Since the Talmud is such a fundamental work in Judaism, why wasn’t it written in Hebrew, like the Bible and the Mishnah? Isn’t Hebrew considered “the holy tongue”?
Before we get into why the Talmud was written in Aramaic, a brief overview of the history of the language is in order.
Aramaic is an ancient language that has been around for over 3,000 years. It was the official language of the first Aramean states, and later became the common language, or lingua franca, of the Assyrian and Persian empires.
There is even a sprinkling of Aramaic in the Bible. One example is the phrase yegar sahaduta, spoken by Laban the Aramean (Genesis 31:47).
In fact, the Jerusalem Talmud1 notes that Aramaic is found in all three sections of the Bible: the Torah (five books of Moses),2 Nevi’im (prophets)3 and Ketuvim (writings).4
Eventually, during the Middle Aramaic period (approximately 200 BCE–200 CE), Aramaic began to split into two major groups of dialects, the Eastern and Western Aramaic languages.5
The Western Aramaic languages were used largely in the area that was under Roman (and later Byzantine) rule. The Jerusalem Talmud, composed in Israel, is written in a Western Aramaic dialect. The Eastern Aramaic languages flourished in the Persian Empire, and as a result the Babylonian Talmud, written in Persian-dominated Babylon, is in an Eastern Aramaic dialect. 6
During the Mishnaic era, the translations of the Bible known as Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan were written in Western Aramaic. According to some, these Aramaic translations of the Torah (targumim) were originally part of the oral tradition going all the way back to Moses at Mount Sinai.7
When the Jews returned to Israel from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt the Second Temple, they spoke mostly Aramaic. Hebrew, the “holy tongue,” was reserved for holy matters, such as prayer, and was not used for ordinary social and commercial activities.8 The Talmud was written in Aramaic, the language of the masses, so that it would be accessible to all. After all, the goal of study is to understand what has been learned so that it can be incorporated into our lives.
From Aramaic to Arabic
Later, during the Islamic conquests, Aramaic was overtaken by Arabic as the common language of the Middle East. That’s why some of the greatest Jewish works, like those of Rabbi Saadiah Gaon and Maimonides, were written in Arabic.
Fulfilling a Mitzvah
The very last mitzvah in the Torah is the obligation for every Jew to write a Torah scroll, as the verses state, “Now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.”9 The Talmud explains that these verses indicate an obligation for every person to write the whole Torah. (For more on how one fulfills that mitzvah nowadays, see here).
In a fascinating talk, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that writing the Talmud in Aramaic was a fulfillment of this mitzvah. How?
The eminent Talmudist Rabbi Asherben Yechiel (c. 1250–1327), known as the Rosh, writes that in previous eras, when we were forbidden to write down the Oral Law, a Torah scroll was the only text that Jews could actually use for study. And so, it was also the only way to fulfill this mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll. Nowadays, however, when it is permissible to write down the Oral Law, and the Torah scroll is stored in the synagogue for public readings rather than used as a study text, it is possible that the obligation of writing a Torah scroll can also be fulfilled by acquiring other holy books that can be used for study.10
And so, when the sages wrote their works in Aramaic or Arabic, they weren’t just being practical; they were fulfilling the mitzvah of writing Torah. For after all, the mitzvah is to write Torah in a way that people can learn and understand. If most Jews spoke or understood Aramaic or Arabic, then that was the language to be used to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Torah.11
The mitzvah of writing a Torah applies not only to publishers and authors, but to every person. It is for this reason that the Rebbe constantly encouraged people to buy Jewish texts for their homes (at the very least, the basics like Chumash, Mishnah, Talmud, Jewish law) in a language that they could learn and understand. The Rebbe also made this mitzvah one of his 10-point mitzvah campaigns.
So now that you know why the Talmud was written in Aramaic, it’s time for you to go out and get your own Jewish books. Not only will you be doing a mitzvah, you may even end up learning something new!
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