Jewish Aramaic

Description by Yona Sabar

The Aramaic language has been around for over three thousand years, beginning in the 11th century B.C.E as the official language of the first Aramean states in Syria. A few centuries later it became the official language, or lingua franca, of the Assyrian and Persian empires, covering vast areas, and gradually splitting into two major (groups of) dialects, Eastern and Western.

 

Biblical Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, and Rabbinic Aramaic

The first attested Jewish Aramaic texts are from the Jewish military outpost in Elephantine, ca. 530 B.C.E. Other Jewish Aramaic texts are the Books of Ezra (ca. 4th cent. B.C.E.) and Daniel (165 B.C.E.). Starting around 250 C.E., Bible translations such as the Targums of Onkelos and Jonathan began to appear. The division into Eastern and Western Aramaic is most evident in the Palestinian (Yerushalmi) Talmud (Western, completed ca. 5th century C.E.; and Midrashim, ca. 5th-7th centuries C.E.) and the Babylonian Talmud (Eastern, finished ca. 8th century C.E.).

With the Islamic conquests, Aramaic was quickly superseded by Arabic. Except for some occasional bursts such as the Book of Zohar and other kabbalistic literature (ca. the 12th cent), it almost ceased as a literary language, but remained as ritual and study language (see below). It continued its life as a spoken language until our days by the Jews and Christians of Kurdistan ("Eastern") and three villages (mostly Christians and some Muslims) in Syria ("Western"). Syriac-Aramaic is still used as a ritual language among many Near Eastern Christians.

Jewish Neo-Aramaic

The oldest literature in Jewish (and Christian!) Neo-Aramaic is from ca. 1600 C.E. It includes mostly adaptations or translations of Jewish literature, such as Midrashim (homiletic literature), commentaries on the Bible, hymns (piyyutim), etc. Jewish Neo-Aramaic may be divided into 3-4 major groups of dialects, some mutually intelligible, and others not or hardly so. Also, in a few towns both Jews and Christians spoke Neo-Aramaic, but using distinct dialects. The Neo-Aramaic-speaking Jews emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s, and their language was superseded by Hebrew.

Quick facts


Names of language:

Biblical Aramaic, Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Rabbinic Aramaic, Neo-Aramaic
 

Territories where it was/is spoken:

-originated: Babylonia, Iraq

-heyday: Kurdistan (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria)

-today: Israel

Estimated # speakers:
- 1900: 25,000 (?)
- 2019: 500? mostly elderly in Israel
 

Vitality:

Endangered
 

Writing systems:

Hebrew alphabet with some modification


Literature:

Mostly translations (tafsirs) of Bible, midrashim,  and piyyutim

 

Language family/branch:

Modern Semitic/Aramaic dialects

Aramaic is a close sister of Hebrew and is identified as a "Jewish" language, since it is the language of major Jewish texts (the Talmuds, Zohar, and many ritual recitations, such as the kaddish). Aramaic has been until our present time a language of Talmudic debate in many traditional yeshivot (traditional Jewish schools), as many rabbinic texts are written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Jewish Neo-Aramaic is both an "extension" of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (as can be seen from its hundreds of reflexes in Jewish Neo-Aramaic), and a Neo-Jewish language. The Jewish Neo-Aramaic texts are written in a Hebrew alphabet, like most Jewish languages, but the spelling is phonetic, rather than etymological (e.g. כמשא 'five', rather than חמשא, and שואא 'seven', instead of שבעא). As in other Jewish languages, many Judaic and even some secular terms are borrowed from Hebrew, rather than being inherited from traditional Jewish Aramaic, e.g., Hebrew עולם 'world', rather than Aramaic עלמא. The Hebrew loanwords were one of the major features that distinguished Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialects from their Christian counterparts, in addition to minor or quite major grammatical differences. Yet what may be a typical grammatical or lexical feature of a Jewish dialect in one place may be known elsewhere as a Christian feature.

Selected Bibliography (* = Basic References)

  • * Cohen, D. 1971. Neo-Aramaic. Encyclopaedia Judaica 12: 948-951.

  • Epstein, J. N. 1960. A Grammar of Babylonian Aramaic. Jerusalem / Tel Aviv.

  • Garbell, I. 1965. The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Persian Azerbaijan. The Hague.

  • Greenfield, J. C. 1995. Aramaic and the Jews. Studia Aramaica (JSS Supplement 4). Oxford. 1-18.

  • * Goldenberg, G. 2000. Early Neo-Aramaic and Present-Day Dialectal Diversity. JSS 45: 69-89.

  • * Hoberman, R. D. 1997. Modern Aramaic Phonology. In A. S. Kaye (ed.), Phonologies of Asia and Africa. 313-335.

  • Hopkins, S. 1991. Review of Studies in Neo-Aramaic by W. Heinrichs (ed.). JAOS 111: 789-790.

  • Hopkins, S. 1993. יהודי כורדיסתאן בארץ ישראל ולשונם [The Jews of Kurdistan in Eretz Yisrael and Their Language]. Pe'amim 56: 50-74.

  • * Hopkins, S. 1999. The Neo-Aramaic Dialects of Iran. In S. Shaked & A. Netzer (eds.), Irano-Judaica 4: 311-27.

  • Israeli, Y. 1998. The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Language of Saqqiz (Southern Kurdistan). PhD Dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

  • Mutzafi, H. 2000. The Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dialect of Koy Sanjaq (Iraqi Kurdistan): Phonology, Morphology, Text, and Glossary. PhD Dissertation, Tel Aviv University.

  • Sabar, Y. 1975. The Impact of Israeli Hebrew on the Neo-Aramaic Dialect of the Kurdish Jews of Zakho: A Case of Language Shift. Hebrew Union College Annual46: 489-508.

  • Sabar, Y. 1984. Homilies in the Neo-Aramaic of the Jews of Kurdistan for the Biblical Portions of Wayúi (Genesis), Beshallaú and Yitro (Exodus) (edited and translated into Hebrew with comparative Midrashic notes and glossary). Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

  • * Sabar, Y. 2002. A Jewish Neo-Aramaic Dictionary: Dialects of Amidya, Dihok, Nerwa and Zakho, Northwestern Iraq. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.

  • Sokoloff, M. 1990. A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of the Byzantine Period. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press.

  • Sokoloff, M. 2002. A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic of the Talmudic and Geonic Periods. Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press.

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