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Ancient Judeo-Aramaic
Description by Isaac Mayer

Smashmouth's "All Star!" translated into Ancient Judeo-Aramaic

Perhaps the first Diaspora Jewish language was the pre-Islamic Middle Eastern lingua franca, Aramaic. 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 in the ancient Near East from Nubia to India.

During the First Commonwealth Era (c. 1000–586 BCE), the majority of Judeans did not speak Aramaic, but officials and politicians knew it on account of its international usage. In II Kings 18:26, the officials Eliaqim, Shebna, and Yoaḥ ask the Assyrian general to speak in Aramaic rather than "Judean" (here meaning Hebrew) when discussing political matters. Accordingly, very little Aramaic is found in pre-exilic texts — a place-name in Genesis 31:47 and a single verse in Jeremiah 10:11. This began to change with the trauma of the Babylonian exile.


The first attested Judeo-Aramaic texts, which largely fit into the forms of the Imperial Aramaic lingua franca of the Persian Empire, are from Elephantine/Yev, a Judean settlement in Egypt, in around the year 530 BCE. The books of Ezra (c. 4th cent. B.C.E.) and Daniel (165 B.C.E.) — Ezra 4:8-6:18 and 7:12-26, and Daniel 2:4-7:28 respectively — feature large portions in Aramaic. Apocryphal works like the books of Enoch and Tobit, known only in translation before being found in Qumran, were also originally written in Aramaic.


As the Seleucid and Roman Empires expanded and Aramaic shifted from an official language to a common spoken language, it began to gradually split into many dialects, in a similar process to that of Latin in medieval Europe or Arabic in the medieval Middle East. Jewish Aramaic divided into two groups of dialects — Western (spoken in the land of Israel) and Eastern (spoken in Babylonia).

Quick Facts

Names of language 

  • Endonyms:

    • Aramit (Biblical, Targumic)

    • Arami (Eastern)

    • Sursi (Western)

  • Hebrew Exonyms

    • Lashon Arami

    • Aramit

    • Targum

  • English Exonyms

    • Aramaic

    • Chaldaean/Chaldee (obsolete)


Territories and times where it was spoken

  • Imperial/Biblical Aramaic: the entirety of the Fertile Crescent, as a lingua franca

  • Western dialects — Judean and Galilean

    • Judean Judeo-Aramaic is underrepresented, but most sources date from the first and second centuries CE

    • Galilean Judeo-Aramaic was spoken until c. 700 CE

  • Eastern dialects — Babylonian (Mesopotamian)

    • Babylonian Talmud texts were standardized c. 600 CE.

    • Gaonim switched to Judeo-Arabic c. 928

    • In Kurdistan, did not go extinct — evolved into Neo-Aramaic dialects

  • Targumic and Zoharic — constructed forms between Western and Eastern norms, possibly never spoken natively.

Estimated # of speakers

  • in c. 500, approx. two million in Babylonia. Population under debate in the West.

  • Today, extinct as spoken language, used as a liturgical language by Jews all over the world



well-established liturgically, extinct spoken

Writing systems

  • Ashuri square script (same as Hebrew)

  • Either Tiberian sublinear (same as Hebrew) or Babylonian supralinear vocalization


  • Some biblical texts

  • Much of rabbinic literature

  • Some archaeological sources


During the period of the Talmudic sages, the most publicly used Aramaic texts were the targumim. The term targum, literally meaning “translation” in Hebrew, refers to an Aramaic translation of the Bible. Targumim vary from the relatively literal Targum Onkelos on the Torah to the midrashic paraphrases of the Targum Jonathan on the Prophets. The targumim on Writings, unknown in the Talmudic era, were written later and will be discussed below. In the era of the Talmudic sages, a translator or meturgeman recited the targum after each verse of the Torah and the prophetic readings, a practice still preserved by Yemenite Jews to this day. The term targum grew so associated with Aramaic that the Mishnah (M. Yadayim 4:5) refers to the Biblical Aramaic portions of Ezra and Daniel as targum she-b-’Ezra v-she-b-Daniel — the targum that is in Ezra and Daniel. Modern Yiddish speakers refer to Aramaic as targum-loshn — the Targum language. In fact, for many Yiddish speakers, the equivalent to the English idiom “it’s all Greek to me” would be s’iz targum-loshn — “it’s Aramaic.”


Less of the Talmud than you might think is actually written in Aramaic. Both the Talmud Yerushalmi (or Palestinian Talmud) and Talmud Bavli (or Babylonian Talmud) are structured around the Mishnah, almost exclusively written in Hebrew, with commentary referred to as the gemara. The gemara is what differs between the two. There are two different kinds of gemara — hilkhta (Hebrew: halakha) and aggadta (Hebrew: aggadah). Hilkhta, which makes up more than 70% of the gemara, is mostly structured around comparing and contrasting rabbinic legal texts, many of which are written in Hebrew, using a framework largely written in Aramaic. This means that halakhic material in the Gemara might look like it has a lot of Aramaic, but once a student understands a few key phrases one can otherwise get by on Hebrew alone. This is not true for the remaining portion, the narrative aggadta, which is largely written in Aramaic. 


Some of the Aramaic passages in the Talmud are found in both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. This can be very helpful for seeing some of the differences between the dialects. Here is an Aramaic passage found in both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi.

