[Avodah] Languages

Akiva Miller akivagmiller at gmail.com
Sun Oct 10 03:42:50 PDT 2021

In the course of learning Parshas Noach, I had expected to find the word
"language" several times, and indeed, it appears 5 times in the story of
the Dor Haflaga in Perek 11. What surprised me is that it also appears 3
times in Perek 10, *before* the Tower was even built!

10:5 refers to the descendants of Yefes, who were separated "in their
lands, each to its language, by their families, in their nations."
10:20 refers to the descendants of Cham, "by their families, by their
languages, in their lands, in their nations."
10:31 refers to the descendants of Shem, "by their families, by their
languages, in their lands, to their nations."

The slight variations among these three pesukim is an interesting point,
but it is not what I am asking now. My question is how we can talk about
multiple languages at a point in history when only one language existed.

I found two answers to this. One is from Rabbi Dr J.H. Hertz, found in the
populal (pre-ArtScroll) Soncino Chumash. On 10:5 he writes "The
differentiation of language is accounted for in the next chapter. The
Rabbis explain that the narratives in Scripture are not always in strict
chronological order... Ayn mukdam um'uchar baTorah." I am embarrassed to
say that I dismissed this out of hand, but the more I thought about it, the
more sense it made: The descendants of Shem, Cham, and Yefes, *did* survive
past the Dor Haflaga, and *did* eventually have differing lands and

I am much more intrigued by the answer of Rav S.R. Hirsch. I must point out
that this question is an excellent example (perhaps the best I've ever
seen) of the dangers of studying Torah in translation. Because while it is
true that the word "language" appears 8 times in this parsha, all 3 cases
in Perek 10 use the Hebrew word "lashon", and all 5 cases in Perek 11 use
the Hebrew word "safah". (By the way, the pesukim in Perek 11 are 1, 6,
twice in 7, and pasuk 9.)

I have long been curious about the difference in nuance between these two
words, lashon and safah. Rav Hirsch, on 10:5 and again on 11:1, explains
that lashon refers to a language, and safah is a dialect. Thus it is
entirely reasonable that even prior to the Tower, Noach's many descendants
had developed varied dialects of their one single language, which were all
intelligible to each other. Then as a result of the Tower incident, Hashem
changed their languages so that they would *not* understand each other.

I do have one question on Rav Hirsch's explanation: Pasuk 11:1 refers to
the "safah echas", the one language that the entire world spoke prior to
the Dispersion. Rashi, citing the Medrash, says that this language was
Leshon Hakodesh. Why "lashon" and not "safah"? Did the meanings of these
words change at some point?

Akiva Miller

PS: Several years ago, I was in a taxi in Yerushalayim, and shmoozing with
the driver. I don't remember what we were talking about, but it was
interesting, and I'm sure the driver was amused by the quality of my broken
Hebrew. At only one point in the conversation did he correct my vocabulary,
and that was to point out that I said "lashon" but should have said
"safah". At the time, I figured this was simply a difference between Lashon
Hakodesh and Modern Hebrew. But now I'm not so sure.
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