I am pretty sure the aramaic sections of davening were written in aramaic because it was considered necessary for people to understand what they were saying. If this is true, why don't we say those sections in languages that more people understand today, like English or Hebrew?

EDIT: The Metzudah siddur says that Uva Letzion has Aramaic in it so people could understand it and the Koren siddur says, similarly, that it is there because the kaddish section is an "act of study" and says that "Aramaic was for a long time the language of study" (the bold is mine). I did not find anything related to this issue in the Artscroll.

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    Old minhagim die hard. – Double AA Jan 30 '12 at 2:56
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    I know, but this is not a minhag like keeping a second day of yom tov in chutz laaretz, where there is no real negative effect (not one that I know of anyway). In this case, I think we have turned the aramaic sections into the opposite of what they are supposed to be. Instead of everyone being able to understand them, very few people know what they are saying. – 2345678876543 Jan 30 '12 at 3:12
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    A pet peeve of mine is when people who don't really understand Aramaic recite the traditional Aramaic nussach for Eiruv Tavshilin (Behadein eiruva yehei...) and Bittul Chametz (Kol chamira vechamia'a...). Since these declarations are all about one's intent they must be said in a language one understands. I highly doubt the person's eruv/bittul is valid if they don't know what they said. Sections like these should be said in a vernacular. – Double AA Feb 5 '12 at 20:03
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    @ShmuelBrill For that matter, it might have only developed here in the US and in Europe people might have davened from the yiddish/ladino translations too. – Double AA Feb 6 '12 at 0:08
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    @ShmuelBrill I think you're missing the important distinction between yachid and tzibbur. A yachid would daven in Yiddish if he couldn't understand aramaic. A tzibbur would be led in the 'original' Hebrew and Aramaic. This is why there used to be so many specially trained Chazzanim. The reason for this distinction is likely related to consideration B in avi's answer which applies strongest to a tzibbur. It could also be to encourage a yachid to learn the original for other reasons (ie 1 or 2 or 3 in avi's answer). – Double AA Feb 6 '12 at 0:19

I don't mean to open a can of worms here, but I believe that the answer I am about to provide is the truth.

Let's take a step back for a second and a re-think this question of languages in general.

There are vaguely, three reasons why we pray in Hebrew rather than the language we are born into.

  • 1a. It's the Language of Gd and the supernatural.
  • 2a. It's the historical language of the Jewish people. Thereby allowing any Jew from any country to communicate with us, and thus keep us unified.
  • 3a. It's the language the prayer was written in.

Then we have the question as to why some prayers are not in Hebrew. For this, we also have 3 general answers.

  • 1b. Angels only understand Hebrew, so this way we ensure our prayers go only to Gd.
  • 2b. So that the average person can understand it.
  • 3b. It's the language the prayer was originally written in.

When it comes to prayers not said in Hebrew, our common practice seems to be inconsistent. If the reason for saying a prayer is 2b, then there is no common practice to change any particular prayer into the language that most of the congregation speaks. Nobody in America says Kaddish in English, and nobody in Israel says Brich Shmei in Hebrew. However, if the reason for the prayers is 1b, then again we find many inconsistencies, with many extra prayers not said in Aramaic (for example, Barchu)

The explanations of 3a and 3b, also are not very satisfactory, because this just pushes the question back one step and asks why prayer X was written in language A instead of language B.

To me, this leaves only the following options for why a prayer is said in one language over an other.

  • 1a. It's the Language of Gd and the supernatural.
  • 1b. Angels only understand Hebrew, so this way we ensure our prayers go only to Gd.
  • 2a: It's the historical language of the Jewish people. Thereby allowing any Jew from any country to communicate with us, and thus keep us unified.

However, this question is only asking about prayers said in Aramaic and not prayers said in Hebrew or English, so we are left with only 2a as a valid answer.

The truth is, that Aramaic might have developed for an unknown number of reasons, and it may have died out as a spoken language on a regular basis. However, many of our texts and indeed our prayers, are writing in Aramaic. Aramaic was not only the language of Babylon, it was also the language of Israel, and all Jews come from families that at one point or another spoke Aramaic. Aramaic has as much a connection to the Jewish people as Hebrew does. If over the many centuries in Galut, we ditched Aramaic for the languages in which we were born, then many prayers would not be able to be said by any Jew passing through said foreign country. The unity of the Jewish people would be jeopardized. It's not the case that Aramaic only was the language of study, it still is. The Gemorah is and parts of Tanach are written in Aramaic and the language is needed to be part of the long history of Jewish life and learning.

