The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Yegar Sahaduta (Genesis xxxi: 47)
Prof. Michael Sokoloff
Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages
Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro
Our rabbinical scholars attached considerable importance to the Aramaic language, as can be seen in Midrash Genesis Rabba (ch. 84, section 14):
Rabbi Shmuel, the son of Nahman, stated: Do not hold Sursi lightly in your eyes. In the Holy Scriptures, God assigns this language considerable respect. A Sursi phrase appears in the Torah: "Yegar Sahaduta". In the Book of Jeremiah, there is a verse, which begins: "Kidna taimroon lehome . . . (x:11)." And in the Book of Daniel, we read: "The Chaldeans spoke to the king in Aramaic" (ii: 4).
In the above passage, the author of the Midrash refers to Aramaic as "Sursi" (in Greek, the language is called "Surisit"), that is, the language of Syria. The Mishnah terms Aramaic "the translation that appears in the Books of Ezra and Daniel" (Yadayim iv: 5). For many generations, the language was generally referred to as Chaldean, in accordance with the text quoted above from the Book of Daniel, although the term "Chaldean" is no longer used.
We initially encounter Aramaic as the language spoken by the Aramaic tribes who first appear in Assyrian historical documents dating back to the 12th century B.C.E. In the course of time, as the Aramaic presence expanded within the Assyrian empire, Aramaic became second in importance to Assyrian and eventually became the official language of commerce and diplomacy. Aramaic maintained and even consolidate its prominent position in the Babylonian and Persian empires that emerged after the collapse of the Assyrian empire. Under the Babylonians and Persians, Aramaic became a language that was spoken and written in the imperial territories stretching from India in the east to Abbysinia in the west.
When they were exiled from Babylon, the Jews not only learned the written and spoken forms of Aramaic, but replaced their national script, referred to in rabbinical sources, as "Hebrew script" or "wooden script" (ktav d'etz), with Aramaic letters, which are used until the present day. The increasing importance of Aramaic as the spoken language current among the Jews who were returning to the Holy Land was the primary factor behind the compilation of the Aramaic translations as early as the period of Ezra. As the rabbinical scholars state, "He read from the Book of Divine Teachings (Nehemia viii: 18) - this is a reference to the Torah. An explication of the Torah is a reference to the Aramaic translation (Megilla, p. 3b). The earliest known written Aramaic translations were discovered in Qumran and date back to the second generation B.C.E., while other Aramaic translations (such as Onkelos and Land of Israel) were composed in later centuries.
It is not suprising that our rabbinical scholars established the following in the Mishnah: "The translator into Aramaic should be allowed to translate one Torah verse at a time; with regard to the Prophets section of the Scripture, the translator may translate three verses at a time" (Megilla ch. 4, Mishnah 4). This custom was maintained in Ashkenazi communities on certain days of the year until the Middle Ages (see Tosaphot on Megilla p. 22b "One does not begin . . . " ["Ein mat'hilim . . ."]), and the custom is still observed in the Yemenite community to this very day.
Just as Aramaic rose to prominence among the Jews when it was the language of the surrounding society, the language lost its status when it was abandoned by the surrounding society, particularly with the rise of Islam and the shift to Arabic. Nonetheless, Aramaic continues to be used as a holy language second in status to Hebrew and is of central importance in Talmudic literature, in Midrashim and in the prayer book. Thus, Aramaic, with its three-millenia-long heritage, will remain a part of the tradition cherished by Jews everywhere. The third forefather of the Jewish people, Jacob, entered negotiations with his Aramaic father-in-law, Laban, and, in the course of these negotiations, the first Aramaic words "yegar sahaduta," entered our literature.
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