The Midrash (Pesikta D’Rav Kahana, Pesikta 12) likens the Jews exiting Egypt to a prince who was kidnapped for an extended period. Finally, his father, the king, decided to exact his revenge on the kidnappers and release his son. The king conversed with his child in the language spoken to him by the kidnappers. Similarly, explains the Midrash, after G-d redeemed the Jews from exile in Egypt, He spoke to them in Egyptian. The Jews had been in Egypt for many years, where they had learned the Egyptian language. Therefore, when G-d wanted to give them the Torah He began to speak with them in the Egyptian language with which they were familiar. He opened the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) by proclaiming, “I (anochi) am Hashem, your G-d…!” (Exodus 20:2).According to this Midrash, the word “anochi” in this context does not only mean the English word “I.” Rather, it refers to the Egyptian word anoch, which means “love” and “endearment.” One Midrashic source explains that the Jews forgot Lashon HaKodesh,which is why G-d had to speak to them in Egyptian.
This Midrash is the source of a piyut (liturgical poem) written by Rabbi Eliezer HaKalir for the second day of Shavuot, which states that G-d gave the Decalogue “in Assyrian script, in Hebrew language, in Egyptian speech.” This implies that the entire Decalogue was uttered in Egyptian, a claim also repeated by the Tosafists in Hadar Zekeinim (to Exodus 20:1).
Interestingly, the Sifrei (Deuteronomy 32:2) says that when G-d revealed Himself when giving the Torah to the Jewish People, He did not reveal Himself in only one language. Rather, He revealed Himself in four languages: Lashon HaKodesh, Arabic, Latin, and Aramaic. This passage seems to imply that G-d did not speak to the Jews in Egyptian, but He did speak to them in four other languages. However, Rabbi David Pardo (1719-1792) explains that the passage does not refer only to G-d revealing Himself to the Jews when He gave them the Torah. Rather, it refers to Him also offering the Torah to other nations (an offer which they refused). He revealed Himself to the Edomites in Latin, to the Ishmaelites in Arabic, and to all other nations in Aramaic (Aramaic is a language not associated with any one nation in particular, but rather with all nations in general). However, only the Jewish People accepted the Torah.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein spent over a decade studying in such premier Yeshivas as the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, NJ. He is currently a member of the Ohr LaGolah Hertz Leadership Institute (an affiliate of Ohr Somayach), preparing for a promising career in rabbinic leadership. To contact the author or purchase a copy of his book, please email [email protected] — the above article is an excerpt from “Chapter 4: The Jews in Egypt” in Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew (Mosaica Press, 2015), by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein