Did Adam Speak Hebrew?

The ancient rabbis believed there was linguistic proof that the first man spoke Hebrew with God. Why?

God Judging Adam by William Blake.

God Judging Adam by William Blake.

Feb. 8 2023
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Mosaic reader Rod Elkin writes:

Your column about the Canaanite sentence on the ancient lice comb was fascinating. It brings to mind the question: what was the language in which God spoke with Adam?

My first instinct would be to answer, “I don’t know, I wasn’t there,” but in the Bible, of course, God and Adam speak in Hebrew. And presumably Mr. Elkin is asking: if, as my column observed, the Hebrew of biblical times developed from ancient Canaanite, and ancient Canaanite, like all languages, developed from a previous ancestor, what language do we arrive at if we go all the way back to the time of Adam? Or to rephrase the question: what was the first language spoken by Homo sapiens when he began to speak?

Alas, this is an unanswerable question. Unlike the chronology of the Bible, which puts Adam in the Garden of Eden a mere 5,783 years ago, paleoanthropologists date the earliest known bones of a creature that, anatomically speaking, might be called human to 300,000–250,000 years ago; nor is there any certainty whether these earliest human beings already had some form of language and communicated by regulated patterns of speech having different sounds and words and grammatical rules. Similarly, we can’t know whether such speech first developed in one time and place or came into being independently in more than one—that is, whether there was one or several original proto-languages. And while it is generally believed, judging by the anatomical history of the larynx or voice box, that all of Homo sapiens was speaking by 200,000 to 150,000 years ago, it is extremely unlikely that we will ever be able even to guess at what such speech was like.

But of Adam’s having spoken Hebrew, the ancient rabbis believed there was linguistic proof. In Genesis Rabbah, a midrashic collection compiled in Palestine sometime between 300 and 500 CE, we find a commentary on Adam’s exclaiming, upon seeing Eve for the first time when waking from the sleep in which she was formed from his rib, “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman because she was taken from man.” This reads:

Rabbi Pinḥas and Rabbi Hilkiah said in the name of Rabbi Simon: “Just as the Torah was given in the Holy Tongue [Hebrew], so the world was created in the Holy Tongue. Have you ever heard anyone say gynai-gynea? Anthrope-anthropa? Gavra-g’virta? But ish and ishah, yes. Why? Because [Adam] was playing on words.

The point of this midrash is that Adam’s remark only makes sense if he is speaking a language in which the words for man and woman are alike, as they are in Hebrew, in which “man” is ish [איש] and woman ishah [אישה]. In the two main languages in use in Palestine at the time of Genesis Rabbah’s composition, on the other hand—Greek and Aramaic—this is not the case. The Aramaic for “man,” gavra, has no opposite-sex version like g’virta, and the same holds true for Greek anthropos (ἄνθρωπος), man, and gyné (γυνή), woman. These are the nominative-case forms of Rabbi Simon’s two vocative-case pairs of gynai-gynea, anthropé-anthropa (γύναι -γυνέα, ἄνθρωπε-ἄνθρωπa)—the first member of each pair an actual usage, the second what the usage would be if there were a masculine version of gyné and a feminine one of anthropos.

Had our rabbis known English with its “man” and “woman” (originally, in Old English, weofman, “a man’s wife”), in which Adam’s play on words works just as well, they would have had to think of a different proof. And yet from their point of view, this would hardly have been necessary, since Hebrew was not only the language of the Bible, it was the language in which God created the world.

The Creation, according to the Bible, is verbal. “And God said: ‘Let there be light.’. . . And God said: ‘Let the waters under the waters under the heavens be gathered together.’ . . . And God said: ‘Let the earth bring forth grass.’ . . . And God said: ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven”—unlike the gods of mythology, who create the world by activity of some sort, the God of the Bible created it simply by speaking. “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth,” says the book of Psalms, and to the rabbis it was obvious that the Hebrew Bible contains the record of these words in their original form.

It was also clear to them that if Hebrew is God’s language, it cannot be a language like any other. It must have a special structure in which the secrets of divinity are expressed and in which the creation of the world would have been possible. On the level that the rabbis called d’rash or hermeneutical interpretation, this means that every word of the Hebrew Bible has multiple meanings that can never be exhausted. Indeed, every letter has them, too. Why was the word created with the letter bet (ב), asks Genesis Rabbah, referring to the fact that the Bible’s initial word is b’reshit, “in the beginning.” And it answers: “Just as bet is closed on three sides and open only in front, so you are permitted to investigate neither what is above [the heavens], nor what is below [the earth], nor what was before [the world’s creation], but only [what has existed] since the time of Creation.”

The deepest level of interpretation is sod, the mystical one—and here, as might be expected, there developed a Jewish tradition of language mysticism that attributes to Hebrew the ergative powers that enabled it, when spoken by God, to bring the universe into being. The classic work in this genre is the Sefer ha-Y’tsirah, the “Book of Creation,” a text attributed by tradition to Abraham but most probably dating to the period of Genesis Rabbah. Its opening verse states that God “engraved” the universe with the help of “32 wondrous paths of wisdom,” which are the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet plus the “ten spheres of Nothingness [b’li mah].” These ten emanations or sfirot, with which much later kabbalistic speculation is concerned, correspond to the decimal system, and the rest of the Sefer ha-Y’tsirah goes on to explain how the universe was created through the agency of Hebrew and mathematics.

Can one imagine, Mr. Elkin, God speaking anything else?

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