Aramaic and the Haggada

By law, a person may pray in any language he chooses during communal worship, but if praying alone should use Hebrew.

April 12, 2017 21:38
4 minute read.
Passover Haggada

‘Ethiopian Haggada’ from El Al, with paintings by Michal Meron. (photo credit: COURTESY REPRODUCTIONS)

An article by Philologos in the April 2017 issue of Mosaic has a surprising take on the fact that with the “Ha Lahma Anya” paragraph, the Passover Haggada commences with Aramaic. His theory is that “Ha Lahma Anya,” an invitation to the Seder, is directed to ordinary people, not to demons or evil spirits, who do not understand Aramaic.

I prefer to say that because Aramaic was the vernacular spoken by vast numbers of Jews in the late Second Temple period, an offer of Passover hospitality had to be in a language that people understood.

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Using a vernacular was one of the issues in the modernization of orthodoxy.

A 19th-century British chief rabbi who faced agitation for English prayers ruled that the synagogue service had to be in Hebrew, with no English except for the sermon, the Prayer for the Royal Family and, once a month, the Ten Commandments.

Maybe the chief rabbi was not aware that some congregations read the Book of Jonah in English on Yom Kippur – a European custom which some synagogues (for example in Australia) extended by reading haftarot in English on a number of other days.

Those who wanted more English noted the chief rabbi’s ruling but still complained that they could not follow the service. There were actually precedents for using the vernacular. Relying on a statement in the Mishnah Sotah that certain prayers could be said in any language, the London Sephardim said some of their liturgy in Ladino; all rites including the Ashkenazim used Aramaic for Kaddish as well as Kol Nidrei and parts of the Haggada; and in ancient times a meturgeman (translator) rendered scriptural readings in Aramaic.

The rabbis who opposed Aramaic used populist arguments against it.

In the Talmud, Rabbah bar Bar Hana said: “When we followed Rabbi Elazar to greet a sick person, he sometimes said in Hebrew, ‘God visit you in peace’ and at other times in Aramaic, ‘God remember you in peace.’ How come? Did not Rabbi Yehudah say, ‘One should not ask for his needs in Aramaic’? Rabbi Yohanan said: ‘When one asks for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels pay no heed, for they do not know Aramaic!’ – With an invalid it is different; God’s Presence is with him (and no angels are needed)” (Shabbat 12b; cf. Sotah 33a).

All these rabbis knew and used Aramaic – so how could they object to praying in it? There were four issues:

• The common folk believed in angels. In illness they clutched at straws, though rational people were wary of an angel cult. In time the liturgy even said that angels usher in the prayers. How can anyone claim that the angels do not know Aramaic? The text does not say yod’im, “know”, but makkirim, “esteem.” The angels knew Aramaic but did not have a high opinion of it.

• If Aramaic were allowed in heaven where it is believed that the angels dwell, it might displace Hebrew on earth (Nehemia 13:24), so people were told to pray in the language of the Bible. The Amida could be in any language (Sotah 33a) but it was so well known that there was no temptation to say it in the vernacular Aramaic.

However, those who prayed for the sick used common and not classical idiom.

• By law, a person may pray in any language he chooses during communal worship, but if praying alone should use Hebrew. Individuals need the help of the angels, who prefer Hebrew, but communal prayers go direct to God without angelic intervention.

• Aramaic, the language of the street, was not considered sufficiently elevated or pure for prayer, though it could be used for study. There were Aramaic phrases in the Bible and even biblical books and chapters, such as Daniel and Ezra, written in Aramaic.

Bible readings could be in Aramaic if rendered in Hebrew first. Some even said that the Torah was given to Moses in Aramaic as well as Hebrew. People were warned, though, that if they prayed in Aramaic the prayers might not work.

Later generations, schooled in the Targum and Talmud (in contrast to the Midrash, which is largely Hebrew), had a higher regard for Aramaic and used it for popular prayers like Kaddish.

The Passover Haggada itself could be read in any language one understood.

However, vernacular languages could only be second best and Jewish law opposes using them for statutory services, though personal prayers and non-statutory items like the piyyutim may be different (Arukh HaShulhan, Orah Hayyim 101:4, 185:2-3; 62:4).

Still, even the best translation has limitations; the Hebrew original has more flavor, precision and “Jewishness.”

Philologos raises a good problem, but the real issue is not whether we want to keep the demons out but whether the ordinary folk would understand “Ha Lahma Anya” if it were not in Aramaic.

The author is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney.

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