Saturday, April 23, 2011

ha lachma anya and the language angels speak

While I saying the daf yomi on the first days of Y"T someone noticed that the gemara (Men. 42) records a conversation that takes place in Aramaic between an angel and Rav Katina. With the seder fresh in his memory, this person asked how such a conversation could take place. We all know that we say "Ha lachma anya" in Aramaic because angels don't speak Aramaic -- by offering an invitation in a language they don't understand, there is no risk of evil angelic spirits accepting that invitation and coming to ruin the seder. The basis for this idea is a gemara in Shabbos (12) that says one may not daven in Aramaic because Aramaic is not understood by angels, the exception being when one davens at the bedside of a choleh because Hashem himself is present there.

The simple answer is that the conversation took place in some other language (maybe it all took place in the mind and was not even a verbal exchange) and the gemara simply transcribed the conversation into Talmudic Aramaic for the record. But why settle for simple answers?

Another way to answer is to deny the entire premise of the question. Abarbanel is not at all happy with the classic, "Angels don't speak Aramaic" answer for why we say don't say Ha lachma anya in Hebrew. First of all, he rejects the existance of mazikim. Secondly, he writes that even if such things exist, "Shluchei mitzvah aninan nizokin," especially on "Leil shimurim," the night of Pesach, when Hashem promises us special protection. But if all that isn't enough, there is an open gemara that says angels do speak Aramaic! The gemara in Sota (33) writes that Gavriel came and taught Yosef all 70 languages when he was in prison.

Given that at least some gemaras indicate that angels do speak Aramaic, it seems that the linguistic capabilities of angels is a matter of dispute. The Abarbanel felt confident in siding with one sugya over the other, so I don't see a problem suggesting that our gemara in Menachos lines up with the sugya in Sota that accepts that angels can speak Aramaic in contradistinction to the tradition reflected in the sugya in Shabbos that says they can't. However, all things being equal, it would make for a more elegant framework if we could reconcile the sources.

I raised this issue at our seder, and a few solutions were suggested:

1) Gavriel is an especially important malach and has powers that others do not (see Tos Shabbos 12).

2) When Hashem directs a malach to do a job, as in the case of teaching Yosef the 70 languages, the malach is enpowered beyond his normal ability (my son thought of this one).

3) Perhaps there are different dialects of Aramaic (my wife's suggestion). The malachim speak "pure" Aramaic to fulfill their role as the angelic sar of Aram, but they cannot speak our Talmudicized version of the language (by way of analogy, think of German vs. Yiddish).

4) Perhaps the angels' power to communicate is relative to whom they are speaking to. If you are Joe Ploni, you have to speak the King's English (or Hebrew) to get the message communicated upstairs; for Yosef haTzadik (or Rav Katina) the bar may be lowered.

5) My favorite answer: The gemara in Shabbos is a unique din in tefilah. The
angelic represenatitives who control the workings of the world of teva can be communicated with in any language. However, if you want to appeal over their heads, you need lashon hakodesh to connect to a Higher Authority (suggested by the meforshim on the Ein Ya'akov in Sota).

I did not think that I would get an entertaining seder discussion out of the daf, but there you have it. Any other answers out there?

Parenthetically, on the topic of inyana d'yoma and the daf: For those who did today's daf and saw Tosfos' discussion on the the Mishna's regarding whether there was wheat available in the desert to make shtei halechem, take a look in Shu"T Tzitz Eliezer (apologies -- I forgot where the tshuvah is) for a discussion of whether one can be yotzei with matzah made of man given that there was (or so the questioner suggested) no wheat available in the midbar to make matzah either.


  1. you can only have a beracha or a kelalah if you know the name of the person, loshon hakodesh is our inner name and therefore has to be used for davening, however if you daven in a minyan then even the min hasafah velechutz of the foreign tongues that we speak are accessible to our penimiyus and can be used in tefillah.

    Yosef was responsible for klal ysiroel and therefore he always had a din of being part of the klal even when standing in front of Pharoh

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