Judeo-Aramaic Talmud Passages

Outside of the Talmud and Targumim, our main sources for Judeo-Aramaic texts include collections of midrashim and piyyutim for western dialects, and Gaonic works and magic bowls for eastern ones. Midrashim, or rabbinic extensions of Biblical narratives, were rarely written down in Babylonia, but in the West they were collected into many major works. Western Aramaic piyyutim, or sacred poetry, is an under-studied field, but a fascinating one, characterized by extensive loanwords from Greek. The Gaonim were sages who lived in Babylonia in the time after the Talmud was compiled, and much of their work was written in Aramaic. Finally, magic bowls, also called incantation bowls or demon traps, were a popular type of folk magic among Babylonian Jewry. A bowl would be inscribed in Aramaic, sometimes including Biblical verses, magical names, and even illustrations of demons, and buried upside-down at the door of the home. Since our Talmudic manuscripts are copied and rewritten, these bowls are one of the only first-hand sources we have for Aramaic as it was used at the time it was written.

magic bowl.png

Judeo-Aramaic is written in the same script as Hebrew, and nowadays vocalized the same way. This was not always the case, though. In the Cairo Geniza, as well as in Yemenite manuscripts up until the eighteenth century, Aramaic texts were written using Babylonian supralinear (meaning: above the line) vocalization. This vocalization system, originally used for Hebrew as well as Aramaic, became a marker of Aramaic text in manuscripts (such as Targum collections) that used both. For an example, see the following excerpt from BL Or 9913, a 19th-century Yemenite manuscript of haftarot and their targumim. The highlighted part is Aramaic.

yemeni manuscript.png

Because of the ritual significance of Ancient Judeo-Aramaic, it continued to be used as a written language long after it stopped being a spoken one. Some of the most important works in what some call Literary Aramaic include the targumim on the books of Writings, an original mystical work, the Zohar, and several other important liturgical texts.


The targumim on Writings are on the Five Scrolls, the Poetic Works, and Chronicles. There are no targumim on Ezra-Nehemiah and Daniel, perhaps because of the Aramaic content already within them. These targumim are closer to the Western than the Eastern norm but feature their own unique aspects, such as increased influence from Syriac (Christian Aramaic), as well as elision of guttural consonants.


The Zohar, the foundational work of modern Kabbalah, is written in a unique form of Aramaic that combines Western and Eastern forms. The Zohar was almost certainly written in Aramaic for the opposite reason that the targumim were — by the time it was popularized, Aramaic was an extinct language only known to scholars. The Zohar, aspiring to be an esoteric work, was written in Aramaic to make it less accessible. According to traditional interpretations, the Zohar was written by the tanna R. Shimon bar Yoḥai. But its language is substantially different from Western Aramaic norms, and in any case most of the attested Talmudic writings of R. Shimon bar Yoḥai are in Hebrew.

Had Gadya
fun fact — unique translation.png

Important liturgical texts such as Aqdamut Milin and Ḥad Gadya are also considered Literary Aramaic. Aqdamut Milin, written by R. Meir ben Yitzḥak of Orleans, is part of a genre of poems called meturgeman-piyyutim. In Ashkenazi circles, the custom of reciting the targum was lost for most days but preserved specifically for days on which great miracles occurred — the revelation at Sinai on Shavuot and the splitting of the sea on the seventh day of Pesach. Meturgeman-piyyutim were originally recited as an introduction or interpolation to the targum on these days. Once the custom of reciting targum on these days was lost, the poem was preserved, and in some rites it is still recited after the first verse — when the targum would be read! 


Ḥad Gadya is a popular poem, a cumulative song recited at the end of the Pesach seder. First published in Prague in 1590 with a Yiddish translation, it is the most recent standard addition to the Haggadah. It is written in quite frankly bad Aramaic, incorrectly conjugating verbs (for instance “sold” זַבִּין instead of the intended “bought” זְבַן) and using unnecessary Hebrew terminology (for instance “the Holy Blessed One” as Hebrew הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא instead of Aramaic קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא). But its odd yet engrossing narrative of small actions leading to great consequences has been inspiring for generations of artists, from the Soviet artist El Lissitzky to the Israeli singer and peace activist Chava Alberstein to actor and comedian Jack Black.


To this day, Ancient Judeo-Aramaic is still studied in scholarly contexts and read and recited in yeshivas around the world. It can be found in ketubot (marriage contracts) as well as in famous liturgical works such as the Kaddish and Kol Nidrei, recited daily and annually in Jewish communities. Its influence on modern Hebrew is substantial, with commonly used phrases like lav davka לָאו דַּוְקָא (not necessarily), 'i efshar אִי אֶפְשָׁר (impossible), and even glidah גְּלִידָה (ice cream, from the Aramaic glida גְּלִידָא, ice) directly deriving from it (although glidah also demonstrates simultaneous influence from Italian gelato). In recent years, some people have used Ancient Judeo-Aramaic for comedic purposes, such as translating Smash Mouth’s “All Star!” into it. Although instances like this are rare, and Judeo-Aramaic is no longer spoken beyond its modern Neo-Aramaic form, its staying power as a scholarly and sacred language is clear.



  • Sokoloff, M. 2020. A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic. 2nd ed. Gefen Publishing. 

  • Sokoloff, M. 2017. A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. Gefen Publishing. 

  • Jastrow, M. 1895. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature; with an index of Scriptural quotations. "Jastrow's Dictionary." Jewish Publication Society.

  • The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon —

To cite: Mayer, Isaac. n.d. Ancient Judeo-Aramaic. Jewish Language Website, Sarah Bunin Benor (ed.). Los Angeles: Jewish Language Project. Attribution: Creative Commons Share-Alike 4.0 International.

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