Monday, October 12, 2015

Adam's Language

R' Judah said in Rab's name: The first man spoke Aramaic for it is written, "How weighty are thy thoughts unto me, God". - BT Sanhedrin 38b

I think this short passage provides a great little lesson on how some Midrashim work. The citation, which comes from Psalm 139:17, contains Aramaic expressions and it discusses the creation of Adam. But is R' Judah saying that this linguistic anomaly compels us to believe that Adam spoke Aramaic? Not necessarily.

The suggestion has been made (Soncino ibid note 18) that R' Judah's midrash is actually trying to justify the abandonment by the Babylonian Jews of the Hebrew language in favor of Aramaic.

If this suggestion is correct, then this midrash is not attempting to make a historical claim, nor is it attempting to deliver the sort of silly message that people often attribute to midashim ("Try your best!" or "Everyone makes mistakes!")

Instead, its a straight justification for something the Sage has observed, that may also have been intended as a consolation. Unfortunately, 21st readers are blind to the context and the original intention. As Joyce Carol Oats said, Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.

Genesis, Berayshis,
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