Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Jews and Hebrew, Angels and Aramaic

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: What Language Do the Angels Speak? Must prayers be uttered in Hebrew? Plus: Were ancient Israelite spies the size of grasshoppers?
One of the heartening things about reading Daf Yomi, for me, has been realizing that this kind of alienation is not new to American Judaism; on the contrary, it has been the norm since ancient times. The average Jew even in the Second Temple period did not speak Hebrew at all, but Aramaic, or sometimes Greek. This fact is reflected in the Talmud itself: The laws of the Mishna are in Hebrew, but the commentaries in the Gemara are in Aramaic, a related but distinct language. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 7 of Tractate Sota, there was a brief reference to the targum, the synagogue official who used to translate the Torah reading sentence by sentence from Hebrew into Aramaic. “The translator is not permitted to begin the translation until the verse concludes from the mouth of the reader,” says Rabbi Zeira; clearly, the rabbis were concerned that neither reading nor translation get drowned out or garbled. I wonder why American synagogues never employ a similar method—perhaps because it would make the Torah reading too long?

If the Jewish people don’t speak Hebrew, the Talmud suggests that the angels in Heaven speak nothing but. “A person should never request in the Aramaic language that his needs be met,” according to Rabbi Yochanan, because “the ministering angels are not familiar with the Aramaic language.” This surprising statement reveals both the rabbis’ implicit belief in angels—a belief that has vanished without a trace from most contemporary Judaism—and their willingness to accept a pretty serious limitation on the angels’ understanding. (Some later commentators, feeling that an illiterate angel is a contradiction in terms, interpreted this passage as saying that the angels know Aramaic, they just don’t respect it.)
I suspect it is an exaggeration to say that "[t]he average Jew even in the Second Temple period did not speak Hebrew at all, but Aramaic, or sometimes Greek." The average Jew would likely have at least had some familiarity with the Hebrew Bible and there is some evidence that Hebrew remained a spoken language in this period. But our information is frustratingly limited. See the posts collected here.

Past post on the angels' knowledge of Aramaic are here, here, and here.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.