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.
Understand What You’re
Others, including the Magen Avraham 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.”
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
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!