The Gemara (the Bavli and Yerushalmi) are the fundamental texts that we possess of the Oral law. Why were they written in Aramaic?

At first glance, Ravina and R' Ashi probably knew that this will be the fundamental text for the rest of Jewish history. Why didn't they write it in Hebrew, considering that the Tanach and Mishnayos were already written in Hebrew.

In comparison, no major Halachic work came out in Yiddish or Ladino (except for the Me'am Loez) over the past hundreds of years of use.

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    Do you think that the book of Daniel being in Aramaic has any bearing or possible answer to this question? Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 20:10
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    In contradistinction to my comments on your other related question (judaism.stackexchange.com/q/13278/5), the Talmud was a collection of colloquial and informal exchanges and discussions on the subjects therein; (Many may have been more formal, and certainly we generally assume that specific word choices were made deliberately, however, and maybe because of this) as a result, the editors of the Talmud probably felt no need to translate it into Hebrew. (I have no sources for any of these comments, hence they are not full answers.)
    – Seth J
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 20:13
  • I'm merely speculating and playing "I wonder if..."
    – Seth J
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 20:29
  • To build on what @SethJ said, wouldn't it be better to record what was actually said than to introduce possible translation error into what would become foundation texts for us? All translation is imperfect. Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 20:45
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    @SethJ, I think you're right. The key difference between the Mishnah and the Gemara is that the Mishnah is basically a compilation of halachos without reasons (somewhat like the Shulchan Aruch), while the Gemara provides the reasons, background, etc. So it makes perfect sense that the Mishnah, as a formal code of law, would be written in Hebrew, the formal language of Jewry; while the Gemara would be written in the common language of its time.
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 12, 2012 at 20:50

4 Answers 4


I'm posting this answer, not because I think it is true, but because I think it is a neat idea. (I am also not using the word "perhaps" when I should, to make it more compelling :) )

The Talmud tells us that Angels understand Hebrew but they do not understand Aramaic. Because of this, certain prayers are only said with a minyan when the Schechina is present.

The Mishna and associated writings were written in Israel at a time when Hebrew was a spoken language. So it makes sense that they were written in Hebrew.. but why was the Talmud Bavli written in Aramiac?

At the time of the Mishna, though Jewish sovereignty was at a low, and Judaism itself was threatened, there was still hope that the Jewish community could again flourish soon. However, by the time the Talmud Bavli was finished, it was clear to all that the Jewish people had lost all sovereignty and the exile was going to be a long and harsh one. The Bavli was therefore going to be used by the Jewish people in many foreign lands.

There is a concept that each land has it's own protecting angel, and that these angels are strengthened by the prayers of the Jewish people in Hebrew. They angels are able to "intercept" the prayer, and bring them before Gd and claim credit for the merits of the Jewish people in these foreign lands. This in turn makes the exile last longer, as those nations are given the "reward" to subjugate the Jews.

The Talmud was therefore written in Aramaic so that the Angels of Exile would not be able to intercept the learning of the Jewish people and prolong the exile. This is also why the language of the Jewish people outside of Israel has always been a language other than Hebrew, and why some say to only learn the Gemorah which contains everything.


The gemara is actually a mix of Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic.

  • Quotations from Mishnayot and braytot are mostly in Hebrew (except for some really old Tannaitic sources.)
  • Statements from named Amoraim are sometimes in Aramaic and sometimes in Mishnaic Hebrew, presumably quoted in the language they stated it.
  • Statements from the narrative voice of the gemara, known as the stama degemara, are usually in Aramaic. This might be from Ravina and Rav Ashi, or might be from later, from the 'stammaim' (perhaps Savoraim or perhaps even early Geonim).

I don't know if this was the intention, but the language is helpful in distinguishing the narrative glue from the other statements, almost as much as color coding or a different font would be helpful in this regard.

At the time, Aramaic was the lingua franca in the Jewish world, perhaps more so than Hebrew. Recall that they had a Meturgeman in the shul for leining, because many many people did not know Hebrew but did know Aramaic. They spoke Aramaic in their daily speech, and did so in the major Jewish population centers.

This was not the case after Jews spread out to other countries. While one could point to certain Judeo-Arabic works, such as the Moreh Nevuchim, written in Judeo-Arabic, I would guess there were many Jews who did not speak Judeo-Arabic at the time, and so they turned to Hebrew and Aramaic as a common tongue.

Here is a discussion of Judeo-Arabic literature, including some halachic literature. One interesting quote:

While many halakhic responsa by Spanish Jews were penned in Arabic, legal compilations were composed in Hebrew or hebraized Aramaic. Even Maimonides, who wrote most of his works in Arabic, turned to Hebrew for his magnum opus, the compendium of Jewish law entitled Mishneh Torah or Ha-Ḥibbur. However, as an aid to making his great compilation well-arranged and complete, he prepared in Arabic a list of the 613 commandments before embarking upon his enterprise. He provided this propaedeutic because he had his own ideas, which differed from those of his predecessors, on the nature of the laws which ought to be included in the 613. He insisted, for example, on the need to distinguish between a biblical and a rabbinic prescription and to exclude general admonitions, such as "Be ye holy." By laying down these principles of selection he hoped to establish an unchallengeable list, a hope that was not fulfilled.

  • Note in his introduction to MT his reasons for writing in Hebrew are all pragmatic; nothing to do with any intrinsic holiness in the language (which he believed did not exist) or in any inherent advantage to learning in Hebrew.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented May 23, 2016 at 4:48

The Gemara discusses physical activities in a physical world - my cow falls into a pit. Loshen Kodesh is a spiritual language and is used for metaphysical concepts.

For example Devek is glue, in the not at all spiritual language of Ivrit. Devekus in Loshon Kodesh means 2 entities becoming one. Which is impossible in a physical context. If you put glue between 2 items you actually make them further apart, not closer.

For example today many Yeshivot still give classes in Yiddish so as not to dilute loshon hakodesh. Dilute meaning that the metaphysical words take on physical concepts. Like a white angel with wings

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    But the mishna also talks about a cow falling into a pit...
    – avi
    Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 14:36
  • It doesnt discuss it like the Gemarra does. See the Marharal on his ranking of Torah Mishna Gemara re Divneness
    – user1040
    Commented Jan 18, 2012 at 15:02

It's written in Aramaic because that was the language they spoke. We often overvalue Hebrew. At the time of the Tannaim and Amoraim, Hebrew had already been superseded. We must remember that Hebrew is written in Aramaic characters.

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    But then why weren't later works put out in their respective vernaculars (Yiddish, Ladino, etc. as noted in the question)?
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 6:27
  • The difference is that many of the other languages were not literary. Yiddish and Ladino did not become written languages until the 19th century. And in the late 19th century we do see the development of a Ladino musar (ethical) literature.
    – Jason
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 6:29
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    As that directly addresses the question, consider editing it into your post.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 6:32
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    Do you have evidence that asyrian letters are Aramaic letters?
    – avi
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 6:37
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    @Jason I think avi was suggesting that the current Hebrew letters are actually Assyrian in origin and not Aramaic.
    – Double AA
    Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 6:54

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