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‘Language of the Hebrew Man’ Parashat Vayigash 5783

After twenty-two years away from home, Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers: Not only is the person who stands before them the Grand Vizier of Egypt, second only to the Pharaoh, but he is also their younger brother, Joseph, whom they sold into slavery so long ago. His brothers are speechless. Joseph tells them that the famine that has brought them to Egypt will rage for another five years and that the survival of their family depends upon their immediate relocation to Egypt. There, promises Joseph, he will house them in the best location, in the Land of Goshen, where they will weather the storm in the lap of luxury.

Joseph summarizes his words [Bereishit 45:12]: “You can see for yourselves, and my brother Benjamin for himself, that it is indeed I who am speaking to you.” Rashi[1] explains that Joseph is addressing any potential doubts that his brothers might have about his claim that he is truly their brother and not some imposter. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash Rabbah, teaches that Joseph spoke to them in Hebrew, a language known only by their immediate family. This served as incontrovertible proof that he was the person he claimed he was[2].

The Ramban[3] takes Rashi to task, asserting that it would have been surprising had Joseph not known Hebrew: “It is possible that Joseph said what he said to them for plausibility and in order to be conciliatory, for the fact that a person in Egypt speaks the Holy Language is not proof that he is Joseph. It is my opinion that the Holy Language was the language of Canaan, for Abraham did not bring it there from Ur of the Chaldees or Haran, as they spoke Aramaic there… Now [Hebrew] was not the language of one man alone; rather, it was the language of the entire land of Canaan, and many people in Egypt knew it, since Canaan was nearby. We would particularly expect knowledge of languages in the case of a ruler, for it is usual for kings and rulers to be linguistic.” The Ramban, instead, proposes that Joseph was assuring his brothers that as Grand Vizier, he had the authority and the capability to carry out his plan for setting up his family in Goshen.

When I first saw the explanation of the Ramban, it felt as if someone had just landed a punch in my gut. Hebrew is more than just the “Language of the Hebrew Man[4]”. The Hebrew language is called the “Holy Tongue (Lashon HaKodesh)”. It possesses an innate holiness: It is the language in which the Torah was written and the language in which the universe was created. It is the language of prophecy – it is G-d’s Native Tongue. How can the Ramban suggest that Hebrew is just another Canaanite dialect? Further, the Ramban was a renowned Kabbalist. How could someone who swims in the Kabbala – which describes how G-d used the Hebrew alphabet to create the world – suggest that G-d could have done the same thing using Akkadian, Sumerian, or French? Unsurprisingly, the Ramban’s words have caused great consternation. Rabbi Yaakov Solenik[5] writes, “It is incomprehensible that a holy mouth could say such a thing! Why, seventy languages are divided amongst seventy nations and the Jewish Nation, G-d’s Chosen Nation, is preferred over all other nations, ergo her language is preferred over all other languages”.

Is the Ramban factually correct? Did the ancient Canaanites really speak Hebrew? According to “A History of the Hebrew Language”, by Angel Sáenz-Badillos, a professor of Hebrew at Harvard, the Ramban was well within his rights. Sáenz-Badillos writes, “Hebrew offers clear evidence that it belongs to the Canaanite group of languages, with certain peculiarities of its own. Possibly this means that when the Israelite tribes settled in Canaan they adopted the language of that country, at least for their written documents… Combining historical and linguistic issues, it was suggested in the first decades of this century that Hebrew is not a homogeneous linguistic system but a [hybrid language], in which it is possible to distinguish an early Canaanite layer, very close to Akkadian, and another more recent layer, closer to Aramaic and Southern Semitic…” If Hebrew is just an amalgam of Semitic languages, does this mean that we must redefine the term “Holy Tongue”?

Maybe not. When science, even a soft science such as archaeology, and religion collide, we can either jettison science, jettison religion, or synthesize the two. I would like to propose an idea developed together with Rav Shuki Weinberger[6] that implements the third option. The concept was spurred by Rabbi A.Y. Kook[7], who took bible criticism – the academic treatment of the Bible as a historical document – head-on in his book “Eder HaYakar”. Rav Kook was addressing then-recent discoveries pertaining to the Mesopotamian culture and its beliefs and legal systems, particularly the existence of a large number of laws found in the Code of Hammurabi[8] that are very similar to laws found in the Torah. If the Torah’s laws are found in other cultures, if they are not uniquely Jewish, does this undermine the Divine source of the Torah? Rav Kook proposes a fascinating answer: “Is it not well known that among the ancients there were people who recognized God, prophets, and spiritual giants, such as Methuselah, Hanoch, Shem and Ever, and the like? Is it possible that they had no influence on their generations? Even if their achievements do not compare with those of Abraham, how could their influence possibly have left no impression whatsoever upon their generations? Surely [their teachings] must have resembled those of the Torah… As for the similarity in practices… it is well-known that prophecy operates in tandem with man’s nature. Man’s natural inclinations must be raised through Divine guidance… Therefore, those elements of education that preceded the giving of the Torah which had found a place in the nation and the world, so long as they had a moral foundation and could be elevated to an eternal moral height, were left intact in the Divinely-given Torah.” Judaism was not formed in a vacuum. While the Torah was created to refine the world, man needed to first refine himself in order to be able to receive it. A process of gradual refinement begins immediately after Noah’s deluge. While Abraham was the first Jew, he was not the first monotheist. He was preceded by people like Methuselah, Hanoch, Shem and Ever[9], who discovered the One True G-d. These people lived in small faith-communities and their mission was to prepare the world for the Torah by infusing the world with Torah-values. It was their influence upon the leaders of the world that led to the Code of Hammurabi.

Rav Shuki and I suggest that a similar process occurred with the Hebrew language. According to Rashi, the entire world spoke Hebrew – the “Holy Tongue” –  until the Tower of Babel was built and the world splintered into seventy languages. People like Shem and Ever, who lived in the Land of Canaan, propagated the Hebrew language alive and kept it alive, preparing the world for a time in which the Torah would be given in that very language. Last week, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the death of Eliezer ben Yehuda, who revived Hebrew as a spoken language after a hiatus of nearly two thousand years, preparing the world for a time in which it will see the redemption of the Jewish People, speedily in our days.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Geisha bat Sara, Hila bat Miriam, Avraham Menashe ben Chana Bracha, Batya Sarah bat Hinda Leah and Rina bat Hassida.

[1] Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.

[2] Rashi adds that Joseph also showed them he was circumcised, using sight and sound to prove his pedigree.

[3] Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known by his acronym “Ramban”, lived in Spain and Israel in the 13th century.

[4] These are lyrics of from a popular Israeli song written and sung by Ehud Banai in 2004.

[5] Rabbi Solenik, who lived in Poland in the seventeenth century, is the son of the famous “Mas’at Binyamin”. He authored a supercommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah.

[6] Rav Shuki lives down the street in Moreshet. He is my go-to guy for everything Tanach.

[7] Rav Kook lived at the turn of the twentieth century in the Baltic Republics and then in Israel. He served as Israel’s first Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi. He is one of the founding fathers of Religious Zionism.

[8] The Code of Hammurabi is a collection of 282 rules and regulations. It established standards for commercial interactions and set fines and punishments to meet the requirements of justice. The Code was inscribed onto a basalt stele. The Code of Hammurabi predates the Torah.

[9] See Rambam Hilchot Avodat Kochavim [1:2]

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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