Aramaic is a closely related “sister language” of Hebrew — similar to the relationship of Spanish and Italian — written with the Hebrew alphabet. Aramaic was the lingua franca of large swaths of the Middle East. Many of the oldest, most familiar parts of Jewish liturgy are still recited in Aramaic, including
- the Kaddish (“Mourner’s prayer”)
- Kol Nidrei (“all vows,” recited on the eve of Yom Kippur)
- Ha Lahma ‘Anya (“this is the bread of affliction,” in the Passover Haggadah)
The rabbis who assembled the liturgy wanted to make sure that at least these most common prayers would be understandable to the majority of Jews who would recite them. Ironically, today Aramaic is almost a dead language. If the Jewish liturgy were being created today by the same logic, these major Jewish prayers would probably be written in English.
When the Talmud was redacted (ca. ), more Jews spoke Aramaic than Hebrew. This is why the Gemara (rabbinic commentary on the Mishnah) was written in Aramaic.