Considered Foreign by Ancient Hebrews.

Of all Semitic languages the Aramaic is most closely related to the Hebrew, and forms with it, and possibly with the Assyrian, the northern group of Semitic languages. Aramaic, nevertheless, was considered by the ancient Hebrews as a foreign tongue; and a hundred years before the Babylonian exile it was understood only by people of culture in Jerusalem. Thus the ambassador of the Assyrian king who delivered an insolent message from his master in the Hebrew language and in the hearing of the people sitting upon the wall, was requested by the high officials of King Hezekiah not to speak in Hebrew, but in the “Syrian language,” which they alone understood (II Kings xviii. 26; Isa. xxxvi. 11). In the early Hebrew literature an Aramaic expression occurs once. In the narrative of the covenant between Jacob and Laban it is stated that each of them named in his own language the stone-heap built in testimony of their amity. Jacob called it “Galeed”; Laban used the Aramaic equivalent, “Jegar sahadutha” (Gen. xxxi. 47). This statement undoubtedly betrays a knowledge of the linguistic differences between Hebrews and Arameans, whose kinship is elsewhere frequently insisted on, as for instance in the genealogical tables, and in the narratives of the earliest ages. One of the genealogies mentions Aram among the sons of Shem as a brother of Arphaxad, one of the ancestors of the Hebrews (Gen. x. 23). In another, Kemuel, a son of Nahor, the brother of Abraham, is called “the father of Aram” (Gen. xxii. 21). Other descendants of this brother of the Hebrew Abraham (Gen. xiv. 13) are termed Arameans; as, for instance, Bethuel, Rebekah’s father (Gen. xxv. 20, xxviii. 5), and Laban, the father of Rachel and Leah (Gen. xxv. 20; xxxi. 20, 24). The earliest history of Israel is thus connected with the Arameans of the East, and even Jacob himself is called in one passage “a wandering Aramean” (Deut. xxvi. 5). During the whole period of the kings, Israel sustained relations both warlike and friendly with the Arameans of the west, whose country, later called Syria, borders Palestine on the north and northeast. Traces of this intercourse were left upon the language of Israel, such as the Aramaisms in the vocabulary of the older Biblical books.[Modern Bible critics have endeavored to determine accurately the influence of Aramaic upon the various authors of Biblical books, and to use the results thus obtained in determining the age and authorship of the books (see, for example, König, “Einleitung in das Alte Test.” p. 149; Holzinger, “Einleitung in den Hexateuch,” passim; D. Giesebrecht, “Zur Hexateuch-Kritik,” in Stade’s “Zeitschrift,” i. 177 et seq.; and compare xiii. 309, xiv. 143; S. R. Driver, “Journal of Philology,” xi. 201-236).—G.]

Aramaic Displaces Hebrew.

Aramaic was destined to become Israel’s vernacular tongue; but before this could come about it was necessary that the national independence should be destroyed and the people removed from their own home. These events prepared the way for that great change by which the Jewish nation parted with its national tongue and replaced it, in some districts entirely by Aramaic, in others by the adoption of Aramaized-Hebrew forms. The immediate causes of this linguistic metamorphosis are no longer historically evident. The event of the Exile itself was by no means a decisive factor, for the prophets that spoke to the people during the Exile and after the Return in the time of Cyrus, spoke in their own Hebrew tongue. The single Aramaic sentence in Jer. x. 11 was intended for the information of non-Jews. But, although the living words of prophet and poet still resounded in the time-honored language, and although Hebrew literature during this period may be said to have actually flourished, nevertheless among the large masses of the Jewish people a linguistic change was in progress. The Aramaic, already the vernacular of international intercourse in Asia Minor in the time of Assyrian and Babylonian domination, took hold more and more of the Jewish populations of Palestine and of Babylonia, bereft as they were of their own national consciousness. Under the Achæmenidæ, Aramaic became the official tongue in the provinces between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean (see Ezra iv. 7); therefore the Jews could still less resist the growing importance and spread of this language. Hebrew disappeared from their daily intercourse and from their homes; and Nehemiah—this is the only certain information respecting the process of linguistic change—once expressed his disapproval of the fact that the children of those living in mixed marriage” could no longer “speak in the Jews’ language” (Neh. xiii. 24).

How long this process of Aramaization lasted is not known. About the year 300 B.C. Aramaic makes its appearance in Jewish literature. The author of Chronicles uses a source in which not only documents concerning the history of the Second Temple are reproduced in the original Aramaic (Ezra iv. 8-22; v. 1-6, 12; vii. 12-26), but the connecting narrative itself is written in Aramaic (Ezra iv. 23, v. 5, vi. 13-18). In the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, the authorof the Book of Daniel begins his narrative in Hebrew, but when he introduces the Babylonian sages and scholars as speaking Aramaic to the king, as if only awaiting this opportunity, he continues his history in Aramaic (Dan. ii. 4, vii. 28).[Other explanations have been attempted in order to account for the appearance of both Aramaic and Hebrew in Daniel and Ezra. Prof. Paul Haupt supposes that Daniel was originally written in Hebrew, that portions of it were lost, and that these portions were supplied later from an Aramaic translation. See A. Kamphausen, “The Book of Daniel” (“S. B. O. T.”), p. 16; J. Marquart, “Fundamente der Israel. und Jüd. Gesch.” p. 72.—G.]The employment of the two languages in these Biblical books well illustrates their use in those circles in which and for which the books were written. In point of fact, at the time of the Second Temple, both languages were in common use in Palestine: the Hebrew in the academies and in the circles of the learned, the Aramaic among the lower classes in the intercourse of daily life. But the Aramaic continued to spread, and became the customary popular idiom; not, however, to the complete exclusion of the Hebrew. Nevertheless, while Hebrew survived in the schools and among the learned—being rooted, as it were, in the national mind—it was continuously exposed to the influence of Aramaic. Under this influence a new form of Hebrew was developed, which has been preserved in the tannaitic literature embodying the traditions of the last two or three centuries before the common era. So that even in those fields where Hebrew remained the dominant tongue, it was closely pressed by Aramaic. There is extant an almost unique halakic utterance in Aramaic (‘Eduy. viii. 4) of Yose b. Joezer, a contemporary of the author of Daniel. Legal forms for various public documents, such as marriage-contracts, bills of divorce, etc., were then drawn up in Aramaic. Official messages from Jerusalem to the provinces were couched in the same language. The “List of the Fast-Days” (Megillat Ta’anit), edited before the destruction of the Temple, was written in Aramaic. Josephus considers Aramaic so thoroughly identical with Hebrew that he quotes Aramaic words as Hebrew (“Ant.” iii. 10, § 6), and describes the language in which Titus’ proposals to the Jerusalemites were made (which certainly were in Aramaic) as Hebrew (“B. J.” vi. 2, § 1). It was in Aramaic that Josephus had written his book on the “Jewish War,” as he himself informs us in the introduction, before he wrote it in Greek. That he meant the Aramaic is evident from the reason he assigns, namely, that he desired to make this first attempt intelligible to the Parthians, Babylonians, Arabs, the Jews living beyond the Euphrates, and the inhabitants of Adiabene. That the Babylonian diaspora was linguistically Aramaized is shown by the fact that Hillel loved to frame his maxims in that language.

The Targum, the Aramaic Version of the Scriptures.

The oldest literary monument of the Aramaization of Israel would be the Tarcum, the Aramaic version of the Scriptures, were it not that this received its final revision in a somewhat later age. The Targum, as an institution, reaches back to the earliest centuries of the Second Temple. Ezra may not have been, as tradition alleges, the inaugurator of the Targum; but it could not have been much after his day that the necessity made itself felt for the supplementing of the public reading of the Hebrew text of Scripture in the synagogue by a translation of it into the Aramaic vernacular. The tannaitic Halakah speaks of the Targum as an institution closely connected with the public Bible-reading, and one of long-established standing. But, just as the translation of the Scripture lesson for the benefit of the assembled people in the synagogue had to be in Aramaic, so all addresses and homilies hinging upon the Scripture had to be in the same language. Thus Jesus and his nearest disciples spoke Aramaic and taught in it (see Dalman, “Die Worte Jesu”).

When the Second Temple was destroyed, and the last remains of national independence had perished, the Jewish people, thus entering upon a new phase of historical life, had become almost completely an Aramaic-speaking people. A small section of the diaspora spoke Greek; in the Arabian peninsula Jewish tribes had formed who spoke Arabic; and in different countries there were small Jewish communities that still spoke the ancient language of their home; but the great mass of the Jewish population in Palestine and in Babylonia spoke Aramaic. It was likewise the language of that majority of the Jewish race that was of historical importance—those with whom Jewish law and tradition survived and developed. The Greek-speaking Jews succumbed more and more to the influence of Christianity, while the Jews who spoke other languages were soon lost in the obscurity of an existence without any history whatever.

Language of Amoraim.

In these centuries, in which Israel’s national language became superseded by the Aramaic, the literature of Tradition arose, in which Aramaic was predominant by the side of Hebrew; it was a species of bilingual literature, expressing the double idioms of the circles in which it originated. In the academies —which, on the destruction of Jerusalem, became the true foci of Jewish intellectual life—the Hebrew language, in its new form (Mishnaic Hebrew), became the language of instruction and of religious debate. With but few exceptions, all literary material, written and oral, of the tannaitic age, whether of a halakic or non-halakic description, was handed down in Hebrew. Hence the whole tannaitic literature is strongly distinguished from the post-tannaitic by this Hebrew garb. The Hebrew language was also the language of prayer, both of the authorized ritual prayers and of private devotion, as handed down in the cases of individual sages and pious men. According to a tannaitic Halakah (Tosef. Ḥag., beginning; compare Bab. Suk. 42a), every father was bound to teach his child Hebrew as soon as it began to speak. It is no doubt true that there was a knowledge of Hebrew in non-scholarly circles of the Jewish people besides that of the Aramaic vernacular; indeed, attempts were not lacking to depose Aramaic altogether as the language of daily intercourse, and to restore Hebrew in its stead. In the house of the patriarch Judah I., the female house-servant spoke Hebrew (Meg. 18a). The same Judah is reported to have said that in theland of Israel the use of the Syriac (Aramaic) language was unjustifiable; people should speak either Hebrew or Greek (Soṭah 49b; B. Ḳ. 83a). This remained of course only a pious wish, exactly as that deliverance of Joseph, the Babylonian amora in the fourth century, who said that in Babylon the Aramaic language should no longer be used, but instead the Hebrew or the Persian (ib.).

When the Mishnah of Judah I. provided new subject-matter for the studies in the academies of Palestine and Babylonia, the Aramaic language was not slow in penetrating likewise to those seats of Jewish scholarship. As shown in the two Talmuds—those faithful “minutes” of the debates, lectures, and deliberations of the colleges—the Amoraim partially adhered to the Hebrew form of expression for their propositions and explanations: but the debates and lectures in the academies, together with the deliberations and discussions of their members, were, as a rule, in Aramaic; and even the terminology of their exegeses and dialectics was Aramaized. The older collections of haggadic Midrash also evidence the fact that the language of the synagogue addresses and of the Scripture explanation in the amoraic time was, for the greater part, Aramaic. As a justification for the preponderance thus given to Aramaic within a field formerly reserved for Hebrew, Johanan, the great amora of Palestine, said: “Let not the Syriac (Aramaic) language be despised in thine eyes; for in all three portions of sacred Scripture—in the Law, the Prophets, and the Holy Writings—this language is employed.” He then quoted the Aramaic fragments in Gen. xxxi. 47; Jer. x. 11; and Dan. ii. (Yer. Soṭah vii. 21c). The same idea is probably intended to be conveyed by Rab, the great amora of Babylonia, when he says that Adam, the first man, spoke Aramaic, which, therefore, was not inferior to Hebrew in point of antiquity (Sanh. 38b). But the same Johanan felt it his duty to oppose the possibility that Aramaic should ever become the language of prayer, by declaring that “He who recites his prayers in the Aramaic tongue, will receive no assistance from the angels in waiting; for they understand no Aramaic” (Shab. 12a; Soṭah 33a). This utterance, however, did not prevent the Ḳaddish-prayer—said at the close of the public addresses, and later of more general employment—from being recited in amoraic times in the Aramaic language, or the insertion, later, of other Aramaic portions in the prayer-ritual.

Arabic Displaces Aramaic.

For more than a thousand years Aramaic remained the vernacular of Israel, until the conquests of the Arabs produced another linguistic change, as a sequel of which a third Semitic language became the popular tongue for a large portion of the Jewish race, and the vehicle of their thought. The spread of Arabian supremacy over the whole country formerly dominated by the Aramaic tongue produced with extraordinary rapidity and completeness an Arabizing of both the Christian and Jewish populations of western Asia, who had hitherto spoken Aramaic (Syriac). At the beginning of the ninth century, in districts where the Jews had previously spoken Aramaic, only Arabic-speaking Jews were to be found; Arabic, as the daily language of the Jews, held sway even beyond the territory formerly occupied by Aramaic, as far as the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean; and Aramaic then became, in a certain measure, a second holy tongue, next to Hebrew, in the religious and literary life of the Jewish people.In northern Mesopotamia, in Kurdistan, west of Lake Urmia, Aramaic dialects are still spoken by Christians and occasionally by the Jews, which dialects are termed “Neo-Syriac.” [The Jews in those regions call their Aramaic tongue “Leshon Galut.” For the literature on the subject, see R. Gottheil, “The Judæo-Aramæan Dialect of Salamas,” in “Journal of Amer. Orient. Soc.” xv. 297 et seq.—G.]It was especially to the Aramaic Targum that religious sentiment paid the highest regard, even after it had ceased to be useful as a vernacular translation of the Hebrew original —serving only as the subject of pious perusal or of learned study—and had itself come to require translation. In the ritual of public worship the custom survived of accompanying the reading from the Scriptures with the Targum upon the passage read, a custom observed for certain festival-readings down to the very latest centuries. To these Targum selections were added Aramaic poems, some of which have retained their places in the festival-liturgies. Aramaic, as the language of the Babylonian Talmud, of course always remained the principal idiom of halakic literature, which regarded the Babylonian Talmud as the source for all religio-legal decisions and as the proper subject for explanatory commentaries. In richer and more independent form this idiom of Aramaic appears in the Halakah in the responsa of the Geonim; whereas in the still later literature, the so-called rabbinical idiom is entirely dependent upon the language of the Talmud, although it but possesses a copious admixture of Hebrew elements. In the haggadic literature, which developed wonderfully from the close of the amoraic age until after the termination of the gaonic period, Aramaic predominated at first; but in the course of time it was entirely displaced by Hebrew.

The Zohar.

A new field was suddenly conquered by Aramaic when the Zohar, with its assumed antiquity of origin, made its entrance into Jewish spiritual life. This book, which became the most important textbook of the Cabala, made itself the Holy Bible of all mystical speculation, and owed not a little of its influence to the mystic-sounding and peculiarly sonorous pathos of the Aramaic tongue, in which it is mainly written. The Aramaic of the Zohar itself—a clever reproduction and imitation of an ancient tongue—served in its turn as a model; and its phraseology exerted a very marked influence over other than cabalistic writers. An Aramaic extract from the Zohar found its way into the prayer-book (Berik Shemeh), and is recited before the reading from the Law in the majority of synagogues of Ashkenazic ritual. In poetic literature, however, both liturgic and secular, Aramaic, apart from the above-mentioned poems belonging to the Targum, occupied a steadily decreasing place. Masters of Hebrew versification, especially under the influence of the Cabala, tried their skill now and then on Aramaic poems. An Aramaic poem by Israel Nagara (“Yah Ribbon ‘Olam”) is still widely sung at table after the Sabbath meal.

