Our parsha tells of the Tower built by the inhabitants of Bovel, in an attempt to storm the Heavens. The reason they stopped building the Tower is also well-known: “…Let Us go down and confuse their speaking, so that they will not understand the language of their fellow… And from there Hashem spread them across the land.”
Up until that time, they all spoke a single language: Lashon HaKodesh. After that event, seventy languages developed. Which languages developed? Were they Japanese, Chinese, French and maybe English? We do not know. Our sources only tell us the language that was at first spoken universally: Lashon HaKodesh. After that there were seventy nations each speaking its own language.
In the current essay we will survey the seventy languages briefly. Is the number seventy meaningful or not? Are the languages of the modern world among the original seventy languages, or were all of the original languages lost? What halachic ramifications are there to the languages? All this and more in the sequel.
“Rabbi Shimon said: When people built the Tower, HaKodosh Boruch Hu called the Seventy Angels who surround his Throne of Glory and said to them: Let us confuse their languages so that there will be seventy nations and seventy languages. As it says, ` Let Us go down…’ It does not say, `I will go down,’ but rather, `Let Us go down.’ They cast lots among themselves… and the lot of HaKodosh Boruch Hu fell on Avrohom Avinu and his descendants, as it says, `The portion of Hashem is His people; Yakov is His inheritance.’ “ (Yalkut Parshas Noach, 62)
From the remarks of Rabbi Shimon it is clear that the number of languages is very meaningful. Each is associated with one of the seventy nations of the world, each of which has a special Angel around the Heavenly Throne of Glory. The Ramban (Bamidbar 11:16) also writes that the seventy nations have representatives in Heaven, including a Mazal and a Sar. The Ramban cites pesukim in support of his statements.
The number seventy also appears in the Torah in other contexts. Each of these is related.
At the time of Matan Torah there were seventy Elders (zekeinim) with Moshe Rabbeinu. “And to Moshe He said go up to Hashem, you and Aharon and Nadav and Avihu and seventy Elders of Yisroel” (Shemos 24:1). The Great Sanhedrin number seventy-one members, and some say seventy. Yaakov Avinu went down to Mitzrayim with “Seventy souls.” There were also seventy judges of Yisroel. The Ramban says that the number seventy includes “all the powers and all minds.” That is to say, the seventy Nations include all the minds and powers that there are in the world.
With this we can better understand the gemora (Sotah 36a) that tells of Yosef as he stood before Pharoh in Mitzrayim and knew one language more than Pharoh: Lashon HaKodesh. The gemora stresses the great admiration there was in Mitzrayim for someone who knew all seventy languages. What is so admirable about knowing seventy languages? There are many ways in which someone may stand out. What is special about knowing all the languages?
According to what we explained above, knowing all the languages is not just having an extremely large vocabulary. It means knowing all the powers and minds that there are in the universe. Clearly someone who has acquired all of this knowledge has accomplished something very significant and admirable, and it is understandable why the Egyptians held a person like that in great esteem.
Seventy Languages: Then and Now
Which languages and people have a part in the collection of powers and minds that make up the universe? Do the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians have an essential part in this world? We do not know. However we do know some nations and languages that are not on the original list for the simple reason that they came into being after the Dor Haflagah.
In discussing ancient Rome, the gemora (Avodah Zarah 10a) says that the Romans were a degenerate people because they had no language and no writing that was unique to them. Is this true? Their language was Latin, which is the basis of all the Romance languages. How can we say that they had no language?
Rashi says there that their language was gathered from several other languages and is not independent. If this was true of ancient Rome, how much more does it apply to the languages spoken in the modern world. New inventions, globalization, improved transportation and communication, have resulted in a tremendous amount of borrowing from one language to another. English is derived from German, Latin and Greek, for example. Many languages also have words with Hebrew roots. There are many similar words in many languages. Does it make sense to say that HaKodosh Boruch Hu, in creating the seventy languages to include all the different minds, included similar of identical words in several languages?
Tosafos (Ibid, s.v. She’ein) comment: From where did the Arabic language spoken by the descendants of Yishmoel and Keturah arise? The forefathers were all born after the Dor Haflagah. So it would seem that Arabic is not among the seventy languages. Amon and Moav were also not born yet during the Dor Haflagah. What is the origin of their languages? Apparently they were derived from the original seventy. So why is Rome singled out as a degenerate people without a language and writing? Tosafos answers (based on a Medrash) that Yishmoel, Amon and Moav derived their languages from the original seventy and they incorporated the original minds and powers of those seventy. Thus they remain representative of the original seventy. However Rome collected their language and culture from many nations and languages so that the result does not represent the originals in any way.
