Adventures in Aramaic

April 2020
Ben Shragge

My father was a wandering Aramean.

Well, not directly. My father grew up in Winnipeg, sojourned in Alabama, and settled comfortably in Hamilton. But the above Biblical verse, recited during Passover, does feel personal to me because my last name comes from Aramaic, the ancient language of the Arameans.

Shragge derives from shraga, the Aramaic word for “light,” which appears in the Talmud about 50 times and is still a male given name in Israel and Orthodox communities. Prominent bearers of the name and its many derivatives include Rabbi Joseph ibn Shraga, considered the greatest Italian Kabbalist of the 16th century; Shlomo Zalman Shragai, Jerusalem’s first elected mayor; and Rabbi Samuel "the Maccabee" Schrage, organizer of a Hasidic neighbourhood patrol group in Crown Heights. 

Say what you will about Facebook, it’s only there that I could stumble upon a 1,300-strong group dedicated to reviving the Aramaic language in Israel. After asking about my last name’s origins, I learned that Judeo-Aramaic speakers from northern Iraq dropped the “g” but still call a lamp a shrata; that the Arabic given name Siraj (used in the Quran for “light”) is likely an offshoot; and that Assyrian neo-Aramaic speakers will say of a beautiful woman, La- šra’ta kemra/imara la nhor ana nahrana (“She says to the lamp, don’t shine, I will shine”).

A little backstory: Ancient Aramaic developed around 1000 BCE in the Aramean city-states of what is now Syria, becoming a major language of trade and diplomacy. (In the Bible, Aram is the father of the Arameans, and like Abraham, a descendant of Shem—hence the word Semitic, used for a family of languages that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.) In the sixth century BCE, Darius I declared a standardized Aramaic the official language of the Persian Empire, which included much of the modern Middle East. 

Following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 BCE, Greek language and culture gained in influence. Yet Aramaic continued to flourish across national and religious boundaries, like English today. By the beginning of the Common Era, most Judeans—including such notables as Judah Maccabee, Hillel, and Jesus—spoke Judeo-Aramaic dialects in daily life. (Maccabee, in fact, is an Aramaic last name like my own, deriving from maqqaba, meaning “hammer.”)

As Jews dispersed and the Middle East itself was conquered by Arabs in the seventh century, upstarts like Yiddish, Ladino, and Arabic gradually supplanted Judeo-Aramaic (and were themselves eventually supplanted by English, Russian, and modern Hebrew). Yet Aramaic survived in Jewish tradition as a language of the Bible (major parts of Ezra and Daniel), prayer (the Kaddish and Kol Nidre), marriage and divorce (the ketubah and get), mysticism (the Zohar), over half the Talmud, and in my case, a last name. Meanwhile, Aramaic continued to be spoken by Middle Eastern Christians and Mandaeans (followers of a separate dualistic religion), as well as neighbouring Jews.

Aramaic is not just a historical curiosity, and certainly not a dead language. Long before I gave my last name much thought, I was a teenager driving through east Hamilton when I came upon a storefront with Hebrew-style letters. It turned out to be an Assyrian community centre. Around 1,500 modern Assyrians live in Hamilton and speak a neo-Aramaic sister language to Hebrew. There are up to four million Assyrians worldwide, mostly Syriac Christians whose homeland includes parts of northern Iraq, southeast Turkey, northwest Iran, and northeast Syria. Yet before I stumbled upon that building, I was completely unaware of their existence.

Historian Howard Sachar referred to Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as “a Semitic archipelago in a Slavic sea.” But prior to Ashkenazi isolation in Christian Europe, most Jews (or Judeans) were integrated into a larger Semitic-speaking world in which peoples and ideas mingled and Aramaic was the common tongue. Helena, queen of the Assyrian kingdom of Adiabene, converted to Judaism around 30 CE; while Gregory Bar Hebraeus, a 13th century Syriac saint, was the son of a Jewish doctor. If there is to be real peace in the Middle East, it can only come by reclaiming a shared identity between Jews, Assyrians, Arabs, and other children of wandering Arameans. 

Pride in Aramaic—an ancient but still living Semitic language, spoken by the ancestors of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike—is a shraga, a light, that can shine the way.

Ben Shragge is the digital editor of the HJN.