We have seen that the Tanakh stands as an enduring witness of the Hebrew language down through the centuries. But it should be remembered that the Tanakh is not written only in Hebrew. Sections are written in Aramaic, a language that is closely related to Hebrew. The Tanakh has three main sections – the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. We should not forget that Aramaic is interspersed in each of these sections – the Torah in the words spoken by Laban in Genesis 31:47; the Prophets in Jeremiah 10:11, and the Writings in the Aramaic chapters of Daniel.
Aramaic reminds us of the close contact Israel has had with the nations around them. Aramaic, too, is a holy language used to reveal God’s Word. The two languages together form the Tanakh. One without the other is like a bride without a bridegroom. Together, they remind us that through Abraham, all nations of the earth will be blessed.
Whereas Hebrew was the official language of the Israelites in the Land of Canaan at the time of the kings of Israel, Aramaic was the language of the surrounding nations. Many books of the Tanakh have been influenced to some extent by Israel’s close contact with Aramaic, and when king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and started the Babylonian exile, Aramaic swept over the whole of the Middle East and became the common language of the region.
The two holy languages started to influence each other. The Aramaic sections in Daniel contain some Hebraisms. Mishnaic Hebrew is clearly not ‘pure’ Hebrew, but contains elements more common in Aramaic. Jews in the first century and Bar Kochva’s time were probably more used to speaking Aramaic than Hebrew. The Massoretes used Aramaic mnemonics and notes in the Massorah.
Gradually, therefore, as the centuries after the exile rolled by and Aramaic took a stronger and stronger hold, Hebrew became less popular as a spoken language, but remained the sacred language of the Jewish people, used for liturgical purposes. Even then, in worship there remains a mixture of the two holy languages of Hebrew and Aramaic. Expressions such as bar mitzvah are half-Hebrew and half-Aramaic. The important Jewish Kaddish prayer is in Aramaic.
Aramaic and Hebrew have thus grown up together, like vines whose branches intertwine. They are like a bride and a bridegroom, each individuals, yet incomplete without the other. Together, they form the complete Tanakh.