Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kaddish & Other Prayers...Hebrew vs. Aramaic

By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Although the kaddish as we know it today is written and recited in the ancient Aramaic language, it is not so clear that this was always the case. In one place, the Talmud[1] refers to the kaddish in its Aramaic form, while in another place[2] it makes reference to it in a Hebrew formulation.

It is actually quite likely that kaddish was first composed and recited in Hebrew. It was only much later that the switch was made, and congregations began reciting it in Aramaic. As Tosfot[3] explains, the kaddish was originally recited in Hebrew. However, since not everyone understood Hebrew, they began reciting it in Aramaic which was the vernacular language of the time in order that the congregation would understand the meaning of the prayer. The Tur writes similarly.[4]

Click here to read moreIn response to a question whether or not it is permissible to revert back to the original practice of reciting kaddish in Hebrew, as Aramaic is no longer spoken or understood, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy rules[5] that doing so is essentially permissible. However, he approvingly cites the Zohar which insists that it only be recited in Aramaic and therefore concludes that no change should be made. We see from here that the kaddish is something which is especially important to understand one should make the effort to learn the meaning of the words. The Siddur "Rinat Yisrael" has translated all the Aramaic prayers into Hebrew, including the kaddish, for this reason.

On a related note, due to the holiness and spiritual advantages of Hebrew, we are taught that it is better to pray in Hebrew even when one does not understand the meaning of the words, rather than to pray in any other language.[6] Additionally, we are taught that the Angels assist our prayers in being received favorably before God. It seems, however, that these benefits are lacking when prayers are recited in Aramaic. This is because Aramaic is simply not as holy as Hebrew and it is a language which most angels don’t understand.[7] As such, it might be better to recite Aramaic prayers, such as Brich Shmei and Yekum Purkan in Hebrew or English, if one does not understand the meaning of the words. This is especially true when praying alone.[8] That being said, there exists a view that Aramaic is simply a tattered form of Hebrew,[9] and therefore, perhaps the benefits of reciting prayers in Hebrew even if one doesn’t understand what one is saying, applies to Aramaic, as well.

Aramaic is actually alive & well in many Christian sects in the Levant and it is even used in regular conversation. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aramaic_language Click the audio link(s) to hear some of their Aramaic prayers. Prepare to hear many familiar words.


[1] Sota 49a
[2] Berachot 3a,21b
[3] Berachot 3a
[4] Tur O.C. 56
[5] Aseh Lecha Rav 3:12
[6] OC 101:4; but see Sefer Chassidim 588 and 785 for a dissenting view.
[7] Elya Rabba 56:5, Tosfot;Shabbat 12b
[8] O.C. 101:4, Mateh Ephraim 581:21
[9] Shu"t Harama 126

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