The Vort – Who put Aramaic in the Torah? – Va’yeitzei

At the end of parashat va’yeitzei, the Torah gives us some closure on the epic drama between Ya’akov and Lavan. We are told of a peace treaty of sorts, an establishment of borders and an agreement of terms of future engagement. This scene, which appears at the end of Genesis chapter 31, includes a couple of interesting elements that are worth mentioning. First, this is the one instance, that I can think of, in Torah that a non-Israelite is quoted in their own tongue. We read to the end of the chapter from verse 44:

“And now, let us cut a covenant, I (Lavan) and you, and it will have been as a witness between me and between you.” And Ya’akov took a stone and he erected a pillar. And Ya’akov said to his kinsmen, “Glean stones.” So they took stones and they made a mound, and they ate there on the mound. And Lavan called it “yegar sahaduta,” (witness mound, Aramaic) and Ya’akov called it “Gal’eid” (witness mound, Hebrew). And Lavan said, “This mound (gal) is a witness (eid) between me and between you, today.” Because of this, he called its name ‘Gal’eid.’”

So to catch us up to speed a bit, Yaakov had fallen in love with Rahel, his uncle Lavan’s daughter, while fleeing from his brother Esav. Ya’akov was promised Rahel as his wife on the condition he stay and work with Lavan for seven years, but when that time was up Ya’akov was given a veiled Leah, Rahel’s older sister, as a bride. We find ourselves, at this point, twenty years later, Ya’akov fleeing not only his brother, but now his uncle and father-in-law. This family drama is intense, intriguing and relevant, but I want to step away from it.

While the family drama is fascinating, right now I am more fascinated by the construction of the Torah in this passage. It should come as a striking effect that Lavan’s Aramaic tongue is preserved in the text. There is plenty of Aramaic in the Hebrew Scriptures; however, it tends to be found (but not exclusively) in books such as Daniel and Yeremiyahu (Tanakh) which are partially written in Aramaic. To my knowledge, this is the one occurrence of Aramaic in the Torah. And what is fascinating to me is not that there is Aramaic in the Torah, but that the tongue of a non-Israelite is retained. How many non-Israelites appear in the Torah? Are we to believe that the Egyptian Pharaohs spoke Hebrew? That the kings of Moab conducted their own conversations with other Moabites in Yehudean? It seems reasonable, and traditional commentators agree, that the Torah translates the words of non-Israelites into “lashon ha’kodesh, the holy tongue”. So why here? And why Lavan? Why is the name he called this place retained in his own language, but the statement he makes after it in Hebrew?

Many presume that like in most every other case when a non-Israelite speaks, the Torah translates his words into Hebrew. However, some felt like this was not the case here, and upon investigating it, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194, Spain – 1270, Palestine) tentatively agrees. It seems to Ramban that Lavan is struggling to speak to his nephew in Ya’akov’s own native tongue. And while I translated it above as “this mound is a witness,” it may even be that Lavan is not speaking Hebrew incredibly well. Were he to want to state explicitly that the mound functions as a witness, he may have said something like “ha’gal ha’zeh hu eid,” rather as he said, “ha’gal ha’zeh eid,” might mean, more accurately, that the mound itself is witnessing, which I hesitate to want to interpret is his intent. Rather, the mound is a witness, in that it is a symbol of the border and the treaty. The Ramban writes, “After Ya’akov called it Gal’eid, Lavan spoke in the language of Ya’akov ‘this mound is a witness,’ and because of this its name is called Gal’eid because both of them agreed on this name; or it is that the words of Lavan are translated into the holy tongue.” This seems to me to be a symbol of these two men reaching out past their differences, and finding mutual respect. That Lavan struggles to use Ya’akov’s language is an example of a powerful symbol for two parties at odds to manage positive relations.

Language is the first pane in the window of culture. One of the most irreparable aspects of imperialism and colonialism is the destruction of language and dialect amongst the colonized. For lack of better phraseology, the Torah does not have to retain Lavan’s Aramaic name for the witness mound which marked the boundary between Ya’akov and his uncle. And since it did retain his Aramaic, it did not need to place his following statement into Hebrew. Nothing would have been lost, in terms of the narrative of the story, if Lavan’s statement was taken out entirely, including the Aramaic name. But something huge in what we can learn from this passage would have been lost.

