Aramaic, Arabic and Jewish Names of God


This post was updated, 8/28/18, correcting an error in the section on Aramaic names for God. HaMakom [The Place] and Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] are Hebrew. (Thanks to Norman Shore for pointing out the mistake; only took me 18 months to make the correction!)

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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“Because of this…” (Blessing and attitude, continued)

A (very) previous post discussed the idea of being too grumpy for gratitude, with a focus on one humility-prompting passage from the morning blessings:

…Master of all worlds, we do not offer our supplications before You based on our righteousness, but rather based on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives?….Man barely rises above beast, for everything is worthless [hakol havel]….

Because of this, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…
— See “Is thanks ever simple? – part 2”

In that post, Ellen Frankel and Estelle Frankel (no relation as far as I know) are quoted on the concepts of “bittul/self-surrender” and a “healthy sense of entitlement.”

Admitting such truth is not simple. It requires that we abandon our grandiose childish sense of entitlement to God’s favor. We…are puny in God’s sight. Ultimately, we can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

But is this abject humility an honest expression of how we feel? Must we really live our lives as though we are so worthless, as though hakol havel, “everything is worthless,” as Ecclesiastes lamented?
— Ellen Frankel, My Peoples Prayerbook
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“You Didn’t Build That” Ben Zoma Style

“How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped…But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready for me….How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment…How many skilled craftsmen are industrious and rise early to their work. And I arise in the morning and all these things are ready before me.” (Y. Berakhot 9:2)

This musing, part of a longer teaching on gratitude, is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (AKA “Yerushalmi” or “Palestinian Talmud”). It is attributed to ben Zoma. Judith Abrams explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them.”

Ben Zoma is one of the four who (later, presumably) entered Pardes, the one who “looked” and went mad as a result. It is, in fact, a fine detail that sends him over the edge. In the passage above, however, awareness of details seem to contribute to what Abrams calls “an elevated state of awareness of all the gifts one has while one has them, almost as if he sees everything through a microscope.”

— from The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012)

Note: The same story appears in the Babylonia Talmud, Berakhot 58a.
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Blessings and Distance

R. Joshua b. Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of thirty days says: Blessed is He who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season.* If after a lapse of twelve months he says: Blessed is He who revives the dead.**
— Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 58b

*Shehecheyanu,” for short [full blessing text]
** Kolel: The Adult Centre for Adult Jewish Learning presents both blessings as outlined in Berakhot 58b and another option for blessing upon seeing a long-lost friend.
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