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Aramaic: the Yiddish of the Middle East

Aramaic: the Yiddish of the Middle East

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Photo by Chana Lewis.
Photo by Chana Lewis.

Of all the Jewish languages that have become extinct, or been dropped by Jews as a spoken language, Aramaic is the most famous. In truth, Aramaic cannot be accurately described as a "Jewish language"; for unlike Yiddish, for example, which was spoken only by Jews and some gentiles with Jewish connections, Aramaic was the spoken tongue in a number of communities including Jews.

Aramaic cannot be accurately described as a "Jewish language"Nevertheless, it's definitely a language with strong Jewish ties. While nearly no Jews still speak it or a modern version of it, Aramaic is an important part of Jewish literary and liturgical tradition. The part of the Talmud called the Gemara is almost entirely in Aramaic (whereas the Mishnah part of the Talmud is Hebrew).1 Most of the Book of Daniel (chapter 2:4 through 7), describing events that occurred in Babylon in the 4th century BCE, and parts of the Book of Ezra are also in Aramaic. The Book of Zohar, other kabbalistic and halachic works, and sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls are written in Aramaic

The traditional ketubah (marriage contract) and Jewish divorce document are also in Aramaic. The same is true of many hymns and prayers, such as the first paragraph of the Passover Haggadah, "This is the bread of our affliction"; the wonderful song about the goat at the end of the seder, Chad Gadya; the prayer for the dead, known as the kaddish; and various other prayers and synagogue liturgy.

Jewish Aramaic texts, however, both ancient and modern, are written using Hebrew letters with phonetic spelling. As with other Jewish languages, such as Yiddish, many terms are borrowed from Hebrew.

The Long History of Aramaic

Linguistic scholars believe that Aramaic arose somewhere between 900 and 700 BCE and was originally used by the Aramaeans (a Semitic semi-nomadic people who lived in upper Mesopotamia and Syria).2 It is part of the Semitic family of languages which includes Hebrew, Arabic, Ethiopic and the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian languages of Akkadian. It is closely related to Hebrew with the script being very similar. In fact, the Talmud (Pesachim 87b) tells us that, after the destruction of the First Temple, G‑d specifically chose to exile the Jews to Babylon because of the similarity of languages, to ease the acculturation process.

The dominance of Aramaic continued well into the 9th centuryDuring the period of Assyrian domination, the language was used for the administration of the empire. This practice was continued by the Babylonian and Persian empires which ruled from Ethiopia to India. The Jews who returned to Israel from Babylonian captivity and established the Second Jewish Commonwealth in the 4th century BCE brought Aramaic with them. During this time, Hebrew lost its place as an everyday language amongst Jews, who adopted Aramaic instead. Hebrew was known as the Lashon Hakodesh, or the "Holy Tongue," and was reserved for matters such as prayer, and not for ordinary social and commercial activities. (A similar situation developed centuries later with Yiddish.)

During this period, knowledge of Hebrew was limited amongst the masses to the extent that the public reading of the Scripture in Hebrew had to be accompanied by a translation in Aramaic. Some of these targums, as they were known, also incorporated interpretation. Aramaic was so dominant in Jewish life that both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds are dominated by Aramaic.

The dominance of Aramaic continued well into the 9th century CE when it was replaced by Arabic. Though there were pockets of Aramaic speakers especially among the Jews, Islamic persecution in Arab countries significantly reduced the number of Aramaic speakers throughout the Eastern world.

Different Dialects

During the period of about 200 BCE to 200 CE, which scholars call the Middle Aramaic period, Aramaic began to split into an Eastern Branch and a Western Branch each with a number of dialects.3 The Western Branch was largely used in the area which had been under Roman and later Byzantine rule. The Jerusalem Talmud is in Western Aramaic. The Eastern Branch was under Persian Empire influence, and as a result the Babylonian Talmud is in Eastern Aramaic. The Western Branch of the language was called Syriac (as distinct from Syrian) by the Greeks. This term is still used today.

Aramaic Today

Aramaic has in fact, not completely died out as a spoken language. Both Jews and Christians have continued to use Eastern Aramaic up to modern times in Kurdistan. There are villages in Syria in which Western Aramaic is spoken. There are even pockets of Aramaic-speakers in the United States with two schools in New Jersey actually teaching Aramaic! The so-called Neo-Aramaic-speaking Jews largely emigrated to Israel in the 1950s where the language largely died out in preference to Hebrew.

Many thousands of students labor over ancient Talmudic and other Aramaic textsEven though Aramaic has largely died out among Jews as a spoken language, Jewish usage of Aramaic has certainly not ended. In yeshivahs around the world, many thousands of students labor over ancient Talmudic and other Aramaic texts. And the preoccupation with these texts doesn't end at graduation. According to Jewish tradition, Torah study is a lifelong pursuit—and many of the most basic Torah texts are in Aramaic.

Apart, however, from university centers specializing in near eastern classical languages, as a general rule, yeshiva and rabbinical students study Aramaic only in conjunction with the Jewish texts on which they are concentrating. Aramaic is seldom studied separately as a classical language.

Case in point: Daf Yomi, an international movement to study one page of Talmud per day, has attracted what some think may be as many as 100,000 followers. Madison Square Garden and the Nassau Coliseum were both sold out a few years ago with live video links to other cities, to celebrate the siyum, the completion, of the study cycle. It took seven and a half years to complete the study of the Babylonian Talmud in Aramaic. Assuming that these figures are correct, this would mean that there are more Jews studying in Aramaic texts today than there have been since the majority of Jews lived in Babylon over 1000 years ago...

FOOTNOTES
1.