The Chasam Sofer on the gemora in Avoda Zarah explains: “The world was divided into seventy nations, each with its writing and language appropriate to the nature of the country and/or the Mazal and Sar that they have Above. But Rome’s language is not based on the nature of a particular state or on any Sar up Above. Rather, a man named Latinas made up the Latin language using 19 letters in the year 3345, according to his personal fancy. It is that language that they use in writing all their laws and rules and regulations and accumulated wisdom, where the Greeks use Greek and the Yishmoelim use their language. With this you can understand the words of Chazal.”
The upshot is that the Latin language, and all the modern languages derived from it including English (at least in part) do not represent any of the original seventy languages, even though they certainly incorporate all that is modern and advanced today. On the other hand, the Arab nation, is evidently very faithful to the characterization it received in the Torah, “And you will live by your sword,” and is known for its backwardness relative to much of the modern world. Nonetheless it represents one of the original seventy nations, even though its founder was born several years after the origins of the seventy nations.
Creating a New Language
Is there any difference between the original seventy languages and the languages that originated at a later date such as are in use today?
The Mishna (Brochos 13a) says: One who reads Krias Shema in any language fulfills his obligation. This halachah is derived from the posuk, “Shema” which Chazal interpret to mean: Shema – hear in any language that you understand. Another halachah noted there is: One who read [Krias Shema] and did not take care to pay attention to every letter, did not fulfill his obligation, since the mitzvah is to read the exact words of Krias Shema.
The Rambam codifies this law (Hilchos Krias Shema 2:10): One may read Shema in any language that he understands. One who reads must be careful to be exact in reading it in that language, and must take the same care in that language as one takes in Lashon Kodesh.
According to the Rambam, the two halachos are parallel and may be fulfilled together. Even when reading Shema in another language one must be careful in reading the translation, just like when reading it in Lashon Kodesh. This requirement as interpreted by the Rambam seems quite difficult. Who can be sure that a given translation into another language is the true translation that must be used exactly in order to fulfill the obligation? The Misha Berurah notes this issue (Siman 62,3), and brings an example. The word “veshinantom” may be explained as derived from shinun – learning and review. Or it may be derived from chidud – to sharpen one’s knowledge and response. How are we to know which is the correct translation?
The Ravad disagrees. He writes: “This is not reasonable since all languages are translation (peirush) and who can know the correct translation?” According to the Ravad, the requirement to be careful about every letter only applies in Lashon Kodesh. The drosho that we may say Shema in any language we understand means that we may also read a translation (which is in effect a particular interpretation) of Krias Shema. In a translation or interpretation there is certainly no need to be careful about the letters.
Perhaps according to the Rambam there is something special in each language. Therefore it is necessary to be careful about each of its letters. According to the Ravad there is nothing special about other languages, and therefore the requirement is just to read and understand the meaning of Krias Shema in a language that one understands.
In the gemora in Brochos the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda Hanossi is also cited: That the entire Torah was given in every language. According to Tosafos there, every word that came from HaKodosh Boruch Hu at Matan Torah was split into the seventy languages. The gemora compares the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda to the halachah that Krias Shema may be read in any language. Therefore, it seems, it is permissible to read Shema only in the seventy languages that came from HaKodosh Boruch Hu on Sinai, and not in languages that originated at a later date. The opinion of the Rambam that one must be careful of letters and words when reading Shema in another language is understandable from this perspective, since the entire permission is limited to those special seventy languages.
Many mitzvos and halachas depend on language, such as nedorim and reading the Megillah. Is any language just as good for these mitzvos and halachas? The Biur Halachah (Siman 62) brings the Rishonim who say that in these cases another language may only be used if it is the language spoken in that particular place. One may read the Megillah in English in England, but not in German. One may read it in Russian in Russia, but not in Arabic.
The Rambam writes (Hilchos Nedorim, 1, 16): “In some places people are uncultured and they degrade the language and they use words to mean something other than their usual meaning. In that case we go after the usage. In similar cases we also follow the usage of most people in that place at that time.”
The implication is that a degraded language in acceptable if that is the common language at that time in that place. However the implication is that there is an uncorrupted language that is good at every place. So we learn from the Rambam that the seventy original languages have a special status compared to a regular language that is only valid in a place where it is spoken.
The conclusion is, however, that in halachic matters in which it is possible to read in other languages, there is no difference between the seventy languages that originated in the Dor Haflagah and other languages whose origin is later. The universal principle is that a language may be used for halachic purposes if it is the spoken language of that place. The Rambam’s opinion is that there is something special about the seventy languages compared to many other languages spoken today.
At the same time it is clear that those original seventy languages and the nations that arose then have a special relationship to the entire universe.