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Why Is the Talmud in Aramaic?

Why Is the Talmud in Aramaic?

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Question:

Since the Talmud is such a fundamental work in Judaism, why wasn’t it written in Hebrew, like the Bible and the Mishnah? Isn’t Hebrew considered “the holy tongue”?

Answer:

Before we get into why the Talmud was written in Aramaic, a brief overview of the history of the language is in order.

Aramaic is an ancient language that has been around for over 3,000 years. It was the official language of the first Aramean states, and later became the common language, or lingua franca, of the Assyrian and Persian empires.

There is even a sprinkling of Aramaic in the Bible. One example is the phrase yegar sahaduta, spoken by Laban the Aramean (Genesis 31:47).

In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud1 notes that Aramaic is found in all three sections of the Bible: the Torah (five books of Moses),2 Nevi’im (prophets)3 and Ketuvim (writings).4

Eventually, during the Middle Aramaic period (approximately 200 BCE–200 CE), Aramaic began to split into two major groups of dialects, the Eastern and Western Aramaic languages.5

The Western Aramaic languages were used largely in the area that was under Roman (and later Byzantine) rule. The Jerusalem Talmud, composed in Israel, is written in a Western Aramaic dialect. The Eastern Aramaic languages flourished in the Persian Empire, and as a result the Babylonian Talmud, written in Persian-dominated Babylon, is in an Eastern Aramaic dialect. 6

During the Mishnaic era, the translations of the Bible known as Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan were written in Western Aramaic. According to some, these Aramaic translations of the Torah (targumim) were originally part of the oral tradition going all the way back to Moses at Mount Sinai.7

When the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt the Second Temple, they spoke mostly Aramaic. Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” was reserved for holy matters, such as prayer, and was not used for ordinary social and commercial activities.8 The Talmud was written in Aramaic, the language of the masses, so that it would be accessible to all. After all, the goal of study is to understand what has been learned so that it can be incorporated into our lives.

From Aramaic to Arabic

Later, during the Islamic conquests, Aramaic was overtaken by Arabic as the common language of the Middle East. That’s why some of the greatest Jewish works, like those of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides, were written in Arabic.

Fulfilling a Mitzvah

The very last mitzvah in the Torah is the obligation for every Jew to write a Torah scroll, as the verses state, “Now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”9 The Talmud explains that these verses indicate an obligation for every person to write the whole Torah. (For more on how one fulfills that mitzvah nowadays, see here).

In a fascinating talk, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that writing the Talmud in Aramaic was a fulfillment of this mitzvah. How?

The eminent Talmudist Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel (c. 1250–1327), known as the Rosh, writes that in previous eras, when we were forbidden to write down the Oral Law, a Torah scroll was the only text that Jews could actually use for study. And so, it was also the only way to fulfill this mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll. Nowadays, however, when it is permissible to write down the Oral Law, and the Torah scroll is stored in the synagogue for public readings rather than used as a study text, it is possible that the obligation of writing a Torah scroll can also be fulfilled by acquiring other holy books that can be used for study.10

And so, when the sages wrote their works in Aramaic or Arabic, they weren’t just being practical; they were fulfilling the mitzvah of writing Torah. For after all, the mitzvah is to write Torah in a way that people can learn and understand. If most Jews spoke or understood Aramaic or Arabic, then that was the language to be used to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Torah.11

The mitzvah of writing a Torah applies not only to publishers and authors, but to every person. It is for this reason that the Rebbe constantly encouraged people to buy Jewish texts for their homes (at the very least, the basics like Chumash, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish law) in a language that they could learn and understand. The Rebbe also made this mitzvah one of his 10-point mitzvah campaigns.

So now that you know why the Talmud was written in Aramaic, it’s time for you to go out and get your own Jewish books. Not only will you be doing a mitzvah, you may even end up learning something new!

Footnotes
1.
Sotah 7:2.
4.
Daniel 2:4b–7:28; Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26.
7.
See Rema on Shulchan Aruch, Even ha-Ezer 126, and his responsa, no. 126. See also Shulchan Aruch ha-Rav, Orach Chaim 285:2; Likkutei Sichot, vol. 21, p. 447, fn. 10.
10.
Rosh, Hilchot Sefer Torah 1. Some interpret the Rosh to be saying that acquiring Torah books can be part of the mitzvah of writing a Torah, but that one still needs to actually write a letter.
11.
Sichot Kodesh, Kedoshim 5741. See also Likkutei Sichot, vol. 23, pp. 24–25.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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nader September 11, 2017

translation errors I am confident that when you translate the Talmud from the original langauge to the present version you will find errors or differences. Reply

Eduardo Gonzalez-Toledo Shreveport, LA December 12, 2016

Translation Traduttore tradittore
: this is an old Italian quote. When you read a translation you see the text through an interpretation of the translator.
English is a language of few words. Freud in English is a different Freud in german. Reply

