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    Aramaic & the angels

    The angels know no Aramaic. That is the assertion of Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud (Shabbat 12b, Sotah 33a). The passage in Tractate Shabbat reads:

    “Rabbah b. Bar Chana said: When we followed R. Eleazar to inquire after a sick person, sometimes he would say to him (in Hebrew), ‘The Omnipresent visit thee in peace’; at others, he said (in Aramaic), ‘The Omnipresent remember thee in peace’. But how might he do thus: did not Rav Y’hudah say, One should never petition for his needs in Aramaic; and R. Yochanan said: When one petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels do not heed him, for they do not understand Aramaic? – An invalid is different, because the Divine Presence is with him” (Tractate Shabbat, Soncino translation, p. 48).

    All these rabbis spoke Aramaic, which was the leading tongue of the region from about 700 BCE to 700 CE with Palestinian and Babylonian Jewish versions. Rabbi Y’hudah (bar Illai, mid-2nd cent. CE) and R. Yochanan (ben Nappacha, 3rd cent. CE) were Palestinians. Rabbah b. Bar Chana (late 3rd cent. CE) came to Palestine from Babylonia to study in R. Yochanan’s academy and on returning home disseminated his teacher’s principles. R. Eleazar (b. Pedat, 3rd cent. CE) was born in Babylonia but migrated to Palestine, where he became associated with R. Yochanan.

    Why would they object to praying in Aramaic? Where did they get the idea that the angels were unable to assist the invalid because they did not understand the language? How could the angels, who were so highly esteemed in Biblical and Talmudic literature and so well endowed with knowledge, have a blind spot when it came to Aramaic? (According to Sotah 33a, Gabriel was an exception since he knew 70 languages).

    There seem to be two concerns – one with angels and the other with Aramaic.

    Since there is no normative Jewish doctrine of angelology, the common folk may have attached too much importance to angelic powers. In time of illness, patients and their families and friends might have clutched at straws, and the more rational circles might have felt that popular reliance on the angels had to be opposed.

    The more important issue is that of Aramaic. The problem is not so much that something stopped the angels from learning the language but there were fears that “the Jews” language – Hebrew – would be displaced (Neh. 13:24). The objection to Aramaic was therefore nationalistic: when people needed to pray they should use the language of the Bible. Prayers like the Amidah, which in theory could be said in any language (Sotah 33a), were so well known that there was little temptation to say them in Aramaic, but life-cycle events like illness were different.

    Even more important, Aramaic was the language of the common street and not elevated enough or pure enough to use in prayer. The people were therefore warned that if they tried Aramaic the angels would not be able to help and the prayers might not be effective.

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