By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
The Gemara (Pesachim 87b) offers numerous explanations as to why Hashem chose Bavel as the destination for the exile. One such explanation is that the language spoken in Bavel, Aramaic, was most similar to Hebrew. The similarity of the languages would make it easier to study Torah and ensure that Torah would not be forgotten.
Why is there a similarity between Aramaic and Hebrew? The sefer Chasdei Hashem authored by R’ Mordechai Kriger offers a novel explanation. Before the building of the tower of Babylon, the people of the world shared a common language: Lashon HaKodesh. As a punishment for their futile attempt to rebel against Hashem, Hashem caused them to speak 70 different languages. R’ Kriger theorizes that the first new language that Hashem created was Aramaic since it was destined to be used in that very location. Since it was the first new language, it was the most similar to the previously used one, Hebrew. The successive new languages were progressively different. (Obviously, Hashem could have done exactly the opposite, but this reasoning suggests that Hashem limited the successive creation of new languages just enough to cause issues. As Rashi notes on Chumash, the languages had similar words but they had different meanings.)
Aramaic has a unique place in halachah, as will be demonstrated. In cases of necessity, one may say the Shemoneh Esreih in a language he understands. If for example someone is not sufficiently familiar with Hebrew and this impedes his ability to concentrate properly during prayers, he may recite the Shemoneh Esreih in English (see Biur Halachah OC 101). However, someone who is able to concentrate sufficiently in any case or would not concentrate properly no matter what language he prays in should say Shemoneh Esreih only in Hebrew. This is because Hebrew is the Lashon HaKodesh and has inherent sanctity not found in other languages. Furthermore, it has the added advantage of being The King’s language. Moreover, the text of Shemoneh Esreih was formulated by the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, which comprised 120 scholars, some of whom were prophets. They were able to compose a text that had many esoteric and hidden meanings. Even if one does not know the deep significance of the words one recites, they still have the added impact (Sefer Chasidim). It is interesting to note that the Chofetz Chaim was unsure if the license to pray in one’s own tongue would apply to an immigrant to a foreign state. For example, would a Frenchman be permitted to pray in French in the United States? The Biur Halachah leaves this question unresolved.
However, one would not be allowed to recite Shemoneh Esreih in Aramaic while praying alone. Aramaic prayers are not processed in heaven when recited by an individual. It would be tantamount to tefillas shav–a wasted tefillah. Yekum Purkan, which is recited after leining on Shabbos, is written in Aramaic. Therefore, one should only recite Yekum Purkan or any other Aramaic liturgy while praying with a quorum of ten men. Sefer Ishei Yisrael quotes HaRav Chaim Kanievsky as saying that one does not have to recite Yekum Purkan at the exact time the congregation says it. As long as is he is davening together with them, he has a permit to recite it.
The Mishnah (Yoma 52b) states the Kohen Gadol would recite a short prayer upon the completion of his services in the Kodesh HaKedashim on Yom Kippur. The Talmud (53b) describes the content of the tefillah. Surprisingly enough the Gemara records that part of his tefillah was in Aramaic! The commentators all wonder how this can be. When praying as an individual one should not pray in Aramaic. Yet, the Kohen Gadol was praying alone by the Kodesh HaKedashim in Aramaic!
The Gevuras Ari notes there is an exception to the rule against an individual praying in Aramaic. The Gemara in Shabbos (12b) relates that when Rebbe Eliezer would visit a sick person, he would utter a short prayer and say “Hashem should remember you for peace.” There were times when he would say this phrase in Aramaic. The Gemara explains that this is permitted because the Divine presence is together with a sick individual. A prayer uttered in the presence of a sick individual is therefore being said in front of the Shechinah. Consequently, this tefillah needs no “processing” and goes right to its intended target. This is the accepted halachah that one can pray by a sick person in Aramaic. The Gevuras Ari writes that the same explanation can suffice here as well.
The Kohen Gadol is praying in the Beis HaMikdash, where the Divine Presence rests. Therefore, his tefillah goes straight to Hashem and likewise does not need Heavenly processing. (The term “Heavenly processing” is intentionally vague and the reader is encouraged to peruse the original sources.)
A passage of Talmud in Yevamos (49b) relates an incident that occurred between Yeshaya HaNavi and his evil grandson King Menashe. King Menashe accused his grandfather Yeshaya HaNavi of being a false prophet and thereby deserving of the death penalty. One of his contentions was that it says in the Torah (Devarim 4:7) “For which is a great nation that has a G-d Who is close to it, as is Hashem, our God, whenever we call to Him?” Yet Yeshaya HaNavi stated (55:6) “Seek out Hashem when he can be found.” The implication of the latter verse is that there are only certain times that prayer is appropriate, whereas the first verse indicates that we may always call out to Hashem in prayer. Menashe reasoned that since Yeshaya HaNavi contradicted the pasuk in the Torah, he was a false prophet. Yeshaya knew that Menashe would not accept his answer in any case, so he didn’t offer one. Instead, he chose to flee. The Gemara does provide us with the resolution. Prayer is always appropriate. However, a communal prayer has increased effectiveness. That is true throughout the year. An individual prayer, on the other hand, only has that same increased effectiveness during the Ten Days of Repentance. Those ten days are such an auspicious time that even prayers recited individually are powerful enough to abolish an evil decree.
The Sefer Shmu’as Chayim, based on a chiddush of the Steipler Gaon, derives an additional answer from here to the aforementioned question of why the Kohen Gadol was permitted to pray in Aramaic even though he was alone. As noted previously, a congregation is permitted to recite prayers in Aramaic. Additionally, it was just cited that an individual’s prayers that are recited during the Ten Days of Repentance are so special that they can be compared to communal tefillah during the year. Therefore, R’ Chayim Yuzak suggests that the Kohen Gadol was able to pray alone on Yom Kippur in Aramaic.
Yom Kippur is the last day of the Ten Days of Repentance and therefore even an individual is permitted to pray in Aramaic during those days. However, this last answer is not accepted as halachah. The Mishnah Berurah (581:1) writes that those parts of Selichos which are written in Aramaic should not be recited by an individual. However, the Piskei Teshuvos writes that they need not be recited at the same time as the tzibbur. As long as the tzibbur is still saying Selichos, he may recite the Aramaic prayers.
May Hashem grant us all a g’mar chasimah tovah. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.