In Hebrew philology, Aramaic was especially useful in the explanation of Hebrew words in the Bible; and it served as the foundation for a comparative philology of the Semitic languages inaugurated by Judah ibn Koreish and Saadia. Nevertheless, Aramaic was never treated either grammatically or lexicographically by the Jews of Spain, in spite of the high development to which they otherwise carried philology. In Nathan ben Jehiel’s Talmudical lexicon, the ‘Aruk—which covers also the Targumim—Aramaic naturally occupies the most prominent place. The first Aramaic lexicon limited to the Targumim was compiled by Elijah Levita. Among Jewish scholars of the nineteenth century, Aramaic grammars have been written by Luzzatto, Fürst, Blücher, and C. Levias; Jacob Levy published a compendious lexicon of the Targums as well as a large dictionary of the Talmudic and Midrashic literature, which distinguishes throughout between Hebrew and Aramaic; G. Dalman has published a full glossary, and Marcus Jastrow has recently completed a similar work.

Names and Dialects of Aramaic.

The Hebrew word “Aramit,” employed in the Bible (Dan. ii. 4—”Syriac” in A. V.—and elsewhere) to designate the Aramaic language, is similarly used in later times, particularly in Babylonia; while in Palestine as early as the tannaitic period, the Aramaic language is also called Sursi by reason of the Greek designation of the Arameans as Syrians. The second book of Maccabees calls it “the Syriac tongue” (ὴ Συριακὴ φωνή); and the Septuagint translates “Aramit” (Dan. ii. 4, etc.) by συριστί; compare Yer. Ned. x. 42a, where read  for . Among Christian Arameans, Syriac is the exclusive appellation for their language; and the Arabic form of this term, “Suryani,” was the usual designation for Aramaic among the Arabic-speaking Jews. In addition to these two chief names for Aramaic, other terms were also employed in Jewish circles: Targum (literally “translation” of the Bible, specifically the Aramaic version) denoted the language of the Aramaic portions of the Bible. But the Syrian inhabitants of the town lying below the monastery on Mount Sinai were described by Benjamin of Tudela as speaking the “Targum language” (leshon Targum). The Aramaic of the Bible (Daniel and Ezra) was called the Chaldaic language because of Dan. i. 4 (Masora upon Onkelos; Saadia); Jerome, too, calls it “Chaldaicus Sermo.” The term “Chaldaic” for the Biblical Aramaic, and indeed for Aramaic generally, is a misnomer, persisted in, moreover, until the present day. It is also called “Nabatæan”—denoting, according to Bar-Hebræus, the dialect of certain mountaineers of Assyria and of villagers in Mesopotamia—which is the term used by Saadia to denote Aramaic in his translation of Isa. xxxvi. 11. Likewise in his introduction to the book “Sefer ha-Galui” he complains that the Hebrew of his Jewish contemporaries had become corrupted by the Arabic and “Nabatæan.” This designation is due to Arabic influence (“Jew. Quart. Rev.” xii. 517).

Aramaic contributions to Jewish literature belong to both the eastern and the western branches of the language. West Aramaic are the Aramaic portions of the Bible, the Palestinian Targumim, the Aramaic portions of the Palestinian Talmud, and the Palestinian Midrashim. In Palestinian Aramaic the dialect of Galilee was different from that of Judea, and as a result of the religious separation of the Jews and the Samaritans, a special Samaritan dialect was evolved, but its literature can not be considered Jewish. To the eastern Aramaic, whose most distinctive point of difference is “n” in place of “y” as the prefix for the third person masculine of the imperfect tense of the verb, belong the idioms of the Babylonian Talmud, which most closely agree with the language of the Mandæan writings. The dialect of Edessa, which, owing to the Bible version made in it, became the literary language of the Christian Arameans—bearing preeminently the title of Syriac—was certainly also employed in ancient times by Jews. This Syriac translation of the Bible, the so-called Peshiṭta, was made partly by Jews and was intended for the use of Jews; and one book from it has been adopted bodily into Targumic literature, as the Targum upon Proverbs.

For detailed information concerning the Aramaic literature of the Jews, see the respective articles. Only a summary is proper here, as follows:

  • (1) The Aramaic portions of the Bible already mentioned.

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