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Parshas Noach (5770)

The Tower of "Babble" and the Origin of Languages

A strange, but somewhat amusing, incident occurred a couple of years ago, which was reported in newspapers across the U.S. and Canada:
A Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Newark was diverted to Charlotte, N.C., after passengers complained of two "Middle Eastern" men who were huddled in the back of the plane speaking a language other than English. After the plane landed in Charlotte, investigators found that the two alleged "terrorists" were just Orthodox Jews who were saying their daily prayers [in Hebrew] during the flight.

Imagine that! How ironic! These two innocent Jews were probably praying to G-d to protect them from Middle Eastern terrorists, and then they themselves got mistaken for hijackers! And all this because they were speaking Hebrew, a language which was unrecognizable to all those who were sitting around them!

Well, believe it or not, according to Biblical tradition, there was a period in the history of mankind when everybody spoke Hebrew (!) and when such a mistake could never have occurred.

That's right! The Torah tells us in this week's portion, Parshas Noach, that in the year 1996 from Creation, 340 years after the Flood: "The whole earth was of one language and of common purpose" (Genesis 11:1). The commentaries explain this to mean that from Creation up until that point, all the inhabitants of the world spoke or understood the one language with which the world was created - the Hebrew language - which is known in Hebrew as Loshon Hakodesh (the Holy Tongue). The Torah then goes on to relate the narrative of the building of the Tower of Babel through the united effort of the entire civilized world, and the subsequent dispersion of all the earth's inhabitants by Divine decree, thus bringing about the formation of new nations and different languages.

The problem with this strange Biblical tale is that it raises a lot of difficult questions. First of all, what's the whole point of the Torah's recording for us the crazy plan of the inhabitants of Babylon to build this skyscraper to heaven, as well as how G-d foiled their plan? What lessons for our own lives can we learn from this story? Is this information we really need to know? Secondly, what exactly did these Babylonians do that was so bad that caused G-d Himself to come down from heaven to disperse them over all parts of the earth? After all, tall buildings are kind of nice, and make for great tourist attractions. And according to the Torah, all they wanted for themselves was a little fame and renown. They said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed across the whole earth" (ibid 11:4). Is that so wrong?


To answer these questions, we first need to ask some more questions. In G-d’s reaction to the builders of the Tower of Babel, what exactly did He do to make each person forget his original language (which, as mentioned earlier, was Loshon Hakodesh, the Holy Tongue) and to begin speaking in a different language? Did He just snap His fingers and – voilà - people started talking Swahili and German and Spanish? Or was there some sort of gradual process that took place through which other languages developed and the original tongue was forgotten? The Ibn Ezra cites an opinion that G-d instilled such hatred among the people that each nation devised a new language. Another opinion is that He Who instills wisdom in man now made him forget his language. Ibn Ezra concludes that, in his own opinion, the birth of languages was the result of the dispersion and the subsequent rise of many kingdoms with the eventual result that the original common language was forgotten.

The difficulty with all these opinions is the last verse in the Torah's account of the story: "That is why it was called Babel, because it was there that G-d confused [ba-lahl] the languages of the whole earth, and from there G-d scattered them over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11:9). Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Torah, points out that the word ba-lahl, normally translated as "confused", really means "to mix two elements together as one through the introduction of a third element", such as in the mixing of dry particles of flour together through the introduction of water or oil, thereby making the flour particles into one dough. In other words, what is being implied in the word ba-lahl in the verse is that all G-d did was to introduce something new into the formation of their speech, and this new element must by itself have brought about that people no longer understood each other. What then was this new element that was the ultimate cause of the breakdown of the world's universal language with the resultant formation of all the other languages?

Furthermore, we have to understand why this particular method of dispersing mankind was used? It seems rather arbitrary. G-d could just as well have made people dress differently or become different colors and races in order to cause their distancing themselves from each other. Why was language, in particular, chosen to be the vehicle through which the dispersion of mankind was accomplished?

It seems to be indicated in the words of our Prophets that the evolution of many different languages after the dispersion was detrimental to the ultimate perfection and unity that mankind strives for, and that only when the Messiah comes, and all peoples of the earth will once again speak in the Holy Tongue, will we achieve that perfection and unity. The prophet Zephania speaks of the future Messianic Era when he writes, "For then I will change the nations [to speak] a pure language, so that they all will proclaim the Name of G-d, to worship Him with a united resolve" (Zephania 3:9). What is so special about language, and the Hebrew language in particular, that the dispersion and downfall of mankind, as well as his ultimate perfection, all depends on it?


There is a major, qualitative difference between (Biblical) Hebrew (Loshon Hakodesh) and all the other languages out there. According to tradition, all the other languages are the product of human beings, while Hebrew was made up by G-d Himself. In fact, we are taught that Hebrew pre-existed the world itself! And the Sages tell us that when G-d created the world, He created it by means of Loshon Hakodesh [the Holy Tongue]. Evidence is cited from the Hebrew words ish (man) and isha (woman). The Torah informs us that woman was so named "because she was taken from man"(Genesis 2:3) - a reasoning which would only make sense if man and woman were created by means of Loshon Hakodesh in which ish and isha are nearly identical.

This very important difference has many ramifications to it. For one thing, since Hebrew was made up by G-d Himself, it must, by definition, be a perfect language, and must make perfect sense, since G-d is perfect. Other languages, which are the product of human beings, need to make about as much sense as the (sometimes nonsensical) humans who created them!

