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...