parshat toldot – Genesis 25 -28
Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse on Thanksgiving 2022. Isaac and Jacob choose brides from Aram. Aramaic is the chosen legal and liturgical language of the Rabbis and the lingua franca of the Ancient world. Why is Laban vilified and should we slander or offer our gratitude to the Arameans?
Sefaria Soure Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/448278
Welcome to Madlik. My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition. Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday evening and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Toldot. Isaac and Jacob choose brides from Aram. Aramaic is the chosen language of the Talmud and our liturgy. The Kaddish is in Aramaic and we start our Seder in Aramaic. Aramaic was also the universal language… the lingua franca of antiquity. So why is Laban vilified? Tonight on Thanksgiving we ask should we slander or offer thanks to the Arameans? Join us for Lost and Found in Translation.
Well, welcome, Rabbi, I don’t know about you, but my tummy is full. I am still digesting my Thanksgiving meal. But I must say that living in this country we have a lot to be thankful for.
Adam Mintz 01:18
We sure do and it’s nice that we’re able to go from Thanksgiving dinner to talking about the parsha… what could be better than that?
Geoffrey Stern 01:27
Absolutely. So, as I said, in the introduction, we are going to talk about Aramaic, which for anyone who studied, the Talmud knows that that is the language used in the Talmud. If the beginning of the Passover Seder sounds a little strange when we say הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא That’s Aramaic. when you say Kaddish, I was recently in Israel, and was with a family in mourning, and Israelis have a tough time saying Kaddish because we don’t realize it’s not in Hebrew, it’s in Aramaic. So, we are going to talk about this people called Aram, we were introduced to them, as I said, last week, when Abraham sent his servant Eliezer. He said, I don’t want my son marrying a Canaanite. He said, Go to a Aram and meet my family and get him a bride from there. And we didn’t really get into it. But already we started to see a little bit of a distaste for Laban, who was the son of a patriarch there. And even though he’s mentioned first so the rabbis in their commentary, say he’s arrogant. And then when he goes out to hug Aviezer, maybe he hugged him a little too tightly. And the rabbi say he was checking for coins, there isn’t a nice thing that they say about him. And it’s, you know, a kind of a prequel to what’s going to happen in the parshiot that are coming up, where Jacob goes down to Laban Laban’s house, and we have all of the Sturm und Drang of getting married to Leah instead of Rachel, and then working for so many years. So, there’s definitely on the one hand, we see that both Abraham and Isaac definitely want their children to find a bride amongst the Arameans. But on the other hand, there’s a little bit of a distaste for them. You don’t find that when it talks about the Canaanites with the Canaanites is don’t marry them. These are not good people. So that’s, that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Are you with me?
Adam Mintz 03:55
I’m with you. It’s a great topic.
Geoffrey Stern 03:57
Okay. So in Genesis 25: 20, which is in our portion, it says Isaac was 40 years old when he took to wife Rebecca, daughter of Betuel the Aramean of Padam Aram, sister of Laban, the Aramean. So if you count Aram, which you should, as a reference to the, the territory under the tutelage of the Arameans, in one verse, you have reference to Aram or the Aramean three times, and I do think that later on, you know, calling someone Aramean wasn’t necessarily a compliment… it wasn’t necessarily something that put them on a pedestal. And then later in the parsha, it talks about again, that Isaac sent for Jacob after Jacob stole the birthright or negotiated the birthright. And he said, You shall not take a wife from among the Canaanite women, go to Padan, Aram to the house of Betuel, your mother’s father and take a wife there, from among the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother. So, there’s a sense of them being family. And a sense of go back to this, this Laban guy, and it continues, again, with a real emphasis on this Aram over and over. And I want to give a little context for my interest in Aramean. Besides the fact that you and I rabbi, both studied the Talmud in it, and were exposed to this language. I think that in recent times, one of the things that kind of brought some interest in Aramaic was when a Mel Gibson did the Passion of the Christ. And I remember that I was in a study session with my rabbi, and we were talking about Mel Gibson. And you know, you can’t really buy a ticket to see it, because he was considered an anti Semite. So, I did go and buy a ticket for another movie. And then I sat in the back just to hear the Aramaic, and I closed my eyes. And sure enough, I could understand it. And then there was the civil war in Syria, where there are just a few remnants of people that still speak Aramaic, this hit them very hard. And then in 2021, a book was written, it’s, I think, at least 300 pages long. It’s a scholarly book. And it’s called Aramaic, a history of the first world language. And what happened as a result of that, is that I started to