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Should I Pray in Hebrew if I Don’t Understand?

Should I Pray in Hebrew if I Don’t Understand?

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As you can read in Why Is Hebrew Called the “Holy Tongue”? one cannot minimize the importance and sanctity of the Hebrew language. It is the language of creation, prophecy and all spiritual energy. Additionally, the prayers were composed by the Men of the Great Assembly in Hebrew, and no translation is ever a perfectly accurate substitute for the original. So if you understand Hebrew, you should pray in Hebrew. And if you don’t understand Hebrew, you should at least try to learn the meaning of the prayers so you know what you’re saying.

But if someone doesn’t yet understand the prayers, should he nevertheless pray in Hebrew?

There seem to be two schools of thought.

Pray in Hebrew

Many, including most notably Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan (in his work Mishnah Berurah), are of the opinion that due to the holiness of prayer in its original Hebrew language, if one is able to pray in Hebrew, he should do so, even if he doesn’t understand what he is saying.1

Understand What You’re Saying

Others, including the Magen Avraham2 and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (in his Shulchan Aruch Harav), take a different approach. While conceding that the common custom is to pray in Hebrew regardless of comprehension, Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes that if one does not understand the meanings of Grace after Meals, Shema, Amidah and Hallel, he should not recite them in the Holy Tongue, but in a language he does understand. And though there is room to allow the recitation of other blessings in the Holy Tongue, one should still preferably recite them in a language that he understands because “prayer without concentration is not considered prayer.”3

This view follows that of the earlier mystics, most notably Rabbi Yehuda HaChassid (“the Pious”), who writes regarding people who do not understand Hebrew: “Teach them to pray in the language that they understand, for ‘prayer is only in the heart,’ and if the heart does not understand what comes out of the mouth, what benefit is there? Therefore, it is proper that they pray in the language that they understand.”4

Indeed, this strong emphasis on prayer being the “service of the heart” over mere lip service is what led Rabbi Dovber (son of Rabbi Schneur Zalman Liadi, and whose birthday and yahrtzeit we celebrate on the 9th of Kislev) to write a work called Pirush Hamilot, an explanation of the words of prayer based on Chassidic teachings. This was in addition to arranging his father’s discourses around the text of his Siddur, and publishing it under the name “Siddur im Dach.”

May the words of our heart pierce the heavens and all of our prayers be answered, including the ultimate prayer for the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days!

Footnotes
1.
See Mishnah Berurah 101:13.
2.
Magen Avraham, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 101:5.
3.
Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim 101:5, 124:2.
4.
See Sefer Chassidim 583; Asarah Mamarot, Eim Kol Chai 1:31.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Discussion (11)
December 10, 2016
Since I learned Hebrew and memorized some of the prayers in Hebrew I prefer Hebrew, but when I want to do some research on certain prayers and its liturgy historically I do it in English, which I learned as an adult, just with the intention to learn more about Judaism, and work. Since I learned Hebrew I prefer too, to think in Hebrew or Jewish terms. This way I feel more connected to my people and it is beneficial for my betachon trust in Hashem, our God. Thank you Rabbi for posting this topic.
Chesed Avraham
missouri
December 9, 2016
I used to daven in my own language. But after I learn to read Hebrew I slowly switched to davening in Hebrew. Even though I still do not understand the language, somehow the prayers are more meaningful. It is as if my neshama understands. Just my feelings.
Anonymous
December 8, 2016
Amen!
Anonymous
December 8, 2016
I do not know Hebrew...I tried to learn the language but, confess, didn't pursue much.
So I say all my prayers in English...I understand what I am reading...and think it comes from my heart. And then G_d does answer my prayers...if not always.
Thank you dear G_d.
Alice
Torrance
December 8, 2016
Artscroll publishes trnasliterated books with the Hebrew on the right side, the transliterated Hebrew on the left side and the English translation right below it. I have been davening with the Daily, Shabbat, Psalms, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur transliterated editions for many years as I too wanted to know what I was saying and the meaning of the prayers. These books opened up my eyes to the great and fabulous works that our sages put together many centuries ago.These are books that once you begin davening using these books, you want more as I did. The Artscroll Stone edition of the Torah and the books on the prophets while not transliterated are so interesting that when I read the Torah and the Haftorah portions, I spend a lot of time reading the footnotes quoting our great interpreters as it has encouraged me to learn more about the portions. It is like the readings come alive as I am reading the portion.
Anonymous
Brooklyn NY
December 7, 2016
If it is so important to pray in Hebrew, why is Kaddish, which is recited in several different forms, many many times throughout the service, in Aramaic? Why is it not translated into Hebrew if it is so important? Even if it was composed in another language, there is no reason not to translate it into Hebrew.
Susan Levitsky
December 7, 2016
understanding or we say: standing under
REF: “While conceding that the common custom is to pray in Hebrew regardless of comprehension,”
nimrod made his temple using Hebrew (understanding the Noahide laws) speaking peoples. For this we know what was to follow. For if they understood the law, they would not have make the temple. For they spoke in differed languages (chaos, not understanding, meaning of a word). We know how traditions/customs make restrictions, but then restrictions belong to mortal perceptions of implementation of Holy law. For oral law (thought) and written law (etched) is dynamic to unity of understanding of a mutual guarantee. There are two few Jews (they who study Torah to understand) in the world and this population has been limited by language comprehension. Hebrew is the Holy language, but to understand what it means is to reflect change (refinement) in behaviors (utterances). For the Sages have brought forth Torah, Zohar and kabbalah to raise the awareness level of understanding.
zak
San Diego
December 7, 2016
I notice I sometimes pray in "broken Hebrew"
Which is better than all English, I think. Even my "Sh'ma Israel" comes out mixed. This article motivates me to bear down on this aspect of my dedication. Thank you.
Anonymous
USA
December 7, 2016
Kaddish is not in Hebrew
Kaddish is not in Hebrew. It is in Aramaic, because that was the main language that people spoke at the time, not Hebrew, so one see that it is important for people to understand what their prayers mean. THat is in their heart (BeLibo) that is in their mind, they should understand it. I think one should endeavour to learn and understand Hebrew words and grammar, so that the holy tongue comes alive for you so you can appreciate what is being said onver time as you learn, perhaps as you go on this path read each sentence in both languages so that you say it in Hebrew and also understand what you have said as you transition to Hebrew.
Eliezer Simcha ben Pinchas
Manchester, UK
December 6, 2016
davening in Hebrew
Many years ago I attended the funeral of a very close friend. it was jewish ,but not what i was familiar with in terms of my own jewish background. something was missing in the sense that it felt diluted. I was unmoved until they recited kaddish in Hebrew. it was then that I knew that Hebrew was the language of our neshumah regardless of translation. our sages tell us that the world was created by Hebrew letters. such may be difficult to explain ,but there is the power of consciousness over the mask of surface illusions. To be a yid is to be conscious.
arthur yanoff