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Must I pray in Hebrew?

Must I pray in Hebrew?

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Question:

All of the prayers in my synagogue are in Hebrew, and I don't understand a word of what we're saying. Why do we pray in Hebrew in the first place? Should I better read the Hebrew which I don't understand, or the English which I do understand?

The Simple Answer:

Hebrew is the language of choice for prayers. But prayer requires understanding. So if you understand the meaning of the words you are saying, pray in Hebrew. If you don’t, pray in the language you understand--until you learn Hebrew.

The Longer Answer:

Yes, the Shema, the Amidah, and virtually all of the prayers are recited in Hebrew—even in synagogues where most of the congregants are much more fluent in other languages. Why is this?

  1. When the Talmud1 discusses praying in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, it asserts that the angels do not understand Aramaic. Since we need the angels to carry our prayers on high, we should pray in a language that they understand. (Why we need angels to carry our prayers in the first place deserves an entire letter for itself!)
  2. Hebrew is called the "Holy Tongue." According to Nachmanides2 its specialness is expressed in the fact that it is G‑d's language of choice for revealing Himself to the prophets.3
  3. The prayers were written in Hebrew. As the saying goes, "there is no such thing as an accurate translation." Even the best translation cannot convey the entire intent of the original. When one prays in Hebrew, he is assured that he is praying exactly as our prophets and sages intended it.

So praying in Hebrew has many advantages over praying in English. But what if you don't know Hebrew? Are you allowed to pray in other languages?

Concerning the Shema, there is a dispute in the Talmud.4 Rabbi Yehudah opines that one must recite it in the original Hebrew as it is written in the Torah. The majority of the sages, however, rule that one may read it in whichever language he understands. The Halachah follows the majority, and one may recite Shema in his own language—provided that he enunciates the words clearly and articulately.5

All agree, however, that the Amidah may be recited in any language.6 How does this square with the above-mentioned rule that the angels do not understand other languages? The Talmud7 qualifies this, saying that the angels' assistance is only necessary for one who prays alone. However, the prayer of a congregation is so potent that does not need the assistance of the angels to be heard by G‑d.

So how about one does not understand Hebrew and is praying alone? Why is he or she allowed to pray in the vernacular?

The Code of Jewish Law8 brings two further qualifications:

  1. The Talmud may have only referred to a situation where one is asking G‑d to fill his specific needs. When praying the standard prayers that all Jews pray, all languages are acceptable.
  2. The Talmud specifically mentions Aramaic. However, all other languages may be acceptable.

In short, it's preferable to learn Hebrew and pray in that language. But if you don't understand what you are saying, say it in the language you do understand.

So now we know that you are allowed to read the prayers in your own language, if you do not understand the Hebrew. But can you pray in Hebrew if you don't understand?

Understanding what you are saying is essential for the act of prayer. Maimonides9 writes that prayer without concentration is not considered prayer. Prayer, after all, is not a matter of simply uttering words. Prayer is called "service of the heart.10" You can say all the words in Hebrew, but you haven't performed the mitzvah of prayer—because how can your heart express itself with words you don't understand?

The best solution, obviously, is to start learning Hebrew. If you never start reading Hebrew, you will never learn. So I suggest that you work your way into it. Begin with just a few lines which you have learned to understand, and slowly expand your repertoire. Add on one blessing at a time. Before you know it, you will have mastered the entire Amidah and much more besides.

Let me also point out that while one must understand and pay attention to the entire prayer, mental focus is most vital during the first line of the Shema,11 the opening blessing of the Amidah,12 and the line in Ashrei13 where we say, "You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing." If you said any of the other parts of the prayer while distracted, you do not have to go back and repeat them. With these parts, however, you do have to return and say them over again. 14 Hence it may make sense to learn the meaning of those parts of the prayer first, and start other areas with Hebrew before you fully know what they mean.

When working the Hebrew into your prayers, you may want to start with those paragraphs that the congregation sings together. Singing along is usually easier than grappling with the words alone!

Please let me know how it goes.

Yours truly,

Rabbi Menachem Posner

FOOTNOTES
1.

Sotah 33a.

2.

Exodus 30:13.

3.

Maimonides writes (Moreh Nevuchim 3:8) that this appellation reflects the fact that Hebrew contains no words for certain bodily functions, preferring instead to refer to them euphemistically.

