Trying to unravel the mysteries of Aramaic is like
embarking on an odyssey across the deserts,
mountains and valleys of the Middle East and onwards
to Europe and North America.
It is an intellectual adventure that leads to an
array of secular scholars, devout clergy and laymen
- Jewish and Christian - who are experts in the
history of these Semitic languages, which in some
places still survive.
They tell of Israeli rock groups that sing modern
Aramaic songs, of popular radio and TV programs in
Aramaic or Syriac broadcast in Canada, the US and
Scandinavia and of remote villages in Syria and
Iraq, where Aramaic, rather than Arabic, is the
Aramaic is revered by Jews because it alternates
with Hebrew in the later books of the Bible, is the
Talmud's principal tongue and comprises several of
Judaism's most important prayers, including the
mourners' kaddish. Christians respect it as the
language spoken by Jesus Christ and his apostles,
while its eastern version, Syriac, is used in the
liturgies of the ancient churches of Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish Jews brought Aramaic with them from northern
Iraq, Iran and Turkey to Israel, where it is still
spoken at home by the older generation, in much the
same way Ashkenazi Jews speak Yiddish with their
parents or grandparents. But they also regard it as
evidence of their being descendants of the "Ten Lost
Tribes" who were deported by the Assyrians nearly a
century before the two remaining tribes of Judea
were expelled by the Babylonians.
Hezy Mutzafi, an expert in Aramaic, contends that
contemporary Aramaic is in danger of extinction, as
the younger generation of families that have left
the Middle East assimilates linguistically.
Prof. Geoffrey Khan of Cambridge University's
Faculty of Oriental Studies has been mapping the
neo-Syriac dialects linguistically for fear they may
soon disappear. Mutzufi, who teaches Aramaic at Tel
Aviv University, learned several of them and can
converse fluently in each. Estimates of the number
of Aramaic speakers in the world range from 500,000
to five million.
The head of the National Organization of Kurdish
Jews in Israel, Avraham Simantov, interviewed in his
Jerusalem office, said he takes pride in the fact
that his people "preserved the language of the
Targum," referring to the monumental translation of
the Torah into Aramaic, which is known as Targum
Onkelos. The latter evidently is a misnomer,
however. Experts believe this term was erroneously
adopted from the Greek translation by Aquila, a work
cited in both the Jerusalem Talmud and in Christian
Most scholars credit Rav Joseph, a third-century
Babylonian scholar, and his students with having
produced the authorized Aramaic translation
attributed to Onkelos (a name possibly derived from
"We read the Torah twice in our synagogues," said
Simantov, "Once in Hebrew and once in Aramaic. This
is because the leader of the congregation must be
sure everyone present understands the text."
Simantov, who is the executive director of the
Prazot housing company, arrived in Jerusalem from
Kurdistan in 1951 with his family.
"My Aramaic made it easy for me to pick up Hebrew,"
he said, recalling that he was admitted to
Jerusalem's elite Ma'aleh school, where many of the
teachers were German Jews and where he made a swift
transition from a quasi-medieval lifestyle to a
modern Israeli one.
Unlike Jerusalem's Kurdish Jews, who speak Aramaic
at home and Hebrew outside, their compatriots who
settled in other parts of Israel use Aramaic in all
facets of their daily lives.
"Generally speaking," Simantov explained, "our young
generation speaks Hebrew. But even though it is the
third generation since our mass immigration, its
members still understand the language of the Targum.
And in our synagogues, especially in the
agricultural sector, they still alternate the text
of the Hebrew scriptures with that of the Targum."
IN NAZARETH, home of Atallah Mansour, the
distinguished Israeli journalist who was on the
staff of the Hebrew daily Haaretz for more than
three decades and now serves as a columnist for
Jerusalem's Arabic daily al-Quds, Aramaic is a
constant feature of the linguistic landscape,
especially its liturgical aspect.
He cited an unusual source book published 14 years
ago in Cairo by Izzat Zaki, in which the Nestorian
Christians describe themselves as "the children of
Israel" and claim they are the remnant of the Ten
Lost Tribes. Zaki contends that they do not marry
outside their religious faith and live in the most
defensible mountainous regions of Kurdistan. Zaki
quotes them as saying, "we use Aramaic just like the
Mansour refers to these exotic Christians in his
newly published book, Narrow Gate Churches, a
history of Christianity in the Holy Land and the
surrounding regions of the Middle East from the time
of Jesus to the present era. He invited the local
head of the Maronite Church, Abouna (Our Father)
Yusuf Issa, to explain his 1,000-member
congregation's integration of Syriac into its prayer
"Only members of the clergy are taught the Syriac
language," Abouna Yusuf said, noting that he learned
it as a seminarian in Rome.