The basic premise that Aramaic is not as important as Hebrew to the Jewish people both culturally and for the purpose of education, is in my opinion, a flawed premise. And you can see the falsehood of that premise in the manner in which Aramaic has been kept in both our Prayers and our most holy of Books.

  • You dismiss 1b out of hand, but there are good sources for it. (Not that I can cite them offhand.) – msh210 Feb 5 '12 at 16:41
  • @msh210 No he doesn't. He says it's not relevant to the question of translating an Aramaic prayer to English. – Double AA Feb 5 '12 at 17:16
  • @DoubleAA, well, "out of hand" was an exaggeration, but he dismisses it because of the argument "if the reason for the prayers is 1b, then again we find many inconsistencies, with many extra prayers not said in Aramaic". What I'm saying is that that argument is obviously not good enough, since there are in fact good sources for 1b. – msh210 Feb 5 '12 at 17:19
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    @msh210 There are very good sources for it, and it applies in some situations with certain ways of understanding particulars of the text. But as a general rule, it is not consistently applied to all prayers. But in this particular case, there is reason to believe that English is also not understood by the angels. I appologize if I implied that the rule itself isn't a real rule or reason. Can you help me remove that impression? – avi Feb 5 '12 at 18:34
  • Maybe add 1b to your list (only 1a and 2a, and then only 2a) of remaining possibilities? – msh210 Feb 5 '12 at 19:15

Not a comprehensive answer, but some sources indicate that Aramaic (לשון תרגום) has its own unique spiritual significance. (See Maggid Meisharim, Toldos, re:kaddish and, for a general discussion of Aramaic,מאמר קדמות הזהר להרד"ל, ענף החמישי.)

  • If you could find that online (eg at hebrewbooks.org) and link to it that would be wonderful. – Double AA Feb 1 '12 at 4:57
  • Here's the relevant page from the Maggid Meisharim: hebrewbooks.org/… – LazerA Feb 1 '12 at 5:06
  • And the sefer kadmus HaZohar from the Radal is here: hebrewbooks.org/21439 – LazerA Feb 1 '12 at 5:07
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    LazerA, Thank you. I took the liberty of editing the link into your answer. You should feel free to do this yourself in the future. – Double AA Feb 1 '12 at 5:08
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    You are misunderstanding the Maggid Meisharim. He is speaking of the future time, when "וימליך מלכותיה" will be fulfilled and all will be unified, including Hebrew (לשון הקודש) and Aramaic (לשון תרגום). – LazerA Feb 5 '12 at 20:08

Actually the reason it was written in Aramaic was not specifically for people to understand what they are saying, it was in order for the (Malachim) angels not to understand what we are praying for, and that reason still remains.

(Per Tosfiyos ברכות ג. כותבים שקדיש נאמר בלשון ארמית לפי שזו תפילה יפה ולכן תקנו אותה בשפה שמלאכי השרת לא יוכלו להבין את הנוסח)

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    Is it that the angels don't understand Aramaic or they only understand Hebrew? Nafka Minah for English and other vernaculars. – Double AA Jan 30 '12 at 19:06
  • Never was an angel, and do not know the answer, however Aramaic has a benefit of it being similar to Hebrew and there are Aramaic words in the Torah. acheinu.co.il/?categoryid=366&articleid=1236 – Gershon Gold Jan 30 '12 at 19:08
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    Just to note: This reason is rejected by the Tosfos you quoted in favor of the reason speculated in the question. – jake Jan 30 '12 at 19:42
  • The Rosh in Berachot 2:2 says that angels understand Aramic but they don't like the language (same with Arabic). – Hacham Gabriel Feb 1 '12 at 2:27
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    @Hacham Gabriel. Maybe I'm wrong, but he seems to be listing vernaculars. I don't see any other connection between Arabic and Aramaic. If this is true, then English should be valid as well. – 2345678876543 Feb 1 '12 at 4:22

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