The Mishnah is a compilation of the teachings of the Sages that lived in Israel between 200 BCE and 200 CE. The Gemara is the commentary on the Mishnah, mostly culled from the teachings of the Babylonians Sages in the centuries that followed the redaction of the Mishnah.

2.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38b) asserts that Adam conversed in Aramaic. But considering that the Midrash (Tanchumah Deuteronomy 2) records the tradition that Adam was fluent on seventy languages, this doesn't necessarily imply that it was a prevalent language in Adam's day.

3.

Many of the various Jewish texts written in Aramaic use different dialects.

Lorne E. Rozovsky (1943-2013) was a lawyer, author, educator, a health management consultant and an inquisitive Jew.
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Discussion (12)
December 11, 2013
Lorne Rozovsky
In browsing your web, I became a little excited when I saw his small bio. It ended with ' an inquisitive Jew'. I guessed he was proud to be Jew and inquisitive. I love my fellow man and I am interested in the inquisitive ones. We need more of them. Would have loved to communicate with him.
May his soul rest in peace.
He does not have to ask any more questions.
Denis Ryan
Garden City Park, NY
December 5, 2013
Aramaic: Shalama (peace), Shalom (peace) in Hebrew
Josephus who wrote and spoke in Aramaic is noted for his accuracy and truth by historians of the WORLD. He was a high ranking member of Jewish society who unsuccessfully tried to avoid the destruction of the Second Temple. As a twist in human history, some Jews hated him, but not the Romans. They hired him as the first Public Relations guy. He in turn changed his first name (Yosef) to Flavius in honor of the Emporer. Nevertheless, his historial works are still golden!
Denis Ryan
Garden City Park, NY
November 25, 2013
Aramaic: the link among Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Greeks
Very hard to ignore. The Phoenicians start it with their alphabet. Aramaic improved it with box letters while Hebrew gave consistency to box lettering. Ever hear of Onkelos? A very clever Roman translator who has the blessing of the Rambam. Somethings transcend time: many, many important historical documents were written in Aramiac. Many, many important and unimportant spoke Aramaic. The language itself is very flexible (with its variable verb stems) and incorporation of dialects. A far out comparison could be our (communication) English of today. In its time, it was a major player. There something in it for everyone!
Denis Ryan
Garden City Park
November 17, 2013
Aramaic
What are the two schools in New Jersey traching Aramaic?``
Anonymous
Oneonta, NY
November 18, 2012
Aramaic
Aramaic still spoken today 2to 4million people's, very close to Hebrew with same alphabet but different writing.
Martin bet Abraham
USA
February 24, 2012
I speak Aramaic !
I'm Syriac Orthodox Christian and we still speak Aramaic. It is spoken by around 500,000 people (Large number in Sweden, Germany, Syria, Southeastern Turkey, USA, Canada etc.)

It's related to Hebrew and Arabic.
Perhaps most Assyrians speak it today.

Aramaic translation:

Shlomo = Hi
Toudi = Thank you
Tovo/kajiso = good
Toch larke = come here
radeyto = car
maye = water
Bas(jo) = stop
Mattias
Paramus, NJ
October 21, 2011
Modern judeo-Aramaic
Actually the 4 main living judeo- neo-Aramaic languages still exist in Israel (in those ages 50+) and these versions of Aramaic are uniquely Jewish and are not intelligle ( witH some slight exceptions) to those speakers of Christian aramaic. There they are the oldest Yiddish-like languages in the world. They are written in the same characters as modern Hebrew.
David M. Zimmer, M.D.
Rockville, MD
January 5, 2011
I love languages! When I was a baby, my grandparents raised me, and my two sisters. As they had immigrated from Turkey, they spoke multiple languages - Turkish, Russian, Arabic, Chaldean, Hebrew, Spanish and as my grandfather was a chaplain in WWII, he also spoke Yiddish. They figured we would learn "the English" when we went to school, so this was not spoken in the home. I remember when I was four they were speaking quietly at the table on a Saturday night and suddenly my 5-year old sister piped up, "We are going to the zoo tomorrow!" My grandmother sighed, put her hands up and said, "Looks like we have no more languages, now, Yakov!" She had cracked the code of Aramaic! They wrote Chaldean and Aramaic in Arabic script as both languages were similar and it was easier for them. Once my sister went to kindergarten, the remaining two of us picked up English within two weeks. I am not fluent in all these languages now but I remember enough to keep up. It surely helped us in school.
Ms. Kelly Leeba Kinseth
January 7, 2010
Aramaic script
Without boring our readers by bragging about my family (Dec. 25th posting), the question regarding Aramaic script is very complex. Aramaic went through various dialects since it became a distinct language sometime after 700 BCE with various scripts being used over time, both cursive and non-cursive. Aramaic became very widespread and as a result numerous middle-Eastern languages have certain similarities to it. The Hebrew alphabet is the closest to Imperial Aramaic script of the 5th century BCE. While the Aramaic scripts changed, the Hebrew script had very little change since this period. The result has been that a number of Aramaic dialects including Biblical and Talmudic Aramaic use the Hebrew alphabet as the alphabet, and not as a transliteration.
Lorne Rozovsky
Bloomfield, CT, USA
January 7, 2010
How about Ladino?
In response to the question raised December 31, 2009 as to whether Ladino can be referred to as the Sephardic "Yiddish", that is quite right. Since the article on Aramaic was posted, two articles which had previously been accepted for publication have now been posted. Readers interested in Ladino and other Jewish languages might wish to refer to them at Path to Extinction: The Declining Health of Jewish Languages and Will Ladino Rise Again?.

There are differences in the development of Yiddish and Ladino and in the way the two languages are related to their basic sources, that is German and Spanish, they certainly became the two major vernacular languages of the Jewish people, very much like Aramaic centuries before.
Lorne Rozovsky
Bloomfield, CT, USA
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