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?
- When the Talmud 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!)
- Hebrew is called the "Holy Tongue." According to Nachmanides its specialness is expressed in the fact that it is G‑d's language of choice for revealing Himself to the prophets.
- 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. 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.
All agree, however, that the Amidah may be recited in any language. How does this square with the above-mentioned rule that the angels do not understand other languages? The Talmud 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 Law brings two further qualifications:
- 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.
- 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. Maimonides 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." 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, the opening blessing of the Amidah, and the line in Ashrei 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. 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.
Rabbi Menachem Posner