The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Portion of Vayigash, 1996
Did the Patriarchs Speak Hebrew?
Prof. Gad Sarfatti
Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages
Chapter 45 of Genesis describes the dramatic meeting between Joseph and his brothers, in which he reveals his identity to them and urges their quick return to Egypt with their father Jacob. This is what he says to them in order to persuade them, "Behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin, that it is my mouth that is speaking to you" (Gen. 45:12).
In his authoritative Aramaic translation, Onkelos renders the last phrase as "that it is in your language that I am speaking to you." Following him, Rashi explains, "It is my mouth that is speaking to you--in the Holy Tongue [Hebrew]." Ibn Ezra understands Joseph's remark in the same way, and provides the addendum, "For until now the interpreter stood between us." Rashbam and Radak (Kimchi) agree with Ibn Ezra, but Ramban (Nachmanides) dissents.After citing their opinions and Onkelos's translation, Ramban says:
It is possible that he said this to them simply as a means of pacifying them, for there was no proof [that he was Joseph] in the fact that someone in Egypt should speak in the Holy Tongue. In my opinion, Hebrew was a Canaanite language. For Abraham did not bring it from Ur of the Chaldees [in Mesopotamia] and from Haran, for there they spoke Aramaic, as the incident of the pile of stones erected by Laban and Jacob proves [see Gen. 31:47]. And it was not a private language spoken by a single person but a language of Canaan, and many people in Egypt knew it for the countries were close together--particularly the ruler, for it is customary for kings and rulers to know several languages.
For his assertion that Hebrew is "a Canannite language" Ramban makes reference to Isaiah, who does thus refer to Hebrew: "On that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear by the Lord of hosts" (Isa. 19:18). That the original language of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) was Aramaic is proved to Ramban's mind by virtue of the fact that Laban gave the name "Yegar-sahaduta" to what Jacob called "Gal-ed" (Gen. 31:47), The former had remained in Mesopotamia and continued to speak Aramaic (which Ramban thinks was spoken in Ur and in Haran), while Jacob, who had grown up in Canaan, had learnt the local language.
This idea, that "the language of Canaan" was the language spoken in the land of Canaan as opposed to the Aramaic of Mesopotamia, appears earlier in Ramban's Commentary, when in his remarks on Genesis 11:28 (Parshat Noah) he explains that Terah and Abraham fled from Mesopotamia to Canaan because of the language difference between the two localities. God's intention in bringing Abraham to Canaan was "to make him great and give the land to him;" but Terah and Abraham's own understanding was different
"from the time that [Abraham] was saved [from Nimrod], they wished to reach the land of Canaan and get far away from the land of the Chaldees because of fear of the king, for Haran was close to his dominions and they had a common population and language, for both spoke Aramaic; and Terah and Abraham wished to go to a people who did not understand the language of that king and his people."
Here Ramban expresses a view wholly opposed to the tradition passed down by the Sages of the Talmud and after. As we see in the following passage from Genesis Rabba 18:4, on the creation of Eve, the Sages of the Talmud held that Hebrew was the language originally spoken by all human beings, and the language through which the world was created:
"For this shall be called ishah (woman), for from ish (man) was this taken" (Gen. 2:23)--we learn from this that the Torah was given in the Holy Tongue. Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Hilkiya said in the name of Rabbi Simon: Just as the Torah was given in the Holy Tongue so was the world created with the Holy Tongue. Did you ever hear the forms gyne and gyneya, ita and itata, anthropos and anthropaia, gavra and gavrata? But ish and ishah [Hebrew for "man" and "woman," ah being the feminine ending], how does this come about? Because the two expressions correspond (i.e. alliterate).
