Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God



יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא

In a previous post, I mentioned that kaddish is not filled with God’s names, as are many of Jewish prayers, but about God’s name. Consider, e.g., the Amidah — Judaism’s central tefilah [prayer], which speaks directly to God, using the four-letter name [YHVH] and second-person address [masc. sing. "you"]; it begs, for instance, “May YOUR greatness and YOUR holiness be realized… [תתגדל ותתקדש].” In contrast, the kaddish speaks in the third-person, and asks, as it’s often translated, “May HIS great name be magnified and sanctified [יתגדל ויתקדש שמה רבא].”

In trying to make this point, I accidentally gave the impression that I meant that Aramaic, as a language and/or as employed by the Rabbis, had no name for God. This is far from the truth (see below) and not what I meant. But the misunderstanding led to an interesting discussion at Temple Micah’s recent Siddur Study session.

In many translations of kaddish, “רבא (rabba),” which appears in the first line and in the congregational response, is rendered “great,” as in “[God's] great name.” But one participant argued that “rabba” could be read as a noun, rather than an adjective.

Here is the way that “rab” is translated in the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon:

rb, rbˀ (raḇ, rabbā) n.m.
chief; teacher
rb (raḇ, rabbā) adj.
great, big

The final aleph makes “rab” (“chief” or “teacher,” here) into “the chief” or “the teacher.” So, if rabba is read, not as “great” but as “The Teacher” or “The Chief,” this could be a name of God. It would parallel, he argues, “Rab” as “Lord” in Arabic.

Here, as one of many examples, is the first appearance of Rab, usually rendered “Lord,” in the Quran:

1_2

Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen
[All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds
— Sura 1:2, from this great interactive study tool

This change of reading of “Rabba” does not alter the pervasive third-person nature of the kaddish. But it does provide food for thought and reminds us of the close associations, or entanglements, in neighboring conceptions of God.

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Exploring Kaddish: Some Resources and an Invitation

UPDATED 7/27 : See clarification on Aramaic and names of God below. Also see post-Siddur Study “More on Kaddish” resources and notes.

KaddishIs Kaddish — in its various forms — “prayer,” as in some combination of praise, request and/or submission to God? Or is it a recitation, more like the Shema? Is it a mystical device? Or punctuation, signaling a tone-shift in prayer services? None or all of the above? And where does “praying for the dead” figure? Explore.

Has this prayer, recited so often in Jewish services, become such a fixture that you no longer process its meaning? Were you, perhaps, taught to recite the ancient language without understanding the Aramaic words? Some creative translations and alternative readings can help break through the kaddish-trance.

Temple Micah’s lay-led Siddur Study group will be exploring the questions above and others on July 26.  Materials are here to whet the appetite and for those who cannot join us in person. No background in Hebrew or prayer is needed. No preparation required. All are welcome.

(Meetings generally begin roughly half an hour after morning services end, i.e., sometime between noon and 12:30 p.m. in the summertime.)

Join Siddur Study at Temple Micah in person, July 26.
If you’re not in our physical neighborhood,

join us virtually by posting comments or questions here.


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Opening and the Ark

What does it mean to open the Ark?

In my experience the Torah service exhibits more diversity than any other part of a Jewish service. Reading length varies across denominations. General approach ranges from informal circles embracing Torah to formal, long-standing choreography. And the Torah service is one spot where women’s absence on the bima, in congregations without egalitarian practice, is the most obvious. Moreover, it is one of the few moments where division of Jews into Kohen, Levite, and Yisrael is still obvious in Orthodox and Conservative congregations (where a kohen [priest] is called to the first aliyah ["going up" Torah honor] and a Levite to the second).

How much is shared across this variety? And what do the variations mean? — Are they matters of custom, preference, and leadership style, or theology? Which one(s) work for you and why?

The Torah service is not the only point when the Ark is open. But the beginning of the Torah service presents a prominent opportunity to contemplate what it means to us, individually and communally, to open the Ark… to approach Torah and have Torah brought into our midst.

Here is a prayer of my own, based on words commonly recited as the Ark is opened. Below that are links to the prayers that inspired mine — B’rich Shmei and Anim Zmirot — and more thoughts on opening the Ark.

What is your prayer for approaching the Torah?

To what are you opening?

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Juxtaposing Redemption and Prayer

Once, Rav Beruna “juxtaposed redemption and prayer” — i.e., managed his morning prayers in such a way that he completed the Redemption ["Mi Chamocha"] blessing, following the morning Shema, and moved on to the Amidah [Standing Prayer] just exactly at sunrise — and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 9b

We prayed with perfect timing…At the exact moment that we started the Amidah, the sun peeked over the horizon.
…God was happy that we showed up….
I’ve held onto that day as being among the most divine experiences in a largely faithless life….
— David Wolkin, “12 Awkward Boys,” at DC Sermon Slam.

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Tzipporah’s Eye View at the DC Sermon Slam

I have always lived among priests and prophets. I know that some divine encounters prove more terrifying than illuminating. And I believe there is much to be learned about Revelation by turning away from Sinai’s thunder and lightening.

Consider for a moment that time Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses and his black wife and God responded by covering Miriam with white scales. [Numbers 12:1ff. Tzipporah also appears in Exodus chapters 3, 4, and 18]…


…So, what does this incident tell you about Revelation?

Follow me for a moment on a “tzipporah-eye view,” looking two directions at once to see ahead. ["Tzipporah" = "bird"]

One bird’s eye focuses in on the siblings, without regard to gender. Here are three powerful individuals, all within spitting distance, shall we say, of divine Revelation. Genuine caring and concern between the siblings is evident, and each is deeply committed to community and the evolving Torah.

And yet, this story shows, understanding anyone else’s piece of Revelation – even the teaching of a prophet sibling, whom you love and respect – has always been hard. How much more so must non-siblings in your time work to understand each other’s perspectives!…

Recording from DC’s recent Sermon Slam, a project of Open Quorum. Background notes and sources.
Full text.


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