Respecting the language of those we encounter is an incredible aspect of living in community, of have relations with others, and is essential to create a dynamic, respectful, diverse and robust global society. Language has been used, and continues to be used, as a weapon in fighting other cultures. As the English taught their language to everyone they encountered, it was not solely as a means to “civilise” them, but more so as a means to further control societies they colonized. The English fought the propagation of Irish for years, and just now is the Irish language being successfully revived. The young State of Israel went to great length to change the names of places from Arabic to Hebrew, and still today you find elements in Israeli society and government that seek to fight the Arabic language. Likewise, groups in American society and government actively fight the propagation of Spanish in the southwest, farm communities with high concentrations of migrant workers, and urban centers. I am inspired by the Torah paying honor and respect, and to Lavan of all characters, by retaining the Aramaic name of this place. And likewise, I am equally inspired by Lavan reaching out to his so recent foe and speaking, even ever so simply, a sentence to show his respect and understanding of his culture. May we and the communities we live in strive to do the same with those that we meet in our own communities and the other communities we visit around the world.

Shabbat shalom.

Filed under Weekly Torah Portion

5 Responses to “The Vort – Who put Aramaic in the Torah? – Va’yeitzei”

  1. That’s a great insight, thanks Justin. The entire peace treaty between Jacob and Laban is worthy of study. There are some excellent insights in Likkutei Sichos on this subject. There, Jacob is treated as representing the essential Jew – utterly devoted to fulfilling the spiritual purpose of his existence – the elevation of sparks in creation. Instead, Laban is compared to the physical world, tainted by its materialism and spiritual corruption. For example, to mark the treaty, a mound of stones is built. Why a mound and not some other marker?

    As opposed to a solid wall, a mound is a collection of unconnected stones, signifying that the separation is not absolute. Spiritually, this means that Jacob was not erecting an impenetrable barrier between himself and the realm of Laban. He would continue to enter Laban’s realm for the “business” of harnessing the sparks of holiness that reside there, but he would do so while remaining detached from the Laban-like approach to life.

    Similarly, the “mound” we erect to distinguish between ourselves and the mundane world around us must be left semi-permeable. Although we must cross that mound in order to conduct our business of sanctifying the material world, we at the same time must remain aloof from its materialism.

    Jacob has more peace treaties to makes! Watch how he prepares for peace with Esau.

    On a sidenote, let’s not forget that the very term “Palestine” exists as a result of Roman imperial conquest and linguistic warfare.


    Avigdor · November 26th, 2009 at 4:17 am
  2. Thanks for this really great insight into why Aramaic is used in this passage. I like the idea.


    Aramaic Scholar · November 26th, 2009 at 4:44 pm
  3. Great issue of The Vort.


    David A.M. Wilensky · December 1st, 2009 at 10:02 pm
  4. yegar is the cognate of jir in arabic, or gir in hebrew, related to the words for limestone. (“7jar aj-jir” in arabic, “even gir” in hebrew) so yegar shahadutha “a limestone pillar of witness” whereas galed “a mound of witness”. the mound or “gal” and the pillar or “matzeva”, something hewn. (the cognate is “sabb” in arabic and means a cast, molding, or shaping.) The great pyramid of giza is totally made of limestone… it must have been a very popular material for monuments back then.

    the point is, Laban and Jacob were looking at the same thing… but in two different ways. Also, notice the way Lavan swore: “This heap be witness, and the pillar be witness, that I will not pass over this heap to thee, and that thou shalt not pass over this heap and this pillar unto me, for harm.”

    so Lavan is not allowed to pass over the heap, but even moreso, Jacob is not allowed to pass over the heap or the pillar. (like an extra condition.)


    Oren · December 8th, 2009 at 6:49 pm
  5. I see that it is stated that there are many more verses in the tanach that are in Aramaic. It is my understanding that there are a total of 250 verses in total mostly in ezra/nehemiah, jeremiah, genesis..
    The question is how can anyone make the claim that the word bar in psalms 2:12 is Aramaic. It makes no sense to think that David would use the word “ben” for son in psalms 2:7 and use a different word “bar” for son as Ibn Ezra translates and also how many Christian OT’s translate that verse. Iit is very illogical and I do not believe any good answer can be given to give credence to such a translation, especially given the hebrew grammar..It is also known that the Aramaic word bar is always in the possesive construct of which in Psalms 2:12 no such construct appears and even the definate article is not present..please respond to my email address par3on1@aol.com thanks,Stan


    stan · October 30th, 2012 at 8:36 am

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