Take the English language, for example. It makes no sense at all! And here is a short list of reasons why:
    Why are they called "apartments" when they are all stuck together?
    Why do we play in recitals and recite in plays?
    If people from Poland are called Poles, why aren't people from Holland called Holes?
    Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?
    Why is a person who plays the piano called a pianist, but a person who drives a race car not called a racist?
    Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposites?
    Why do overlook and oversee mean opposite things?

And how about this one (quoted by linguist and author Richard Lederer): Only in the English language can you pronounce the letter combination -ough eight different ways (!) as in the following sentence: A rough-coated, dough-faced, thoughtful ploughman strode the streets of Scarborough; after falling into a slough, he coughed and hiccoughed!

But the difference between Hebrew and all other languages is much, much deeper. As Rabbi Akiva Tatz explains in his book Worldmask, in the Hebrew language with which the Torah was written, words express essence, and close study of the words is rewarded by an understanding of the nature of the ideas that those words describe. In other languages of the secular world, words are also revealing: the language of the culture reveals its heart. How a particular culture express ideas through language gives insight into the values of that culture. In Torah, words express essence because words are in fact the basis for the existence of those things which they describe. G-d created objects in this world by saying the words for those objects. When He said "Let there be ohr (light)" - light automatically came into being. The words are the medium of Creation, and a correct grasp of the words is a correct grasp of the essence of the objects those words represent.

In other words, Hebrew is an objective language - it is G-d's expression of the essence and ultimate role and purpose of all that He created on this earth. If we speak and study the Hebrew language, we will ultimately find out how G-d wants a particular idea to be expressed and carried out in this world. Other languages are subjective - they are merely human expressions of our limited and somewhat distorted perception of the essence of all that is created for us on earth. And when we study the English language, we are studying a human being's idea of the particular essence of an object or person.

Rabbi Hirsch illustrates the subjective element that can be clearly found in today’s languages. For example, in German, the word for ‘nation’ is volk, which comes from the root folgen, meaning ‘to follow’ – the people must follow their leader, lacking independence. In Latin, the nation is called populus – the all-devouring masses. The Hebrew language, however, sees the people as am (which is related to the Hebrew word im, meaning “together as one”) – a union of equals.

He also points to the Hebrew words that the Torah uses for ‘man’ and ‘women’, ish and isha. Since the words ish and isha are actually the same word in different genders, equality of status was guaranteed in this objective language. It was impossible for man and woman’s statuses to be unequal – neither could treat the other as a slave or an idol. The first person to change the words for ‘man’ and/or ‘woman’ would have created another new concept – that man and woman need not be perceived as equal.

One of my favorite examples of subjectivity commonly found in languages other than Hebrew concerns the word love. In the English language, one can express love for many things. One can love one's spouse, one's parents, one's job, or even a good piece of cheesecake. In our culture, when we express the word love, what we are really referring to is the good feeling of pleasure we feel inside when we relate to that particular object of our affection. I love pizza or ice cream because it makes me feel good. So that when I say that I love pizza, I am really saying that I love myself, so I eat pizza. And maybe when I express my love for my spouse, I am really speaking about the good feeling I get inside when I am around her. But, of course, we realize that this is not true love, the kind of love that will last through all kinds of tests and strains. It is merely a love of the pleasure I get from this relationship (maybe we can call it romance) - and when the pleasure is gone, or when problems arise, the love might dissipate.

In Lashon Hakodesh (Hebrew), the word for love is ahavah. And as Hebrew expresses true essence - G-d's definition of how things should be, not Man's -ahavah expresses the true essence of a love relationship. The root of the word ahavah is hav, which means "giving". And what the Torah is telling us here by naming love ahavah, is that true love, the kind that will ultimately stand the test of time, is the result of much genuine giving, not of taking and receiving pleasure, as is the mistaken belief in modern society.


Rabbi Hirsch explains that the sin of the builders of the Tower of Babel was that they wanted to unify themselves and achieve a so-called "perfect society" without G-d's being in the picture. They wanted to "make a name for themselves", as the Torah says, and not to submit to G-d's will and plan. Whereas G-d had given human beings the ability to unite in their understanding of the world and its purpose - as reflected in their common, G-d-given Hebrew language - which would in turn enable them to express G-d's will in this world and to bring it to perfection, the inhabitants of the world instead united against G-d. They felt that as a united entity, nothing could stop them from their desired goals, and that this could be accomplished without G-d's help. And when human beings bands together to "perfect" humanity without G-d in the picture - nothing can be more dangerous than that.

So G-d set out to destroy the unity of the world's inhabitants. And He did so by injecting (ba'lahl) subjectivity into their minds and ideas, which, of course, was reflected in their language. This automatically caused them not to understand each other. No longer would they all speak Hebrew, thus understanding the objective essence of all things in Creation. Now, each person would name things and speak a language that suited his or her human, subjective, and distorted understanding of all that exists.

Of course, as soon as all the nations stopped speaking Hebrew, they lost the chance to be G-d's "chosen people" who would bring perfection to mankind by expressing G-d's will in this world. And it was left to one man and his descendants - Abraham and the Jewish people - to inherit the sole ownership of the Holy Tongue, thereby understanding the true essence of all that G-d created, and expressing that Divine Will in this world, leading all of mankind to its ultimate perfection.

The Torah tells us in the next weekly portion that Abraham called "in the name of G-d", meaning that he properly understood G-d's definition of reality as expressed in His language, and taught it in this world. And that, my friends, is the mission of the Jewish people - our people - until such time when, as the prophet Zephania said, all the nations will once again speak the Holy Tongue, and "they all will proclaim the Name of G-d, to worship Him with a united resolve."

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