, "He, blessed be His name, planted in man the power to express
through letters, and all peoples everywhere are equal in their ability to
pronounce [i.e., in their innate faculty of speech], and only differ slightly as
to their letters [i.e., their language, the grammatical and linguistic system of
each] in their style of speech." (loc. sit.
The distinction that Ibn Ezra drew between the faculty of speech and its
expression in language is essentially the same as that which de Saussure drew
between la parole
(speech) and la langue
. A similar distinction
has been drawn by Chomsky between competence and
Note that in the sources cited
above Ibn Ezra did not express an opinion about the nature of the names or signs
that man gave to things, as to whether they are arbitrary or significant. This
question was addressed both by the Greeks and by modern linguistic researchers,
especially de Saussure, who held that linguistic signs are altogether
In conclusion, the account of the creation of man and his giving the
animals names provided our Sages and commentators substantiation of their views
and ideas on language as the "breath of life" and as a "living
being," in the context of their discussions of the origins of language and
its development in human society. As we have tried to show, there is an
affinity between these views and similar approaches taken by the world's
great philosophers and the originators of modern linguistics, among scholars of
antiquity and of modern times alike.
See the alternative explanation offered
by Ibn Ezra (loc. sit.
): "The explanation of ‘living
being,' is that he [Adam] walked immediately, like the animals, and not
like human babies." This explanation is based on the fact that the same
expression nefesh hayya
is also used with respect to the animals (Gen.
See the continuation of his remarks
there. Apparently he was referring to Galen (129 CE), Greek physician, and
following him, his Arab teachers, at least according to Prof. Isaiah. Leibowitz,
Sihot al ‘Shemonah Perakim' la-Rambam
, Jerusalem (undated),
Cf. Leibowitz, loc. sit.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus
, with an introduction by Bertrand Russel (1922).
Wittgenstein wrote on the relationship between language and thought. His
theories are discussed in Y. Bronowski, Massah al ha-Lashon
, Tel Aviv
(1975), pp. 81-84.
Also cf. his commentary on Psalms 4:5:
"The speech of the heart are the main thing, and language is but the
intermediary between the heart and the listener." Also cf. Ps. 52:4.
., p. 37 (4.012): "Language disguises
On this, cf., for example, R. Nir,
Mavo le-Torat ha-Lashon
, Unit 2: Ha-Lashon ke-Emtzai
, Open University, Tel Aviv, 1981, pp. 2-7.
In his dialogues, Cratylus
See examples given by Bronovsky, note 4
above, p. 14.
Cf. F. de Saussure, Course de
, Paris 1915, Part I, Ch. 2.
This stands in contrast
to the behaviorist approach, represented by B.F. Skinner (cf. his book,
, 1957), who maintains that language acquisition is
primarily a matter of imitation and conditioning. Similar views are presented
by the American linguist L. Bloomfield (cf. Language
, 1933). Chomsky
presents a critique of Skinner in a review in Language
Compare the opinion of Saadiah Gaon
on this, according to Dothan (Or Rishon be-Hokhmat ha-Lashon – Sefer
Tzahot Leshon ha-Ivrim le-Rav Saadiah Gaon
, Jerusalem 1997, I, pp. 96-99).
In Saadiah Gaon's opinion the names of things did not develop from nature,
but rather were established by consensus; the linguistic sign is arbitrary, but
the consensus exists from time immemorial. The choice of names was accomplished
by the "founder of language," who chose the signs of the language in
an arbitrary manner, and his determinations were accepted as the consensus and
were passed down to future generations. Dothan (loc. sit.
, p. 98) holds
that Saadiah Gaon "undoubtedly was referring to Adam" as the
"founder of language" (on the basis of what is written in this
On these concepts cf. Nir (note 9,
above), Unit 1: Musagei Yesod be-Heker ha-Lashon
, pp. 16-18.
Cf. Nir (note 9, above), Unit 2
) p. 7.
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