kind of read about Aramaic as the first lingua franca. I had never heard of that term before. But really, I learned very quickly, that there was almost a 1,200-year period, where Aramaic was what we consider English today, where even if it wasn’t your mother tongue, it was the language of diplomacy. It was the language of science; it was the language of commerce. And it was in a sense, you could even say it was the internet. It was what united all of these people. And I’ll just read a little bit about how important that became. This is from the Atlantic magazine, and it says Aramaic, then, is in a splintered and tenuous state. Yet it was the English of its time—a language that united a large number of distinct peoples across a vast region, a key to accessing life beyond one’s village, and a mark of sophistication to many. The Aramaeans—according to Biblical lore named for Noah’s grandson Aram—started as a little-known nomadic group. But they were seekers, and by the 11th century B.C.E. they ruled large swaths of territory in Mesopotamia, encompassing parts of modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, including, for a spell, the city of Babylon itself. On the basis of this expansion alone, however, theirs would likely have become just one of various languages of the area that briefly enjoyed fame and then vanished in the endless game of musical chairs that was ancient Middle Eastern politics. The Aramaeans themselves were in Babylon only temporarily: In 911 B.C.E., the Assyrians, who spoke a language called Akkadian, ousted them. But the Assyrians unwittingly helped the Aramaeans’ language extinguish their own. Namely, the Assyrians deported Aramaic-speakers far and wide, … so as a Jew when you read this and you think of these Arameans being dispersed to Egypt and elsewhere. The Assyrians may have thought they were clearing their new territory, but this was like blowing on a fluffy milkweed and thinking of it as destruction rather than dissemination: The little seeds take root elsewhere. Aramaic had established itself as the language of authority and cross-cultural discourse in Babylon and beyond, And I he makes a point that if for the Jews, Hebrew was a local language, Aramaic was an international language. And so what I’m going to kind of explore today is how, in a sense, kind of bound together, the success and the growth of Judaism through the Middle East was kind of just tied to the fact that they use this language of Aramaic. And in a sense, their paths were very similar to the Aramaic’s. So, have you ever thought about this in this way? I mean, lingua franca was a new concept to me.
Adam Mintz 10:17
It’s a great idea. I mean, and the fact that there’s such an intersection between Jewish history and Aramaic means that this conversation is an important conversation to have to try to figure out what was that connection originally? And how did that connection evolve over time? I think it’s a fascinating question.
Geoffrey Stern 10:35
So the first time that we have an Aramaic in the Bible is actually coming up in Genesis 31. And it is a translation. So if you recall or you’ll see in a week or two, when finally, Jacob takes Leah and Rachel and his two concubines with him and he has his 12 children and they flee from Laban’s house and Laban catches up to them. So, they get to a point where they kind of settled their differences. There’s accusations and they say let’s make a pact. And it says come then let us make a pact you and I this is Laban and Jacob, that there may be a witness between you and me. There upon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsmen, gather stones so they took stones and make a mound and they put took of a meal there by the mound Laban named it יְגַ֖ר שָׂהֲדוּתָ֑א but Jacob named it גַּלְעֵֽד so Gal-ed. Gol is a stone if you remember last week, we talked about Gilgal where the Flint was used to circumcise all the Jews coming out of Egypt. And Ayd is a witness. Aydim is two witnesses. And what Laban did was he used Aramaic and it’s quoted in the text Yegar-sahadutha, sahadutha, is witnesses and Yegar in Aramaic is a stone. So when you and I studied the first chapter of Talmud that we studied together Shenayim Ohazin that we talk about frequently. In Baba Metzia, 3a, it talks about two guys holding on to a Tallis. This one says it’s mine and the other one says it is mine. And the Talmud brings up this concept that we in modern day law a call possession is 99% of the law. And they say that in the case they found since each litigant is holding part of the garment, it is clear to us that what is in this one’s grasp is his and what is in that one’s grasp is his and the Talmud says כיון דתפיס אנן סהדי דמאי דתפיס האי דידיה הוא we have Anan Sahadi. Now a Anan Sahadi has the same word that we just came across in the Aramaic quoted in the Bible, which is witnesses anan is we so we are witnesses. But if I were to say to any Talmudist, this is the concept of anachnu Aydim they would look at me blankly but Anan Sahadii any Talmudist would know is this principle of possession (the status quo). And so what I’m trying to get across is that Aramaic became our legal language where we created institutions that formed Jewish law and Jewish thinking. So this use of Aramaic wasn’t simply translating from the Hebrew, but was the language of our creativity. And we have to understand that we owe the Arameans that.