"I don't speak it," he admitted, "but I understand
Abouna Yusuf pointed out that until a century ago,
there were many villages in what is now Syria where
Aramaic was the spoken language. Today, only three
are left, all of them relatively close to Damascus.
For political reasons, the Syrian authorities tried
to shield them from inquisitive foreigners,
especially foreign correspondents, but persistent
requests by BBC Television to produce a documentary
about their cultural traditions were eventually
"We pray in Syriac," explained Abouna Yusuf, "but
find it necessary to switch to Arabic more and
He equated Syriac with Aramaic, allowing for the
fact that it is a different dialect, but confessed,
"I am very proud to be able to speak the same
language in which Jesus Christ spoke."
Outside of prestigious universities like Cambridge
and Tel Aviv University, there are few, if any,
schools where Aramaic or Syriac is taught as a
language to read, write and speak.
This is the educational reality that confronts most
Jewish yeshiva students, whose primary goal is to
learn the contents and theological principles
expounded in the Talmud or the Gemara, as it is
called in Aramaic. They are not taught Aramaic
grammar, are not challenged with vocabulary
enrichment and are not required to converse in
Aramaic, despite the fact that the Talmud itself
consists of rabbinical discourse conducted 2,000
years ago in that language. Instead, they learn
Aramaic only in the Talmudic context and mainly by
"An experiment conducted at Cambridge to teach young
Orthodox Jews Aramaic as a classical language and
thereby enable them to peruse the Talmud's text
independently, without rabbinical guidance, ended in
failure," said Mutzafi.
"The boys were not adept at grasping linguistic
structures such as the verb categories or
grammatical usage that could be found in the ancient
At the same time, he noted that the range of words
used in the Talmud is "quite limited" to those that
reflect Jewish religious life and observance.
ARAMAIC MADE its debut 3,000 years ago as the
language of the ancient Arameans, the nation that
lived in the Bible's Padan-Aram and the Patriarch
Abraham's Aram Naharayim.
It served as the Assyrians' lingua franca soon
afterward and became their imperial language as well
as that of the Babylonians and Persians, all of whom
applied it to diplomacy and trade from India to
Ethiopia. Those within their respective imperial
realms who could not speak Aramaic could at least
read and understand it, one scholar said.
By the Second Temple period, 2,000 years ago,
Palestinian Aramaic was widely used by the Jews of
the Land of Israel. After the birth of Christianity,
its adherents developed their own dialect, which
differed somewhat from that of the Jews. But Aramaic
remained supreme in the Fertile Crescent until the
Muslim conquest in the seventh century, after which
it was gradually overtaken by Arabic.
The very name of the Syriac translation of the
Bible, the "Peshitta," is a derivative of the Hebrew
word pshat, or simplification.
Many of the common cognate words are easily
comprehensible to Hebrew speakers. For example, toda
raba ("thank-you") is pronounced with the accent on
the first syllable of each word rather than on the
second, as is the case in modern Hebrew.
During Aramaic's linguistic heyday, when it enjoyed
the same international status as English does today,
it not only split into Western and Eastern versions
(the former always known as Aramaic and the latter
as Syriac), but Syriac spawned countless dialects,
which were often unintelligible to close neighbors
who spoke the very same language. By then, the
alphabet used by the Jews to transcribe the Hebrew
language was the Assyrian one they had encountered
during their captivity, while the original one,
which was of Phoenician origin, was abandoned.
Syriac's linguists opted for a different alphabet.
One consequence of these diversions was that
Talmudic Aramaic was incomprehensible to Christians.
Instead, they used the various Aramaic dialects,
gradually incorporating foreign words from Greek and
A CHRISTIAN scholar based in Jerusalem, who also
insisted on anonymity, said the Aramaic- or
Syrian-speaking diaspora encompasses Canada, Sweden,
Norway, Australia and England. (This list was
extended by a secular colleague to include France,
especially Marseilles, Lebanon and the southern
reaches of the former Soviet Union.)
He listed the four main eastern churches in which
Syriac is the language of prayer as the Syrian
Jacobite, Syrian Catholic, Nestorian and Chaldean
churches (the latter previously known as the Church
Judean or Palestinian Aramaic was the dominant
language among the Holy Land's Christians until the
16th century, he explained, noting that their shift
to Arabic was very gradual - faster in the highlands
than in the valleys and plains.
A similar process occurred in Syria, Iraq and Iran,
where the descendants of the original Arameans and
the successive Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian
ethnic groups had converted to Christianity and
adopted the northwestern Mesopotamian dialect of
Aramaic, which is known as Syriac.