4.

Talmud, Brachot 13a.

5.

Code of Jewish Law, Orech Chaim 62:2.

6.

Talmud, Sotah 32a.

7.

Talmud, Sotah 33a.

8.

Orech Chaim, 101:4.

9.

Hilchot Nesiyat Kapayim 4:15.

10.

Sifri Eikev 5.

11.

Code of Jewish Law, Orech Chaim 60:5.

12.

Code of Jewish Law, Orech Chaim 101:1.

13.

Psalms 145.

14.

With regard to the Amidah, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (gloss to Orech Chaim 101:1) points out that this is not done today since most of us are not so good at concentrating, and there is no guarantee that we will concentrate any better when repeating the prayer. We do, however, repeat the Shema and the verse in Ashrei since it is easy to concentrate for the one requisite verse (Shulchan Aruch Harav ad loc).

Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for Chabad.org.
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Discussion (33)
June 26, 2014
Praying in Hebrew
Josh's comment is very helpful for those of us attempting to learn to pray in Hebrew while also wanting to know what we are saying to HaShem. About Ashkenaz: When I first started I knew from nothing, and learned many things. My Siddurim are Ashkenaz, and will for instance transliterate "sorosecho," while the Hebrew uses a "tav," and and a different vowel and reads "toratecha." It takes a little getting used to, however, if we want to see how it is both ways, the Hebrew is there for us. For all of us, the most important thing is our desire to become closer to HaShem and He does indeed help us learn.
Jeanne
Florida
June 24, 2014
When did Jews start learning Hebrew without being able to understand the words? Is this something new, or has it been going on for hundreds of years?
Howard Altholz
New York
April 28, 2014
Too fast!
This is a common problem. You might get some traction by talking to the rav and discussing the situation. The best solution, though: Pray at your own pace! Prayer is about your connection to Hashem first and foremost. It's okay not to keep up with everyone else. In fact, if there are exactly ten in the minyan, at certain points the sheliach or chazzan must wait for you! Don't rush your personal time with HaKadosh Baruch Hu, it really isn't (and shouldn't be) a speed contest!
Josh Pactor
Seattle, WA
April 24, 2014
Reading is so fast
If reading with understanding is the fulfillment of mitzvah, then I doubt that most are not reaching that fulfillment. Since I cannot read Hebrew with understanding, I read the English. However, if I read English as fast as those reading in Hebrew, I don't read with comprehension either - and I am a native born English speaker. It almost seems as if there is a contest going on – who can finish first. I don’t understand why prayer is done as if one is speed-reading. It seems to take away the importance of the prayer.
New to Chabad
California
December 25, 2013
Helpful
Great
Anonymous
World
December 19, 2013
Hebrew Prayers
I found that using the Transliterated Siddur for Sabbath and Festivals has been a tremendous help to me in assisting my prayers in Hebrew. I can say the prayers and also see the Hebrew at the same time, and added to that is that the prayers are also translated into English. These help until we learn the words and their meanings. I am sure HaShem accepts our intentions and I have found that the prayers also help in my studies of Hebrew.
Jeanne Lunkowski
Florida
November 24, 2013
This was very helpful - thanks so much!
Steve
Toronto
March 6, 2013
Praying in Hebrew
Wow I found this helpful. I am in the process of conversion and am working with somone to help me learn how to read Hebrew. This gave me inspiration to continue working hard to learn.
Rob
May 20, 2012
Re: Hebrew prayers, not Yiddish
Joseph,

Ashkenazic pronunciation is still Hebrew, just as Castillian Spanish and Mexican Spanish are still both Spanish. In this case it is merely a difference in pronunciation of certain consonants and vowels.

I recommend locating one of many of Sephardic communities throughout the United States, if you prefer the Sephardic pronunciation in your prayer service.

I wish you the best in your search for a meaningful prayer experience here in the 'States!
Josh Pactor
Seattle, WA
March 23, 2012
Hebrew prayers, not Yiddish
I am a Sephardic.... and I am used to praying in Hebrew, but find it very hard to find in Hebrew prayers in America..... even among Chabad Centers... Why? Because they (you) mostly pray in Yiddish-Hebrew! Shabbos, Yisroel, beMitzvossav.... Why not say Shabbat, Israel (Yisrael), beMitzvotav...??
Joseph Caro
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