Aramaic is an ancient language with strong roots in Jewish life and history. Quite a few Jewish prayers and texts, including parts of the Bible itself, were penned in this language, and it served as the primary Jewish vernacular for hundreds of years. Read on for 11 facts about a language as Jewish as Yiddish, if not more so.

1. It Was the Jewish Vernacular for Over 1,000 Years

Aramaic was the lingua franca of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, facilitating communication between the diverse nations within each empire. When the Jews returned to the Land of Israel from Babylonian captivity in the 4th century BCE, they began using Aramaic as their vernacular for daily speech, reserving the Holy Tongue for Torah study and prayer. The dominance of Aramaic in Jewish communities in the Middle East continued well into the 9th century CE, when it was replaced by Arabic.

Read: Aramaic: The Yiddish of the Middle East

2. It Has Close Ties to Hebrew

Many Aramaic words are closely related to their Hebrew counterparts, often differentiated by not much more than a transposed letter. Some examples: the Hebrew sh is often transposed with t, and z with d. So the Hebrew shor, ox, becomes the Aramaic tora; zahav, gold, becomes dahava; and shalosh, three, becomes telat.

Read: 10 Facts About Hebrew

3. It Is in the Bible

Although the vast majority of Scripture is written in the Holy Tongue, significant segments appear in Aramaic. The first Aramaic words in the Bible surface in the narrative of Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban the Aramean, when the two cemented their alliance by erecting a mound of stones. Using his native Aaramaic tongue, Laban named it yegar sahaduta, “the mound shall be a witness,” while Jacob called it gal’ed, a Hebrew term conveying the identical sentiment.1

Read: Who Was Laban?

An Aramaic verse also appears in the book of Jeremiah,2 and large segments of the books of Daniel3 and Ezra4 are written in Aramaic—the language of Babylonia, where these two great men resided.

Read: Daniel, the Prophet of the Bible; Ezra the Scribe

4. A Convert Translated the Bible Into Aramaic

The Bible was translated into Aramaic several times. The most famous of these ancient translations is the one authored by Onkelos the Convert, featured alongside the original text in many Hebrew publications of the Torah.

Read: Onkelos

Another notable translation of many books of Scripture is the handiwork of the Mishnaic scholar, Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel. More than just a translation, this composition incorporates much Midrashic and esoteric material, enriching the student’s understanding of the Bible.

Read: Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel

In Talmudic times, a law was enacted to enhance familiarity with the Five Books of Moses: In addition to hearing the weekly Torah portion read in the synagogue, each layman would read it himself. To allow him to understand the text, it would be read twice in the original Hebrew and once in Aramaic, using Onkelos’s translation.5 Although Aramaic is no longer a commonly spoken language, this practice has been codified into Jewish law and is still observed.6

5. The Angels Don’t Understand It

The Talmud cites a tradition according to which the supernal angels do not understand Aramaic.7 But why should this be the only language they do not understand? Some interpret the tradition to mean that they do not understand any language other than Hebrew, even Aramaic. Alternatively, they do understand Aramaic, but they do not bring prayers recited in Aramaic before G‑d. This is because in contrast to other languages, Aramaic shares close ties with Hebrew, leading to the concern that the petitioner might view it as a qualified replacement for the Holy Tongue.8

Read: Must I Pray in Hebrew?

6. It Is the Language of the Talmud

Aramaic is the primary language of the Talmud, the seminal work of Jewish law and scholarship. The Talmud was compiled in the vernacular of the time to make it accessible to the masses, allowing everyone to understand it and incorporate its teachings into their lives. While both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds were written in Aramaic, they utilized different dialects—a potential challenge for someone familiar with one Talmud attempting to study the other.

Read: Why Is the Talmud in Aramaic?

7. … And Many Other Jewish Works

The Zohar, the foundational work of Kabbalah authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, also employs Aramaic as its primary language. Additional uses of Aramaic in Jewish literature include various Midrashic compositions, as well as works from the Geonic period. But as the use of Aramaic as a Jewish spoken language diminished, so did its usage in Jewish scholarship.

Read: What Is the Zohar?

8. It Is the Language of Jewish Legal Documents

Jewish legal documents, such as the ketubah (marriage contract) and gett (bill of divorce), are written in Aramaic, using a text honed to precision by centuries of Talmudic scholars.

Read: Why Is the Ketubah Written in Aramaic?

9. Some Prayers Are Even in Aramaic

Aramaic has found a comfortable home not only in Jewish scholarship but in prayer as well. Although the bulk of the prayers are recited in Hebrew, a select few were formulated in Aramaic, notably—the Mourner’s Kaddish. Additional examples include Hei lachma anya, the Passover Haggadah’s opening segment, and Yekum purkan, recited on Shabbat before Musaf.

(Although angels do not bring Aramaic petitions before G‑d, when praying as a congregation G‑d listens to our requests directly, and no angelic interventions are necessary. Such prayers may therefore be said in Aramaic.9)

Read: Why Is the Kaddish in Aramaic?

10. It Was Preserved Among Kurdish Jews

Even as the once-ubiquitous language was abandoned in favor of other languages, the Jews of Kurdistan continued to speak various dialects of Aramaic. With most Jews fleeing the region to Israel in the mid-20th century, Jewish Aramaic has all but been abandoned as a spoken language.

11. It Is Alive and Well

Even as Aramaic has largely died out as a spoken language among Jews, it is still alive and well in yeshivahs around the world, where thousands of students labor over ancient Talmudic and other Aramaic texts. And the preoccupation with these texts doesn't end in yeshiva. According to Jewish tradition, Torah study is a lifelong pursuit, ensuring that Aramaic retains an honored position in Jewish life for all time.

Study the Talmud in Aramaic or English