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:


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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