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Aramaic: The Special Love Language Between Hashem and Am Yisrael

Why is so much of our liturgy and holy texts in Aramaic? When hearing a ketubah read aloud at a chuppah, we wonder why the need to struggle through an antiquated language. The typical answer offered is that Aramaic was the lingua franca for much of antiquity, and the Gemara and our tefillot are written in the language that people of the time universally understood. A typical response, though, is that we should recite these tefillot, and the ketubah should be rendered, in English, the lingua franca of the contemporary world.

I suggest a different answer based on a very puzzling statement of the Gemara recorded in Shabbat 12b. The Gemara teaches that the malachim do not understand Aramaic. This teaching is most puzzling since if Hashem “programs” malachim to understand other languages, why did He not program them to understand Aramaic?

The key to unlocking the meaning of this Gemara is a phenomenon my generation will readily understand. My parents and many of my friends’ first-generation born-in-America parents spoke to each other in Yiddish when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying. Chacham Yitzhak Yosef once remarked how his parents, Rabbanit Margalit and Chacham Ovadia, spoke to each other in Arabic when they did not want their children to understand what they were saying. Russian-speaking Jews relate how their parents talked to each other in Yiddish when they did not want others to understand. My friends’ European-born parents would speak Polish or Hungarian when they did not want their children to understand the conversation.

In the same manner, Hashem programs malachim to be ignorant of Aramaic so that we Jews have a unique love language that only Hashem and we understand. Our relationship with Hashem is often compared to that of a husband and wife. Just as many couples have their own particular language of communication between them, so too Hashem maintains a special language reserved for conversation conducted only between Him and us.

The potency of Aramaic explains why the majesty of the Gemara works best in Aramaic. It explains why the mysteries of the Zohar are revealed only in Aramaic.

Seeing the potency of Aramaic, we understand why the halacha believes that Aramaic tefillot (such as Yekum Purkan in the Ashkenazic tefillot and Selichot such as Machei UMasei) should not be recited without a minyan (Mishna Berura 101:19 and 581:2, Teshuvot Yechave Da’at 3:43, and Yalkut Yosef Orach Chaim 581:14).

The Tanach and Gemara compare our relationship with Hashem to many types of relationships. Other comparisons are the master-servant relationship and a parent-child relationship. Although the most fragile of relationships, a married relationship is also the highest possible connection. Thus, the power of a minyan is needed to recite tefillot in Aramaic.

We also understand why the ketubah is written in Aramaic. The terms of the document that ensures the enduring stability of a couple should only be in Aramaic. Far from being an archaic and outdated practice, it expresses an incredibly deep and powerful idea.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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