What Is Aramaic?

Aramaic is one of the Semitic languages, an important group of languages known almost from the beginning of human history and including also Arabic, Hebrew, Ethiopic, and Akkadian (ancient Babylonian and Assyrian). It is particularly closely related to Hebrew, and was written in a variety of alphabetic scripts. (What is usually called "Hebrew" script is actually an Aramaic script.)

The Earliest Aramaic

0ur first glimpse of Aramaic comes from a small number of ancient royal inscriptions from almost three thousand years ago (900-700 B.C.E.). Dedications to the gods, international treaties, and memorial stelae reveal to us the history of the first small Aramean kingdoms, in the territories of modern Syria and Southeast Turkey, living under the shadow of the rising Assyrian empire.

Aramaic as an Imperial Language

Aramaic was used by the conquering Assyrians as a language of administration communication, and following them by the Babylonian and Persian empires, which ruled from India to Ethiopia, and employed Aramaic as the official language. For this period, then (about 700–320 B.C.E.), Aramaic held a position similar to that occupied by English today. The most important documents of this period are numerous papyri from Egypt and Palestine.

Biblical Aramaic

Aramaic displaced Hebrew for many purposes among the Jews, a fact reflected in the Bible, where portions of Ezra and Daniel are in Aramaic. Some of the best known stories in biblical literature, including that of Belshazzar’s feast with the famous "handwriting on the wall" are in Aramaic.

Jewish Aramaic Literature

Aramaic remained a dominant language for Jewish worship, scholarship, and everyday life for centuries in both the land of Israel and in the diaspora, especially in Babylon.

Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the remains of the library of a Jewish sect from around the turn of the Era, are many compositions in Aramaic. These new texts also provide the best evidence for Palestinian Aramaic of the sort used by Jesus and his disciples.

Since the Jews spoke Aramaic, and knowledge of Hebrew was no longer widespread, the practice arose in the synagogue of providing the reading of the sacred Hebrew scriptures with an Aramaic translation or paraphrase, a "Targum" In the course of time a whole array of targums for the Law and other parts of the Bible were composed. More than translations, they incorporated much of traditional Jewish scriptural interpretation.

In their academies the rabbis and their disciples transmitted, commented, and debated Jewish law; the records of their deliberations constitute the two talmuds: that of the land of Israel and the much larger Babylonian Talmud. Although the talmuds contain much material in Hebrew, the basic language of these vast compilations is Aramaic (in Western and Eastern dialects).

Christian Aramaic Literature

Although Jesus spoke Aramaic, the Gospels are in Greek, and only rarely quote actual Aramaic words. Reconstruction of the Aramaic background of the Gospels remains a fascinating, but inordinately difficult area of modern scholarly research.

Christians in Palestine eventually rendered portions of Christian Scripture into their dialect of Aramaic; these translations and related writings constitute "Christian Palestinian Aramaic".

A much larger body of Christian Aramaic is known as Syriac. Indeed, Syriac writings surpass in quantity all other Aramaic combined. Syriac is originally the literary language of the city of Edessa (now Urfa in SE Turkey). The language became the tongue of the entire eastern wing of the church, from about the third century C.E. down until well past the Muslim conquest.

Syriac writings include numerous Bible translations, the most important being the so-called Peshitta (simple) translation, and countless devotional, dogmatic, exegetical, liturgical, and historical works. Almost all of the Greek philosophical and scientific tradition was eventually translated into Syriac, and it was through this channel that most found their way into the Islamic World and thence, into post-Dark Ages Europe.

Other Aramaic

There are many other branches of Aramaic literature, including the substantial literature of the Mandaeans, a Gnostic religious group, and the Bible translation, liturgy, and doctrinal works of the Samaritans.

Aramaic survives as a spoken language in small communities in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon will not attempt to be a full dictionary for this Modern Aramaic, which is best undertaken as a separate task, but where an ancient word has a modern continuation, the Modern Aramaic use will be recorded.

Is Aramaic still spoken today?

Yes, modern dialects of Aramaic are still spoken today by small communities around the world: major centers are in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Europe and the US. If you want to learn more about these communities, go to our links page, and you will find links to some of their websites.

Can I learn Aramaic?

Yes, you can. Only a few colleges and universities offer classes in Aramaic. If you can take a class, that's the best way. However, you can also learn it on your own, if you are patient and dedicated enough. Normally people start from either Biblical Aramaic or Syriac. Recently a couple of grammars have been published, for which no previous knowledge of Semitic languages is required:

Rosenthal, F. A Grammar of Biblical Aramaic (Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz Verlag, 1995)

Muraoka, T. Classical Syriac : 
a basic grammar with a chrestomathy / with a select bibliography compiled by S.P. Brock
(Wiesbaden : Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997)

In our links page, you will also find links to Aramaic learning and translating sites.


What are the advantages of an online lexicon?

There are too many to list, but click HERE to find out.

What can I find in the CAL database?

The CAL search page currently allows you to browse the Lexicon and to search it for glosses and citations, and to view our collection of the most important Aramaic texts along with their lexical analysis. You can also generate concordances on the screen for selected words: the Basic Concordance option allows you to make a concordance for a single text, while creating concordances of various texts and dialects is possible through the Advanced Concordance option.

The Targum search page allows you to view and analyze a given biblical verse in all its available Aramaic versions.
The CAL Bibliographic Archives offer you updated bibliographic  references which you can now search by author, keyword, and lemma.
Should you need any help with these searches, please contact Dr. S. Kaufman.

How can I support the CAL Project?

The CAL is physically supported by the IT staff at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, USA. But we have no more funding for academic support. We welcome qualified academic volunteers to work on new textual material and are always ready to accept regular or one-time donations of any size to support our research assistants as we complete the project. It would be marvelous if those who use the CAL on a regular basis would see fit to donate a few dollars every now and then so that we never have to charge all users for access.

Donations of $100 or more during any calendar year can receive an official receipt of tax exempt status from the Hebrew Union College if so desired. You may donate any amount using the below button with PayPal or your credit card. Those wishing to make a major one-time donation should contact Dr. Kaufman for complete banking and tax-exempt information.