Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Competing Theories of Hebrew

One of my guilty pleasures is discovering teachings which contradict the version of events we were given in grade school. It happens in every subject -- history, science and especially parshanut.

A good example of the latter can be found in Vayigash.

Like every good yeshiva boy, I was taught that Shem, son of Noah, makes a second appearence in the Bible under an alias: Melchizedek. (Why did Shem need to change his name? Rashi doesn't say, but he does note that this was before TAP scandals)

Acording to Rashi, Shem/Melchizedek settled in Salem/Jerusalem, opened a school with his grandson Eber, and established himself as the local high priest. Hebrew, Rashi believes, was the language of Shem's family, and the family flourished until the local people/Caananites grew impatient with their strange ways and drove them off. (The same pattern, TAP scandals included, is being repeated in modern day Orange County, NY.)

Sometime before Shem left, he met Abraham and taught him Hebrew, which became the private language of Abraham's family. Having a prive language came in handy, later, when Joseph needed to prove to his brothers that he was actually Joseph. According to Rashi, he did it by speaking Hebrew.

The Ramban, however, disgarees with virtually every point of this familiar narrative. He says that Shem never settled in Salem/Jerusalem, and that Abraham's Hebrew was aquired via contact with the native Caannite tribes. As he puts it,
"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. "