By Janine Stein
There’s a popular self-help book out there that claims there are five different love languages in the world, and we don’t all speak the same one.i The five different types of love languages are words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. The idea is that you try to speak the ‘love language’ of the person you are in a relationship with, even if it’s not your own ‘love language’.
I find it amazing that even with the language of love, human beings speak different languages. But this was not always the case. At the end of Parashat Noach, which we read this week, the story of the Tower of Babel is introduced with these words:
‘Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words’
וַיְהִ֥י כָל־הָאָ֖רֶץ שָׂפָ֣ה אֶחָ֑ת וּדְבָרִ֖ים אֲחָדִֽים
The Tower of Babel is built and then God says:
‘If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose will be out of their reach. Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so they shall not understand one another’s speech.’ii
It’s a short story with a clear problem and straightforward solution. Interestingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, our sages interpret the story in many ways. The differences start with what it means to have a uniform language and the unified words.
Rashi believes that the ‘same language’ or ‘Safah Echad’ is the Holy Language or Hebrew. Once upon a time, the Ur language was Hebrew, says Rashi.iii
The next part is more problematic for Rashi. He looks at the next phrase ‘same words’ or ‘Devarim echadim’.
Rashi brings three possibilities, which means he isn’t entirely satisfied with any one of the explanations.iv
The first explanation of same words is that it means the same intention that the people had against God. They were unified in their feeling that God had no right to be in charge of heaven above, which is why they wanted to build a tower to wage war with God.
The second explanation is that it means they spoke the words of the Singular one of the world.
The third explanation is that devarim echadim means sharp words, or devarim chadim. This is the most poignant explanation of all, given the times we are living in now. Rashi quotes the rabbis imagining that the motivation for the Tower of Babel was not to wage war with God but rather to create struts and supports for a sky that was occasionally falling on their heads.
They said, “Once every 1,656 years, the sky totters, as it did in the time of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it.” v
I know how they feel. I wonder if we’re at the end of a 1,656-year cycle at the moment. Another explanation of דְבָרִים אֲחָדִים (other editions read: דְבָרִים חַדִּים, sharp words): They said, “Once every 1,656 years, the sky totters, as it did in the time of the Flood. Come and let us make supports for it.
Rabbi Eliezer has a different take altogether to Rashi on what one language means.vi While Rashi believed it meant Hebrew, Rabbi Eliezer is not so sure.
‘the people lived like a reptile with one language and despised the pleasant land’.
So in other words, the original language was like Parseltongue, the language of snakes created by JK Rowling in the Harry Potter series.
Rabbi Eliezer points out a very real problem when everyone speaks with one language. It’s a tremendously powerful force, but in the wrong hands (the hands that despise pleasant lands, for example), it’s an extremely dangerous force. I’m thinking of rallies of all kinds where everyone shouts the same thing, like ‘lock her up’ or ‘Sieg Heil’.
But there’s another possibility (of course there is) quoted in midrash, vii which is more hopeful.
It’s possible that God has put peace in the world, and given our basic quarrelsome natures, has also given us essential mechanisms to foster the ways of peace. Those mechanisms are halacha and the example described is the halacha of establishing a joint courtyard on Shabbat by the legal fiction of a joint meal. It’s called the Eruv of the joint courtyard.
Here is what Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says in the Jerusalem Talmudviii:
The Eruv of establishing a joint courtyard on Shabbat are to foster the ways of peace. In what way? A woman sends her child to her neighbour (whom she dislikes). When she (the neighbour) kisses and embraces him (the child), his mother says: Indeed she does love me; so let my heart be with her. Thus it turns out that they make peace because of the Eruv. The Holy One said: I put peace in my world.
Deep down, and built into the system, there is one united language of love, and many ways to facilitate it. God created halakhot like the Eruv of the joint courtyard as a way of creating harmony and finding common cause. Through empathy, shared loved of children in this case, neighbours can forget how much they dislike each other and learn to treat each other differently.
As always, the choice is ours. To connect to the peace that is in the world, and to use whatever mechanisms are available to us to see love instead. We may not be able to understand one another’s speech, but sometimes on a good day, we can understand another’s intention.
[i] The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman, Northfield Publishing, 1992
[ii] JPS translation, Genesis 11:1-7
[iii] Rashi quoting Tanchuma Buber, Noach 28
[iv] Rashi takes this from Gen. Rabbah 28:6, Tan. Buber Noach 24
[vi] Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer 24:2
[vii] Midrash Tanchuma Buber, Noach 22:1  Y.Eruvin (20b)