Joseph Barry Hoddes Southport February 14, 2016

Dear Mr Abraham,
You presume as given, that the original language in which the Talmud was written namely Armaic should be jettisoned, because it has no modern function.
With respect this presumption has no scholarly foundation accepted in either Jewish or University circles. By all means read in translation if you wish, but do not lecture those who can read the original as to the lack of merit of so doing, which is a form of reverse hubris.
It is very difficult for a western educated individual to study Talmudic Armaic but no more difficult than learning Sanskrit or Coptic.
My friendly advice is if you are interested in learning Talmud join fellow students of similar standard and focus on what you are able to grasp and not what you are unable to grasp. Kind Regards Reply

steve abraham new york February 12, 2016

why not English? You did not answer the question of why we continue to study books written in aramaic, rather than learning from translations into other languages? Why not translate and learn in Hebrew? Or even English? Isn't it the idea and thought we want to learn, and to make these easier for people to learn seems to be a good idea? Giving historical context, as you do in this article, does not justify a current action. It explains how it arose, it does not justify the action today. Reply

David New York February 11, 2016

Steve E Abraham; The Talmud has been translated to English by several publishing houses and can even be digitally downloaded for an e-book reader. It's also been translated into Hebrew, French, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Portuguese, and possibly other languages.
We study it in Aramaic because learning from the original preserves the integrity of the intention of the way it was written as you lose some of the flavor of the nuances via translation. This is why most of the translated editions have both the Aramaic and the translation on the same page side-by-side. Only a few editions have the translation only Reply

Joseph Barry Hoddes Southport January 7, 2016

Ms Sapriel, it is to do with the finer details of the law of status, which in orthodox Judaic rite classifies a Jew as either one born of a Jewish mother, or one who is accepted as a convert to orthodox Judaism.
I cannot comment about your brother's case because I have no details.
The above note is merely clarification for you, and does not represent subject views of any kind or at all, as the matter is obviously sensitive. Reply

Brigitte Sapriel Manchester January 4, 2016

My mother was catholic my father Jewish.... Yet I was never accepted as a Jewish person myself...however my brother was raised the Jewish way? Please explain why ?... Reply

Steve E Abraham New York December 30, 2015

You did not answer the next question You did not answer the question of why we continue to study books written in aramaic, rather than learning from translations into other languages? Why not translate and learn in Hebrew? Or even English? Isn't it the idea and thought we want to learn, and to make these easier for people to learn seems to be a good idea? Giving historical context, as you do in this article, does not justify a current action. It explains how it arose, it does not justify the action today. Reply

Bill Louisville, Ky December 18, 2015

Time BCE/CE as a terminology for reference in Language? in Science? in Torah? How and what does Era mean? From a Human Ruler's perspective? From the oppressed perspective? How and then why ask questions? (If to understand Life requires one to act while asking questions?) Reply

Anonymous Israel December 18, 2015

terminology why do you use "BCE" to express time (before common era). Do Jewish people use christian terminology to express time? i am Jewish and i am confused because this is a time reference for Christianity BC/AD changed to BCE/CE. it is very strange to find this terminology used in a Chabad Net.. can anyone answer this? Reply

mae Asian December 18, 2015

how accurate is the translation since the original is lost ? Reply

James More Seattle December 17, 2015

Enlightening Thanks for being patient. Reply

Alice Sood Torrance December 17, 2015

Indeed thanks ...always get inspired on reading your periodic emails...shall be getting some of the books as suggested. Reply

Dineo Jeanette Chaka Kutumela South Africa Johannesburg December 17, 2015

Thanks for the clarification. Reply

max India December 17, 2015

Super information. Thanks. Reply

Michael Taubenhaus Montrouge December 17, 2015

Learning Thank you! I certainly do learn a lot when I read the amazingly interesting and well-written article on your website. Reply

arthur yanoff December 16, 2015

aramaic We tend to speak the language of the country in which we live. When I lived with my family we spoke a lot of Yiddish at home. In the outside world most of us in America speak English. While translation from one language to another will lose some of the intent, nevertheless , we get a great deal from Talmud in English now. There is a lot to what the Alter Rebbe said, "living with the times." Reply

B.Apel Encini, Ca. December 16, 2015

Why Is the Talmud in Aramaic? Awesome! Reply

Susan Zimmerman December 16, 2015

excellent ques/answer...for reading over lunch time...great question Reply

laiib NY December 16, 2015

Lost in Space Cute, a long time ago, they wanted to teach Torah and would present in Aramaic -- so you could learn.

Now, however, they want to teach Hebrew, even if you have to learn the Torah to do that.

Hmm, who make that last left turn? Reply

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