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What Language Do the Angels Speak?

Must prayers be uttered in Hebrew? Plus: Were ancient Israelite spies the size of grasshoppers?

Adam Kirsch
December 08, 2015
New Line Cinema
New Line Cinema

American Judaism has always had a language problem. Simply put, most Jews do not know enough Hebrew to understand the basic elements of a synagogue service, the prayers and the Torah reading. Many of us learn just enough to follow along in the prayerbook, but the full meaning of the words eludes us; others simply learn to mouth the prayers by rote; still others are silent during prayer. This is obviously a problematic situation; yet the obvious solution, to conduct services in English, is also far from ideal. Hebrew has been the holy tongue of the Jews for thousands of years, and to sever our connection with it entirely would mean giving up our claim on that tradition. So we muddle along, with different denominations and different synagogues offering various proportions of Hebrew and English, text and translation.

One of the heartening things about reading Daf Yomi, for me, has been realizing that this kind of alienation is not new to American Judaism; on the contrary, it has been the norm since ancient times. The average Jew even in the Second Temple period did not speak Hebrew at all, but Aramaic, or sometimes Greek. This fact is reflected in the Talmud itself: The laws of the Mishna are in Hebrew, but the commentaries in the Gemara are in Aramaic, a related but distinct language. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter 7 of Tractate Sota, there was a brief reference to the targum, the synagogue official who used to translate the Torah reading sentence by sentence from Hebrew into Aramaic. “The translator is not permitted to begin the translation until the verse concludes from the mouth of the reader,” says Rabbi Zeira; clearly, the rabbis were concerned that neither reading nor translation get drowned out or garbled. I wonder why American synagogues never employ a similar method—perhaps because it would make the Torah reading too long?

If the Jewish people don’t speak Hebrew, the Talmud suggests that the angels in Heaven speak nothing but. “A person should never request in the Aramaic language that his needs be met,” according to Rabbi Yochanan, because “the ministering angels are not familiar with the Aramaic language.” This surprising statement reveals both the rabbis’ implicit belief in angels—a belief that has vanished without a trace from most contemporary Judaism—and their willingness to accept a pretty serious limitation on the angels’ understanding. (Some later commentators, feeling that an illiterate angel is a contradiction in terms, interpreted this passage as saying that the angels know Aramaic, they just don’t respect it.)

But not all the rabbis agreed that the angels are ignorant of Aramaic. “And are the ministering angels not familiar with the Aramaic language?” the Gemara asks. Rabbi Yochanan goes on to mention an incident in which the Divine Voice itself spoke Aramaic. This was the occasion, described in detail in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, when the Roman Emperor Caligula ordered that a giant gold statue of himself be erected inside the Temple. This order from the mercurial, murderous emperor not only horrified the Jews, for whom it represented the ultimate blasphemy; it also frightened the Roman governor of Palestine, who knew that the Jews would put up a violent resistance. Wisely, he stalled the project, claiming that it would take years to build a statue worthy of the emperor; and in the meantime Caligula was assassinated.

When this happened, we read in Sota 33a, the High Priest heard “a Divine Voice from the House of the Holy of Holies that was saying: The decree that the enemy intended to bring against the Temple is annulled, and Gaskalgas has been killed and his decrees have been voided.” (This statement, the rabbis note, was made in Aramaic, proving that God does not disdain the language.) Later, it was determined that Caligula had been murdered at the exact moment this voice was heard. This is a fascinating moment in the Talmud, since it is one of the rare times that an event described by the rabbis is confirmed by independent source. Of course, Philo knows nothing about the Divine Voice; and the mangling of Caligula’s name into “Gaskalgas” suggests that, over the years, the transmitters of the Talmud forgot the correct Latin name of the emperor. They may not even have had a firm sense of who this Gaskalgas was or when he lived.

This question about the dialect of the angels comes during a long discussion of the proper language for performing certain Jewish rites. As we know from earlier chapters, the Bible prescribes an oath that a sota must swear before she undergoes the ordeal of the bitter waters. And “the portion of the sota,” the Mishna says in Sota 32a, can be recited “in any language.” What counts is that the woman understand what she is swearing to, so the priest can administer the oath in whatever language she speaks. The same flexibility applies to a number of other situations: the Shema prayer, the Amidah or standing prayer, and the Grace after Meals, as well as several types of oaths, can be spoken in any language. On the basis of this Talmudic dictum, it would seem that a prayer service conducted wholly or mostly in English should be halakhically acceptable.

This mention of the sota oath is the only thing that explains why the material in this chapter belongs in Tractate Sota. All the rest of the chapter—and it is a long and rich one, full of laws and aggadah—has nothing to do with the nominal subject of the chapter. Instead, the rabbis embroider a number of biblical stories, having to do with the Land of Israel and how the people came to conquer it. Take, for instance, the story in Numbers about how Moses sent spies into Canaan, and how they returned with frightening reports about the size and strength of the Canaanites. “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes,” the spies report.

But “Rav Meharshiya says: The spies were liars.” After all, how could the spies know whether the Canaanites thought the Israelites were as puny as grasshoppers? Wasn’t this a mere invention, designed to scare the people and get them to return to Egypt? But the Gemara rebuts this charge. In fact, the rabbis explain, what happened is that the spies hid themselves in tops of trees when they saw the Canaanites approaching; and “they heard the Canaanites saying: We see people like grasshoppers in the trees.” Thus it was the spies’ position, not their size, which made the Canaanites compare them to grasshoppers.

This kind of ingenious midrash adds new dimensions to the biblical text. Indeed, sometimes the rabbis will come up with entirely new details that are found nowhere in the text at all. For instance, the Bible tells us that the spies who brought back the evil report “died by the plague before the Lord.” (Joshua and Caleb, who contradicted the others, were the only ones spared.) But what form did this plague take? According to Rabbi Chanina bar Pappa, “This teaches that their tongues were stretched out and fell upon their navels, and worms were crawling out of their tongues and entering their navels, and out of their navels and entering their tongues.” This horror-movie scenario seems to be sheer invention—though if you could ask Chanina, he would no doubt say that he heard it through a long chain of transmission going back to the original eye-witnesses. The ability of the rabbis to legitimize their imaginations, by turning invention into tradition, is one of the reasons Judaism has managed to balance continuity and change for so long.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.