Adam Mintz 14:06
Absolutely, absolutely. But again, it wasn’t at that point a translation in Hebrew. This was the language…. Well, we we took Aramaic, and turned it into our Talmudic language, and our Talmudic language is our legal language. Our legal code was created in the Talmud. So אנן סהדי becomes the term because that became our language. That was the language of the Jewish legal process, isn’t it? It was its own tradition. And I think that’s still true.
Geoffrey Stern 14:43
They were creating these principles. So you know, I mentioned before that when Eliezer went to see Laban was criticized because he gave him a hug and maybe he was checking his pockets. The Arameans were considered and that came across and what I quoted from the Atlantic article, they were merchants, they were hagglers. The reason why the Aramaic language was used throughout the ancient Near East, because it was the language of commerce. You know, I didn’t even mention how far it went. Anyone who’s eaten in an Indian restaurant and orders tandoori chicken Tandoor comes from the Aramaic Tanoor. The point is, this was everywhere. And it was the language first and foremost, not a philosophical thought or theology, but a language of negotiation, and a language of commerce. And it just seems to me that if we look at Aramaic and Aram in that fashion, then maybe we can see and recognize in Aramaic and the Arameans, ourselves a little bit more. I mean, here we have a parsha where there’s a sale of a birthright, where there’s within the legal boundaries, maneuvering, where Jacob changes his dress, and maybe thereby shows his father to look at him differently. But certainly, you can make a case that the characters that we are seeing here, are, in fact, are very similar to each other. And that there’s a very good reason that Abraham will say, go to Laban’s house. They were both minorities, they were both survivors. They were both learned how to navigate inside of another society. And that, in fact, is what took Aramaic and made it the lingua franca. And I would say that it wore off on Judaism as well. Does anything resonate there?
Adam Mintz 17:10
Everything does. But I want to go back to what you started with. And that is you said that being an Armenian isn’t so good, because in the Haggadah, we talk about Laban, the Aramean. And that’s bad, right? Laban the Aramean. So, I want to suggest that we never had a bad view towards Aram. Aram was always Abraham’s family. In those days in the ancient world. It was all about family. It was all about your clan all about your family. Laban actually was part of the Klan was part of the family. Laban was a bad guy. But the family was good. I know it because his sister married Isaac and his daughters married Jacob. So his family was okay. So I think we always had a positive attitude towards Arameans.
Geoffrey Stern 18:05
So I love it that you quoted the Haggadah were I would say the core of Magid, of what we have to do in the Haggadah of telling the story is told around verses from Deuteronomy 26 It’s Thanksgiving today. So why shouldn’t I come out and say it was the formula that was considered very ancient for the Bikkurim, the first fruits, which is basically a prayer of thanksgiving. It’s the farmer coming to the temple with his crop as the Pilgrims did, after the first harvest in in the Fall, and are thanking God for giving them this harvest. And even though the Haggadah says, As you quote that Laban tried to destroy our forefathers, the Hebrew itself is not quite that clear. In Deuteronomy 26 It says My father was a fugitive Aramean. So the key word here is אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י, Oved, can be mean lost, like לְכׇל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ (Deuteronomy 22: 3) there’s something that is lost and found. And it can also mean someone who’s going to be killed like when Esther says כַאֲשֶׁ֥ר אָבַ֖דְתִּי אָבָֽדְתִּי (Esther 4: 16) , if I will be killed, I will be killed. But I think the more obvious explanation, especially understanding the history of the Arameans is that they were fugitives and in this Thanksgiving benediction in this Thanksgiving formula is saying that we come from people who are fugitives. We are related to the Arameans. And there’s nothing negative about that. And then he talks about that our narrative was we went down to Egypt. And then he goes on and to think so I think even here, you’re right. You don’t have to interpret it. Anything about Laban. And the Arameans as negative, it can be interpreted that way. But it also can be interpreted in a complimentary fashion… to give us the correspondence between us. And I think that’s kind of fascinating.