The pervasiveness of Aramaic was such that it
virtually replaced Hebrew as the preferred language
of the Holy Land's Jews, a declining number of whom
were familiar with the biblical tongue. This was
also true of their coreligionists in Babylon and the
surrounding regions of Mesopotamia - so much so,
this scholar noted, that the Book of Daniel, which
emerged from that milieu, "is more than 80 percent
Emanuel Doubchak, a linguist and translator who
emigrated to Israel from France, attributes the
spread of Aramaic in the ancient world to the fact
that its namesakes, the Aramaeans, were merchants
who plied the far-flung trade routes of the Fertile
Crescent and Mediterranean Basin.
"They did not engage in empire-building and never
had an empire of their own," he contended, "but
their language attained the status of being the main
linguistic vehicle for diplomatic discourse" and
international trade for nearly a millennium.
He credited Aramaic's universality with the fact
that many of the great philosophical, historical and
scientific works of the ancient world were
translated into it from Greek and Latin and thereby
were saved for posterity.
Despite the powerful cultural impact of Greek
language and culture during the Hellenistic period,
"Aramaic remained the dominant language of this
country and its square alphabet replaced the cursive
letters of the preceding Canaanite-Phoenician
writing system originally adopted by the Hebrews,"
The rise of Christianity and the fact that the New
Testament was written in Greek posed "an obstacle"
to Aramaic's local longevity, however. Concurrently,
the eastern Christians had adopted a variation of
the Assyrian alphabet, whose letters are reminiscent
of the Hebrew ones, but not enough to make them
legible to most Jews. The anonymous Christian
scholar from the Old City, however, was able to jot
them down in a jiffy.
My big fat Aramaic wedding
There is no better proof of modern Aramaic's
vitality than the spectacular weddings held by the
Jewish "Nash Didan" community, which hails from the
remote foothills of the Caucasus Mountains.
"Nash Didan" means "Our People" and its distinctive
music and dance have been immortalized by Nissan
Aviv, a brilliant composer and orchestrator who
arrived in Israel 55 years ago during the peak of
the "Nash Didan" immigration, and has devoted his
life to preserving and continuing this culture ever
since. In addition to the many CDs he's put out over
the years, Aviv was also the subject of a
documentary by Channel 1's Gil Sedan.
Soon after the late Naomi Shemer's Yerushalayim Shel
Zahav ("Jerusalem of Gold") became a hit on the eve
of the Six Day War, Aviv obtained her permission to
render it in Aramaic. Translated as Yerushalayim Ai
Dheba, it is a beloved staple at "Nash Didan"
Aviv was born in Urmia, an ancient city in Iranian
"We spoke Aramaic at home, Turkish on the street and
learned Persian at school," he said.
"I knew a fair amount of Hebrew when we came to
Israel because it was taught in our Jewish schools.
And partly thanks to my Aramaic, I was able to speak
like a sabra in no time."
Aviv's lyrics are written in modern Aramaic and his
songs not only draw audiences from the various
Aramaic-speaking communities in Israel - located in
Holon, Givatayim and Jerusalem - but are also played
on the Aramaic (or Syriac) radio and TV stations in
Australia, Canada and Sweden.
"Jerusalem of Gold is as popular abroad as it is
here," he said.
Aviv's music is based on three instruments: a drum
known as a dair'a, a five-stringed instrument
plucked like a balalaika or mandolin known as a kar
kavkazi and a Central Asian version of the cello
known as a kamanncha.
Aviv has won the unstinting acclaim of one of
Israel's leading experts in cognate Semitic
languages, Hezy Mutzafi, who speaks half a dozen of
the Aramaic and Syriac dialects fluently. Noting
that the "Nash Didan" community consists of "only a
few thousand" Israelis (its members constitute a
relatively small percentage of the influx of nearly
200,000 immigrants from Iran, Turkey and the
Caucasus), Mutzafi points out that it also is one of
the least known Jewish ethnic groups.
"Its focus is on culture, folklore and spoken
Aramaic," explained Mutzafi, referring to the latter
as lishan noshan or "our language."
Mutzafi singled out Aviv as one of the most
outstanding activists in the "Nash Didan" community,
a man who has contributed mightily to its spiritual
and cultural life.
Privately, Aviv is rather pessimistic about what the
future holds for the language and lifestyle he loves
and has tried to preserve.
"Our Aramaic is being forgotten," he said. "The
younger generation can understand it, but cannot
speak and in time, this too will be lost.
One project that gives Aviv hope is the Tel Aviv
University's development of an Aramaic dictionary.
"The trouble is that the project is enormous and the
funding available for it is minuscule," he said.
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