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Judah Jeiteles, the first language scholar to create a Hebrew grammar of Biblical Aramaic, died at 65 in Vienna on this date in 1838. Jeiteles belonged to a notable family of writers, including his brother Baruch, who espoused an Enlightenment Judaism for which he paid hell among the Orthodox establishment in Prague. Aramaic rose to prominence as the lingua franca of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–605 BCE) and became the language of the Jews during the Babylonian exile (6th century BCE), with Aramaic square script replacing the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. It was also the chief language of Judea under Roman rule; it would have been the language of Jesus and his cohort, as well as of the generation of Hillel and other Talmudic sages. It became the primary language of the Babylonian Talmud, and was used by Jewish writers in Babylonia between the 4th and the 11th century CE. Today the various Aramaic dialects are considered endangered languages. In 2014, a small Maronite sect in the Galilean town of Jish won the right to change their designation in the Israeli population registry from “Arab” to a newly-created ethnic classification: “Aramaic.”
“During a visit to the Holy Land last May, Pope Francis and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a brief on-camera disagreement about the language Jesus spoke. ‘Jesus was here, in this land. He spoke Hebrew,’ Netanyahu said. ‘Aramaic,’ the pope interjected. ‘He spoke Aramaic, but he knew Hebrew,’ Netanyahu shot back.” —The Jerusalem Post
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.