Adam Mintz 20:36
I think that is fascinating. But that little piece turns the whole conversation means Aram has always been where we came from, we always had a soft spot for Aram. So, the fact that Aramaic became our language is not surprising. Now, one little piece that you didn’t mention, is the fact that there actually are sections of the Tanakh of the Jewish Bible that are written in Aramaic some of the book of Ezra and Nechemia are written in Aramaic, and some of the book of Daniel is written in Aramaic. That’s because after the first exile, the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE. The Jews are exiled to Babylonia, they speak Aramaic in Babylonia, so part of the Tanakh the later books of the Tanakh, are written in Aramaic, because that’s the language that people smoke.
Geoffrey Stern 21:32
Absolutely. And I was blown away by discovering a very strange verse in II Kings 18. It’s where the city of Jerusalem is surrounded by a conquering nation, and the conquering general gets on the megaphone, and he starts speaking Hebrew, lay down your arms, and in II Kings 18: 26, Eliakim son of Hilkiah, Shebna, and Joah replied to the Rabshakeh, That’s the name of the general, “Please, speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it; do not speak to us in Judean in the hearing of the people on the wall. ”So he says, דַּבֶּר־נָ֤א אֶל־עֲבָדֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲרָמִ֔ית, and he says וְאַל־תְּדַבֵּ֤ר עִמָּ֙נוּ֙ יְהוּדִ֔ית so to your point, not only are parts of Scripture, like books of Daniel written in Aramaic, but it’s perfectly believable that there were times where the Jews did actually not understand Hebrew, where Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as their mother tongue.
Adam Mintz 22:56
I think that that’s absolutely correct. You know, it’s not clear. But in the Talmudic period when the language, when the lingua franca was Aramaic. Did they also speak Hebrew, or they didn’t know how to speak Hebrew? You know, I understand that for davening, for prayer service, they spoke Hebrew. But what about as a language? It’s almost like American Jews. You say American Jews, we speak English. American Jews can’t speak Hebrew as a conversational language; most American Jews. So, was that the same thing in these countries that the Jews spoke Aramaic, but they couldn’t speak Hebrew? The answer is we don’t know. But isn’t that an interesting question?
Geoffrey Stern 23:41
It absolutely is. And you know, in the past, a few weeks ago, I talked about the tradition of studying Chumash and Rashi. Every week you would study Chumash the portion of the week; the Bible, and then you would study the great classical commentator, but there’s actually a much older tradition than that in the Talmud in Baroque coat. It has the famous dictum שְׁנַיִם מִקְרָא וְאֶחָד תַּרְגּוּם, that every week you should go through the parsha, twice in Hebrew. And once in Targum, and targum in modern day Hebrew means in translation, but we know the Targum is there are two famous Targumim. One is Targum Yonatan and the other is Onkelos and Onkelos was a convert to Judaism who made the translation. Now, there were other translations of the Torah. There’s the Septuagint into Greek, but you will never find a dictum in the Talmud saying that you have to read it twice in Hebrew and once in the Septuagint. That is reserved for The Targum that is Aramaic. That put the Aramaic translation on a pedestal it almost had this same holiness as the scripture in Hebrew.
Adam Mintz 25:03
And you know that the Teimonim, the Yemenites, to this very day if you go to a Yemenite synagogue in Israel, so they actually still read the Targum when they read the Torah every Shabbat, they actually pause after each couple of verses, and they read the Aramaic Targum. isn’t that great? Which means that at least in in Yemen, at least there were some people who actually understood the Targum and ran with it.
