Why is the kaddish prayer said in Aramaic? I understand that it was composed when Aramaic was the vernacular for most Jews, but why has it not been changed to Hebrew since?
Rabbi Joseph Caro, the 16th century author of the Code of Jewish Law, mentions several reasons why the kaddish prayer is not said in Hebrew, especially considering that Hebrew is lashon ha-kodesh, the holy tongue:
- The Zohar, the classic work of Kabbalah, teaches that we intentionally use a secular language for kaddish because we are thereby subjugating the “external forces,” i.e., those energies that are, so to speak, outside the realm of the holy and G‑dly. By utilizing this mundane, man-made and “earthly” language to extol G‑d’s greatness, we accomplish the profound goal expressed in the opening words of kaddish, “Let His great name be magnified and sanctified on earth.”
- It was said in Aramaic because that was the most common spoken language of the Jews of the time, and the sages wanted the entire congregation to appreciate and identify with the sanctification of G‑d's name expressed in this important prayer.
According to these two reasons, why do we not say kaddish in a secular language that we use today?
There is, however, another reason for reciting kaddish in its original language, which is mentioned by the Tosafists, the 13th century commentary on the Talmud.
According to sources they quote, we recite the kaddish in Aramaic because we do not want the angels to understand and be jealous of this great prayer; and according to our tradition, angels do not understand Aramaic.
Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, explains that the angels are not actually jealous; however, because this prayer achieves an exaltation of G d which transcends the heights that angels can achieve with their Divine service, we stress the unique loftiness of this prayer by saying it in a language that is specifically not associated with angels, as per our tradition.
This explains why it has remained in Aramaic until today.
See the Kaddish Guide: Learn it. Say it. Understand it.