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The Lies of Israel Shahak (3 of 4) -- Shahak and Aramaic Prayers

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Initial post: Apr 11, 2012 12:11:41 PM PDT
Balok says:
INTRODUCTION: In 1994, Israel Shahak published a book entitled _Jewish History, Jewish Religion_, the main thesis of which is that Orthodox Judaism is evil. For obvious reasons, the book immediately became popular among the Jewish anti-Semites (excuse me, anti-Zionists) despite its comprising a large number of distortions, errors, and outright lies. In 1995 and 1996, as a response to one of the people praising Shahak's books, I posted to the usenet group talk.politics.mideast a series of four essays detailing a few of Shahak's more egregious lies. Reproduced here is the third of them. A couple of typos have been corrected, and specific references to the post to which this essay was a response have been removed.


At a certain point in the morning prayer, some verses in Aramaic (rather than the more usual Hebrew) are pronounced.[8] This is supposed to be a means of tricking the angels who operate the gates through which prayers enter heaven and who have the power to block the prayers of the pious. The angels only understand Hebrew and are baffled by the Aramaic verses; being somewhat dull-witted (presumably they are far less clever than the cabbalists) they open the gates, and at this moment all the prayers, including those in Hebrew, get through (Shahak, p. 34).

[8] (original note to above, p. 107) The so-called _Qedushah Shlishit_ (Third Holiness), inserted in the prayer _Uva Letzion_ towrads the end of the morning service.


As usual, Shahak does not give any reference to his source for the above "explanation" of the origins of this prayer; so I consulted a variety of other sources, both traditional and secular, to see what I could come up with.

This section of the prayer is more universally known as the "Qedushah d'sidra" ("formulated" Qedushah, as opposed to the Qedushah of the Standing Prayer (Amidah)). The earliest reference to this prayer is found in the Talmud (Sotah 49a), in which it is stated that the world endures only through the Qedushah d'sidra and the congregational response in the Qaddish ("may His great name be blessed forever"); the latter is recited (inter alia) at the conclusion of study. Rashi (the classic commentator Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105) states a.l. that the prayer was instituted "so that every Jew can occupy himself with some Torah study every day, for he says the reading [Isaiah 6:3, Ezekiel 3:12, and Exodus 15:18] and its Aramaic translation ["Targum," the "Aramaic verses" mentioned by Shahak], and this is like studying Torah. . . for the students and the unlearned." The prayer is found in even the earliest prayerbooks (e.g. the 9th century Seder Rav Amram Gaon and the 13th century Machzor Vitry).

Abudraham, a fourteenth century commentator on the Jewish Prayer Book, also supports the explanation that the prayer was instituted in order to allow the people who did not understand Hebrew to hear the prayer translated into the vernacular Aramaic, so that they could also take part in Torah study.

This explanation is also brought forward by most modern prayerbooks (cf. the Birnbaum siddur, p. 131) as well as by modern scholars of the history of Jewish liturgy (cf. for example Hoffman, p. 62, and Heinemann, p. 262).

A reasonable question, perhaps, is that if the reason for the inclusion of the Aramaic parts of the prayer has nothing to do with "fooling angels" but for the reasons outlined above, why did Shahak mention his "reason" at all? Part of it is his effort to discredit by wildly distorting ideas from kabbalah. This sort of thing is hardly new among anti-Semites and other detractors of Judaism; I heartily recommend pp. 31-54 of Dilling, who is a far more entertaining writer than Shahak anyway. As I said in an earlier post, I am not sufficiently competent in kabbalah to attempt a detailed refutation of his rather egregious misstatements, although I was amused to note that his claim that kabbalah is polytheistic (p. 33) quite accurately echoes Dilling's views on the

But to give Shahak his due, there is a source that mentions the idea that angels do not speak Aramaic, although not in the context he would have us believe. In the Talmud, in tractate Shabbat (12b), there is a statement that "R. Jochanan said when one petitions for one's needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not heed him, because the ministering angels do not
understand Aramaic." (Tosafot, commentators of the generations following Rashi, note that a passage in Sotah (33a) that mentions Gabriel teaching Joseph all of the world's languages indicates that Garbriel is an exception to the rule.)

The understanding in the above passage from Tractate Shabbat is that ministering angels serve to conduct prayers from the petitioner to the Almighty (cf. Rashi a.l.). And why would one stultify the angels by reciting prayers that they will be unable to convey? That there was considerable opposition even in Talmudic times to the idea that angels could act in any way to intercede between man and God is beyond the scope of this essay. The point here is that although there is a statement to the effect that angels do not understand Aramaic, it has little to do with the present case.

Little, but not nothing. The closest reference that I could find to Shahak's explanation is a Tosafot to tractate Berakhot 3a. This Tosafot actually addresses the Qaddish prayer, which is also in Aramaic, and says (Abudraham makes a similar argument):

. . . [regarding Qaddish and the opinion that we say it in Aramaic
because] it is a beautiful prayer and highly laudatory, thus it
was ordained in the language of the Targum [the Aramaic
translation of the Torah] so that the angels will not understand
it and be jealous of us: this is not correct. For there are many
beautiful prayers in Hebrew! Rather, it is correct to say what is
at the end of tractate Sotah. . . [49a, quoted above]. They
were accustomed to say Qaddish after the homily, and there
were unlearned people who did not understand any Hebrew, it
was ordained in the language of the Targum so that everyone
would understand, as this [i.e. Aramaic] was their language.

There is a Yiddish saying to the effect that a half-truth is a whole lie. In this case, Shahak doesn't even make it to half a truth. The sources, both classical and contemporary, agree that the Aramaic sections of the Qedushah d'sidra were included in order to make Torah study accessible even to those who did not understand Hebrew. Shahak does not acknowledge the existence of these sources, much less utilize them, and makes an assertion about the origin of the Qedushah d'sidra that is completely contrary to them. In other words, he is lying once again.


Abudraham, David ben Joseph ben David. _Perush Ha-Berakhot ve-Hatefilot_. Wertheimer, S. A., ed. Jerusalem, 1962/63.

Birnbaum, P. _Daily Prayerbook_. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1949.

Dilling, E. _The Jewish Religion: Its Influence Today_. 4th Ed. Torrance, CA: Noontide Press, 1983. (N.B. This book was published under the title _The Plot Against Christianity_.)

Heineman, J. _Prayer in the Talmud: Forms and Patterns._ Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977.

Hoffman, L. A. _The Canonization of the Synagogue Service_. Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1979.

Nulman, M. _The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer: Ashkenazic and Sephardic Rites_. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1993.

Shahak, I. _Jewish History, Jewish Religion: the Weight of Three Thousand Years_. London: Pluto Press, 1994.

Posted on Apr 11, 2012 1:55:22 PM PDT
jeffesq613 says:
Thank you again, Balok.

Posted on May 23, 2012 11:21:41 AM PDT
Linda Sang says:

Posted on Aug 7, 2013 2:28:17 PM PDT
Might as well bump this too!

Posted on Apr 17, 2014 6:50:09 PM PDT
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Discussion in:  Judaism forum
Participants:  4
Total posts:  5
Initial post:  Apr 11, 2012
Latest post:  Apr 17, 2014

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