Geoffrey Stern 25:30
It’s it’s absolutely amazing. And then we have to understand that we all know that translation is always commentary, you can’t translation translate something without giving it an explanation. But the Targum… and we came across this a few weeks ago, when we talked about how God regretted creating mankind. And we saw that the Targum clearly had a problem with the anthropomorphic emotions of regret, and they added a few words. In our parsha, when we get to Jacob stealing the blessing. It says in Genesis 2735, in the Hebrew it says, וַיֹּ֕אמֶר בָּ֥א אָחִ֖יךָ בְּמִרְמָ֑ה וַיִּקַּ֖ח בִּרְכָתֶֽךָ, and he answered, your brother came with guile, and took away your blessing. In the Targum, it says Yitzchak your brother came with Hachma and received your blessing. It says וַאֲמַר עַל אָחוּךְ בְּחָכְמְתָא וְקַבִּיל בִּרְכְּתָךְ. So it here and this gets a little bit to what I was saying about what we Jews, as minorities have in common with these cousins of ours the Arameans was that haggling was not something that was looked down upon, it was a survival mechanism. It was Hachma. And so here we have not only an example in the Targum Onkelos of translating, and also explaining, but also a sense of maybe the culture of a language came through. And unlike every other translation, this culture was embraced by the rabbis. Because the Targum was held in such high esteem.
Adam Mintz 27:27
I think that’s great. I love that I think that that’s really wonderful. I this is an interesting choice for Thanksgiving. Because Thanksgiving is about how we, we embrace the culture of the land where we live. And what you’re really talking about is that idea of embracing the culture of the land where we live, is actually the oldest Jewish tradition that that goes all the way back to the Torah and the Arameans. And the fact that our connection to Abraham’s family and the Arameans, that continued through the generations, and that we can learn about our culture, not only about the language that we use, but the way that we did business, the way that we operate. It was very similar to the Arameans and sometimes you learn it, actually from that the translation… That’s a famous Targum Onkelos means that, you know, b’Chamachma means, with intelligence that that’s the way we did business. I think that’s a wonderful message for us on this Thanksgiving. So I want to wish everybody a happy Thanksgiving a Shabbat Shalom. Today, we gave you something to think about not only for this week’s parsha, but for the whole Jewish history. And so enjoy it this week. And we look forward to continuing next week with parshat Vayetzei by Tuesday. Shabbat shalom, Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.
Geoffrey Stern 28:45
Shabbat Shalom. Happy Thanksgiving. And I am going to continue a little bit discussing of what Christianity and Aramaic had to do together, because I think part of the story of Aramaic is it took the Jewish message and made it something that the world could absorb. So there are twice in the New Testament that Jesus is quoted by his own words, and they’re Aramaic, and one is when he’s on the cross he quotes Psalms 22: 2, and he goes, God why have you forsaken me? But he says, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? in Matthew 27: 46. And that, again comes from the targum. There’s another time where a girl comes to him and I think she might have been a prostitute. (Mark 5: 41) People with throwing her down. And Jesus says to her “Talitha cumi,”and Talita is a young girl in Aramaic. So it gives us a sense that the fact that the Torah was translated into Aramaic made it available to the whole ancient Middle East And possibly, or probably responsible for the creation and the internationalization of a Rabbi, named Jesus whose message became universal. And then it was replaced by Arabic, but clearly the Aramaic lead to Islam as well. So it really was the feather inside of that pillow that the author quoted before he’s talking about. And its really part of making the message of Judaism, universal because it was in this international language.
Adam Mintz 30:39
That’s fanatstic… that’s great.
Geoffrey Stern 30:40
And I just find that I find that fascinating. And therefore, the conclusion is, do we curse? Or do we bless Aram and the Aramaic’s and I think we have to actually welcome them as brothers, the same way that the Pilgrims welcomed the Indians and thank them, and appreciate the fact that our all wandering rode on their wandering, so Shabbat Shalom, shalom, and thank you so much, all the best and Bye, bye. Hey, Euro, how you doing?
