Friday, December 29, 2006

DovBear on the Parsha

"Now the whole world had one language and a common speech."
Genesis 11:1

"This was Hebrew" said my first grade rebbe (her name, actually, was Morah Rosenberg) "It was with this language that God created the world, and until the Tower of Babel everyone spoke this language. Afterwards, it belonged only to the children of Shem."

Far be it from me to disagree with a professional teacher of small children (their blogosphere lobby is viscious and known for sneaky tricks) but the facts of history, as uncovered by people who know where to look, disagree with her.

For instance, biblical Hebrew is full of Akkadian loan words. Yam (sea god), Mot (death god), Nahhar (river god) and El (chief god) were all names for Ugaritic dieties. Also, as reported last year "archeologists have found a tablet inscribed with two lines of an alphabet dating to the 10th century BCE. The string of aleph-beth-gimels appear to be an early rendering of the emerging Hebrew alphabet but it's unclear if the language is Phoenician, Hebrew or a blend of both. The best guess, scholars say, is that the find represents the Hebrew language still in transition from its Phoenician roots."

The Torah true Jews in the audience have likely already begin writing their angry and insulting comments. You're furiously reminding me that the Sages of the Midrash, no slouchs them, were certain that Hebrew was once spoken by every human being. Muvan. But wait. Put down your poisenous pens. I have a surprise for you. The idea that Hebrew is, in fact, a contingent language that developed over time has an excellent pedigree. It's found in the Ramban, in this week's parasha. Here's the citation: (Gen. 45:12). "For Abraham did not bring it from Ur of the Chaldees [in Mesopotamia] and from Haran, for there they spoke Aramaic... And it was not a private language spoken by a single person but a language of Canaan..."

From the information that we possess today we must think the Ramban correct-- un-Jewish as the view may seem, to our late sensibilities. Archeology and the study linguistics support his contention, but so does common sense: As children, did we really think that Hebrew was the private language of Abraham's family, spoken, for a time, by as few as 7 or 8 people?

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