This last sentence means that the verse "For this shall be called ishah (woman), for from ish (man) was this taken" could have been uttered only in Hebrew since only in that language are the terms for male and female humans so similar in sound. As proof of this the Midrash adduces other languages in which the names for the two sexes are completely different from each other: in Greek "man" is anthropos (and there is no feminine form such as anthropaia) and "woman" is gyne, in Aramaic the terms are gavra and itata respectively--and we might add that the same difference is found in other languages too: the Latin vir and mulier, the French homme and femme, and so on. Following on from this, and understanding the Biblical text in the most direct way, the Sages concluded that all other languages came into being at the time of the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11:9) while Hebrew remained the possession of Eber, son of Shem, and his descendants. This was also the opinion of Saadia Gaon, who translated the Bible into Arabic; Ibn Ezra, the great medieval poet Yehudah Halevi; Isaac Arama in Akedat Yitzchak; Elijah Bachur, and others, up till Moses Mendelssohn. As an illustration, here is a passage from Kuzari, the philosophic work by Yehuda Halevi:
We have the evidence of the Torah for this point. The Hebrew language was passed down from one person to another until it reached Eber (Eber received it from Noah and Noah from Adam); for Hebrew was the language spoken by Eber (Ever) and it was called Ivrit (Hebrew) after him because he preserved it even during the confusion of tongues at Babel. And Abraham preserved it after Eber. However, while he was in Ur Abraham spoke Aramaic because that was the local language; he retained Hebrew as a language of holiness and used Aramaic for everyday purposes. Kuzari 2:68
This conception, which was held by non-Jewish scholars also until the eighteenth century, contains two principles: that Hebrew was the first of all languages--the language in which the Creator spoke to Adam, and which was spoken by everyone until the time of the Tower of Babel; and that other languages spoken by other peoples came into being in the generation of Babel, Hebrew remaining the language of Eber, and in turn that of the Patriarchs and the Jewish people. The first of these principles is accepted by Ramban, as we can see from his comment on Exodus 30:13, in which he explains why Hebrew is known as "the Holy Tongue" (lashon ha-kodesh):
Because the words of the Torah and of the prophecies, and all sacred pronouncements, were all said in that language, and it is the language which the Holy One, blessed be He, speaks with His prophets and His congregation [when He pronounced] "I am the Lord your God Who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt" and "You shall have no other gods before Me" and the rest of the commandments, and the prophecies, and it is in Hebrew that He is called by His holy Names ... and through it He created His world and gave the names of "heaven" and "earth" and of everything that is in them, and His angels and all their hosts--He calls them all by name, Michael [i.e. Who is like God?] and Gabriel [Strength of God], in that language, and in that language He gave names to holy people on earth, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Solomon, and others like them.
But Ramban's comments on Genesis, cited above, prove that he did not accept the second principle. In his view, the Patriarchs spoke Aramaic, and it was only in Canaan that they learnt the local language--Hebrew or "Canaanite."
From the information that we possess today we must think Ramban correct in the main, even if we do not agree with him that Abraham spoke Aramaic. Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite language group within the Semitic family of languages and is very similar to its neighbors: Phoenician, Moabite, and the language which flourishes in the Tel-el-Amarna letters, which were written in the fourteenth and thirteentcenturies B.C.E. from Israel, Syria and Phoenicia to the king of Egypt. In his book History of the Hebrew Language (in Hebrew) Haim Rabin writes that "the Patriarchs, we know, came from Mesopotamia, where they did not speak a language of the Hebrew type; how then is it that we find the people of Israel, after they had taken possession of the Promised Land, beginning to write and to make use of a language which was already spoken by the Canaanites whom they dispossessed? The only possible answer is that at some stage our predecessors changed their language."
To the best of my knowledge this opinion of Ramban's is not mentioned by other scholars, not even to be denied. It was apparently felt to be so un-Jewish that it did not deserve discussion. Interestingly, the passage in Ramban's comment on Genesis 45:12, "for Abraham did not bring [Hebrew] from Ur of the Chaldees and from Haran, for there they spoke Aramaic, as the incident of the pile of stones erected by Laban and Jacob proves. And it was not a private language spoken by an individual but a language of Canaan," does not appear in the printed texts of Ramban.1 It is possible that the omission arose when a copyist's eye slipped from the words "Hebrew was a tongue of Canaan" to "a language of Canaan" at the end of the sentence, as a result which this passage has disappeared (homoiteleuton). However, it is also conceivable that the passage was dropped because it was simply too daring.
Irrespective of the reasons behind Ramban's view, we must admire his integrity, spiritual liberation and courage. Even if modern scholars do not agree as to the language spoken by the Patriarchs or brought by the people of the Exodus to the land of Israel, it is clear from extant epigraphic material that Hebrew is a Canaanite language.
1. Nor in several texts which copy from Ramban, from Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi and Rabbenu Bachya to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in the great Preface to his dictionary. It was found by Rabbi Shaval in an old manuscript of Ramban and appears in his edition, published by Mossad Ha-Rav Kook. Later he also printed it in Mikraot Gedolot; Torat Haim (same publisher).
Translated by Dr Phyllis Hackett
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