Euro Maestro 31:10
I’m doing well, thanks. I found the topic quite interesting. You know, on this topic of the lingua franca, I think it’s quite interesting to how it developed over time, because obviously, it was heavily influenced by the Akkadian language, which was the lingua franca prior to that. So that’s why I was a little surprised when he gave this example of tandoor. I did a quick search online, and I guess it doesn’t make a reference to the Aramaic word. But I mean, if you look at the etymology of the word, it, they all tend to point to the Akkadian word. And that predates the Aramaic form by anywhere from like 300 to like 1,500 years or more. And there is an example of it, because it’s actually in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is, you know, clearly before the spread of the early form of Aramaic. So I think the author, kind of I don’t know what happened, but kind of slipped on that one.
Geoffrey Stern 32:29
You think he took a little license on that one? I think that the point was more important than the example that there’s no question that Aramaic reached to India. But I would question and I wonder what your opinion of this is, that the thing that made Aramaic lingua franca was that it was spoken outside of the empire of Aram and after the empire of Aram was destroyed, it really took on a life of itself in commerce. And, and as I was researching this, there was a stellar that have images of scribes standing in front of the king, and one is chiseling the Akkadian on a tablet and the other is writing the Aramaic into his scroll. But I do think that there’s no question they’re all Semitic languages, they all are related. I took a class at Columbia for Moshe Held in Akkadian Wisdom Literature back in the day, and he would read to us (in Akkadian) and you could close your eyes. And you could make out if you knew Hebrew, if you knew Aramaic, you could, you could make out 50 – 60% of it, they were all related. But I do believe that Aramaic was kind of unique in its longevity. And it’s a geographical spread that make it maybe arguably one of the first lingo Franco’s
So yeah, the Aramaic language was the lingua franca over two or three empires. Okay. But, you know, prior to that, you know, Akkadian was so I think, I would grant more the time element more than I would think the geographic element,
Geoffrey Stern 34:22
Okay, I totally accept that. I do believe this whole concept. And, you know, many of the popular writers who write about this, talk about English and the internet and how we look at this world today, and we kind of take it for granted that we can discourse amongst and above/around borders, over borders over cultures. And to think that far back there was a language; whether it’s Akkadian first or Aramaic afterwards. It’s just a fascinating concept, I believe in terms of the ability to spread ideas, the ability to communicate across cultures and, and boundaries. I just found that very, very appealing and refreshing and fascinating.
Euro Maestro 35:18
Yeah, well, it’s kind of interesting to the fact that languages like Aramaic, for instance, dominate after the climax of the people that the language is from. So, in other words, it’s in the decline of the people, that the language becomes predominant. And, you know, we’ve seen that time and again, you know, same thing with French, you know, French became put on their lingua franca, after the climax of the French power in the beginning of decline. And some could argue, the same thing with English. So, it’s, it’s kind of interesting how it appears to be a trailing effect. And the same thing with Greek government.
Geoffrey Stern 36:00
Yeah, fascinating. And I guess we should be thankful for that. Which I guess, proves that a culture is, is stronger than military, political, and material power, even economic power? So that’s an interesting thought.
Euro Maestro 36:22
Yeah, that’s a good point. And sort of the proof of that, in a way too is the Hebrew language and Judaism like this, this culture was kept, despite being dominated, almost to the point of extinction, in terms of, you know, politically and militarily, etcetera. But yet the culture continued and revived today.
Geoffrey Stern 36:47
yeah, I mean, I think what was fascinating to me and what I think what the Hebrew culture and the, Aramean culture did have in common, is that they never were that dominant force. I mean, even in its day, it just wasn’t one of these great, great empires. And Israel obviously never was a great world empire. But nonetheless, through their language or the culture, maybe there were some commonalities in terms of just the stickiness or some magic that we aren’t can’t even put our finger on. But they did have that in common that certainly, what they had to offer far outlasted any military, economic or political power that they may or may never even have had.
Sefaria Source Sheet: www.sefaria.org/sheets/448278
Listen to last year’s Toldot podcast: Stolen Blessings and the Crooked Timber of Humanity