As is the case with many prayers, there are numerous textual variations of Kaddish. Most of these are fairly minor: In Whole Kaddish, is it d’chal Yisrael or d’chal beis Yisrael? In the Rabbis’ Kaddish, is it chaim or chaim tovim? Di vishmaya or di vishmaya v’arah? Hu yaaseh or hu b’rachamav yaaseh? These are the kinds of textual variations that are commonly found in Shemoneh Esrei, bentching and other prayers. But one variation is more striking: what are the first two words of Kaddish?
You’ve no doubt observed that some people pronounce the first two words “Yisgadal v’yiskadash” while others say “Yisgadeil v’yiskadeish.” (This variation follows through to a few more words throughout the course of the prayer.) The question of pronunciation in this case hinges on whether the words in question are Hebrew or Aramaic.
It should not surprise us that Kaddish is written either primarily or exclusively in Aramaic. Many prayers are, including Brich Shmeih (recited when the Torah is removed from the ark) and Yekum Purkan (recited after Torah reading on Shabbos). Chad Gadya, sung after the Passover Seder, is in Aramaic. Even Kol Nidrei, recited on Yom Kippur night, is in Aramaic! The Talmud is written in Aramaic and the obligation to review the weekly Torah portion optimally includes the Aramaic translation of Onkelos. Clearly, Aramaic is an important language. We might as well first ask, “What’s so important about Aramaic?”
Aramaic was the language of the people during second Temple times. The Jerusalem Talmud (Sotah 7:2) tells us not to disparage Aramaic, which is used in all three sections of Tanach. In Kesuvim (the Writings), entire sections of the Book of Daniel are written in Aramaic. In Neviim (the Prophets), Jeremiah sends a message in Aramaic (Jer. 10:11). Even the Torah has Aramaic in it! The mound that Yaakov called “Gal Eid” was translated into the Aramaic “Yagar Sahadusa” by Lavan (Gen. 31:47). The Babylonian Talmud tells us in Sanhedrin 21b that in the time of Ezra, the people selected the Hebrew language and Assyrian script for the Torah, leaving the Aramaic language and the ancient Hebrew script for the common vernacular. (Just as both scripts were “in the running” for use in our Torahs, Aramaic was clearly also a “contender!”)
A cognate language to Hebrew, many words are identical or similar in Hebrew and Aramaic. For example, Heaven is Shamayim in Hebrew and Shamaya in Aramaic. Dry land is yabasha in Hebrew and yabeshta in Aramaic. An ox is a shor in Hebrew and a tor in Aramaic. The two languages are clearly closely related. Some words may be identical, while others will be completely different.
The verb KDSh (to sanctify) occurs in both Hebrew and Aramaic. But Kaddish throws us for a loop because the verb GDL (to make large) is exclusively a Hebrew word. There are therefore two possibilities:
• Kaddish is a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. Following the Hebrew grammar, we would get Yisgadeil v’yiskadeish.
• Kaddish is purely Aramaic but, paraphrasing a Biblical verse, it includes a Hebrew word (which should then be “Aramaicized”). Following Aramaic grammar, we would get Yisgadal v’yiskadash.