Lost in Translation
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Lost in Translation*

Jews have long had a special relationship with the Aramaic language. Though it bears a strong family resemblance to Hebrew, Aramaic came to be perceived as a quintessentially foreign tongue. During the latter part of the biblical era it became the language of international communication for the Assyrian and Persian empires, and proficiency in it was considered a prerogative of the Hebrew aristocracy. After the Babylonian exile its status was transformed and it became the day-to-day vernacular of Jewish communities in Babylonia, the Galilee and other localities. Passages in Aramaic were included in the biblical books of Ezra and Daniel. By the third century C.E. Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language and collections of Talmud and Midrash were then composed largely in Aramaic. All of this attests to an attitude of respect and affection for Hebrew’s sibling language.

It therefore seems natural that when the fourth-century sage Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat paid visits to the sick, he would sometimes offer a brief petition on their behalf in Aramaic, the vernacular tongue. And yet the rabbis of the Talmud found this practice problematic. They cited statements by prominent sages that one should never pray for one’s needs in the Aramaic language. Indeed, the great Rabbi Yoḥanan stated that "those who pray for their needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels will disregard them because the ministering angels do not recognize the Aramaic language."

In order to justify Rabbi Eleazar's practice, the Talmud had to posit that the gravely ill are an exceptional case, because the divine presence abides directly with them, so there is no need for ministering angels. At any rate, it would appear that for any other prayers the ban on Aramaic remains in force.

Rashi's commentary, reflecting the typically medieval credence in angelic (and demonic) powers, took the talmudic text at its face value. He described how the ministering angels are normally responsible for conveying our prayers past the heavenly “partition” into the divine inner sanctum. The Tosafot were troubled by the claim that angels could be ignorant of any language, but had no serious objection to the notion that they serve as intermediaries for our prayers.

Now Rabbi Yoḥanan's statement in the Talmud was disturbing to many students and scholars. How could angels not know Aramaic? And more importantly—why should it make a difference? Since when do Jews direct their prayers to angels? Have we not always prided ourselves that we have a direct line to the Almighty? The Jerusalem Talmud contrasted our relationship to God with the complex and roundabout bureaucratic procedures that were necessary before one could hope to gain access to a human government official; and concluded: "but the Holy One of Israel is not like that. He says: Whenever you are facing difficulties, do not call out for help to Michael or to Gabriel. Call on me directly and I will respond directly."

Maimonides included among his "thirteen articles of faith" the dogma that we should direct our worship to no one other than God alone— “not to stars, celestial spheres or angels.” Such beings, exalted though they might be, have no independent will and must not be addressed as intermediaries to God. Why, then, should Rabbi Yoḥanan or the Talmud care which languages the ministering angels understand? Many Jewish authors who were influenced by Maimonides' rationalist approach objected to the premises that seemed to underlie the Talmudic passage. Indeed, Maimonides omitted Rabbi Yohanan’s ruling about not praying in Aramaic from his law code, though it was included in other authoritative codes such as the Shulhan ‘Arukh.

These questions perplexed the Jews of Kairowan, North Africa in the eleventh century, and they turned for guidance to Rav Sherira Ga'on, the head of the Babylonian academy, noting that the academy itself had authorized many prayers composed in Aramaic. In his responsum, Rav Sherira cited numerous texts from the Bible and Talmud in which angels are described as acting on their own discretion, so that it is not unreasonable to petition them separately in one's prayers or to try to placate them, even as it customary to influence them by means of magical amulets and incantations. The Ga'on also pointed out, however, that several stories in the Talmud have those same angels speaking Aramaic! In the end, based on the texts and on his own experiences, Rav Sherira determined that Rabbi Yoḥanan's statement was not taken very seriously by the rabbis, and that the prevailing attitude in the academy opposed it. He could find no logic in the premise that the same angels who are able to fathom people's innermost thoughts were somehow incapable of mastering a simple language.

Among those who were upset by the theological implications of Rabbi Yoḥanan's statement was Rabbi Jacob Ibn Habib of Thessalonica. In the spirit of Maimonides, he found it unacceptable that Jews should direct their prayers to go-betweens or that the angels’ assistance should be a necessary step for ensuring that the prayer arrives at its destination. In light of all these difficulties, Rabbi Ibn Habib decided that Rabbi Yoḥanan's statement cannot be understood literally, but must be interpreted as an allegory about the appropriate attitudes toward prayer. The angels symbolize faith in the power of our prayers to overcome all the cosmic and spiritual obstacles that stand in the way of their success. For prayer to be a truly transformative experience it must be recited with sincere fervour, symbolized by the holy Hebrew tongue, the language in which the world was created. Only then will the metaphoric angels convey our words to the presence of the Almighty.

If, however, the act of praying is reduced to a mechanical ritual performed without real thought or serious intention—symbolized here by the use of the everyday vernacular, Aramaic—then those "ministering angels" will filter out the meaningless words and not carry them through to their fulfilment. This, according to Ibn Habib, was what Rabbi Yoḥanan really meant to teach when he invoked the image of the angels disregarding or not understanding Aramaic prayers.

There were however other ancient Jewish sages who assigned the angels a very precise role in the channeling of prayers to the divine throne. One midrash noted that Jewish congregations hold their services at different times of day, so that a special angel is responsible for waiting until they have all finished, then compiling the individual prayers and fashioning them into crowns or wreaths to place atop the head of the Holy One.

The mystical tradition identified this compiler as Sandalfon—the very same angel who inspired a remarkable tribute by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Have you read in the Talmud of old,
In the Legends the Rabbins have told
...Of Sandalphon, the Angel of Glory,
Sandalphon, the Angel of Prayer?...

From the spirits on earth that adore,
From the souls that entreat and implore
In the fervor and passion of prayer
From the hearts that are broken with losses,
And he gathers the prayers as he stands,
And they change into flowers in his hands,
 Into garlands of purple and red...

It is but a legend, I know—
A fable, a phantom, a show,
Of the ancient Rabbinical lore;
Yet the old mediaeval tradition,
The beautiful, strange superstition,
But haunts me and holds me the more.

What a poignant and moving spiritual yearning is given voice here!

But then again, Longfellow composed his verse in American English, not in Aramaic.

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 20, 2015, p. 11.
  • For further reading:
    • Appel, John J. “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Presentation of the Spanish Jews.” American Jewish History 45 (1956 1955): 20–34.
    • Arvin, Newton. Longfellow, His Life and Work. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1977.
    • Ginzberg, Louis. Legends of the Jews. Edited by Paul Radin. Translated by Henrietta Szold. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2003.
    • Liebes, Yehuda. “Hebrew and Aramaic as Languages of the Zohar.” Aramaic Studies 4, no. 1 (2006): 35–52.
    • Malkiel, David. “Between Worldliness and Traditionalism: Eighteenth-Century Jews Debate Intercessory Prayer.” Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal 2 (2003): 169–98.
    • Poirier, John C. The Tongues of Angels: The Concept of Angelic Languages in Classical Jewish and Christian Texts. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen Zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe 287. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010.
    • Shapiro, Marc B. “Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition.” Maimonidean Studies (2000): 61–108.
    • ———. The Limits of Orthodox Theology: Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles Reappraised. The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization. Oxford and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.
    • Smelik, Willem F. Rabbis, Language and Translation in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
    • Swartz, Michael D. Mystical Prayer in Ancient Judaism: An Analysis of Maʻaseh Merkavah. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1992.
    • Yahalom, Joseph. “Angels Do Not Understand Aramaic: On the Literary Use of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic in Late Antiquity.” Journal of Jewish Studies 47, no. 1 (1996): 33–44.