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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.

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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Anonymous May 23, 2017

The Chabad siddur uses "Lord" and God" for the two most common names. Reply

Michael May 23, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

It is true that the Chabad siddur uses Lord/ God (there are different versions of Tehillas Hashem, by the way, one of which does not use Lord but only God); however, please see Rav Sternbuch's opinion (Teshuvos Ve'hanhogos 1:355) which says that a person who is davening in English should still say the names of Hashem in Hebrew. Perhaps the rav who wrote this article could address this. Reply

Yankeleh Gilead Thailand December 7, 2016

pPraying in Hebrew If one makes such a big tsimiss about the language used for praying, why bother to pray at all? At times I don't think either God nor man cares one way or another. Reply

Dn Scharfman West Hills October 11, 2015

Return I was brought up in a conservative synagogue, yet we did little practice at home. After Bar Mitzvah - nothing. Although I knew I was Jewish I always did feel guilty for not going. Jump ahead a number of years, I was married by a reformed Rabbi, had a daughter who went to a Reformed Hebrew school. Years later, I'm divorced, my duahgter went to Israle to become Frum. Just over 1 1/2 years agoa, I wnt to A Chabad for a class and never left. I'be benn slowly adopting a more orthodox observance.

I struggle with the Hebrew.as well. I do what I can and hope to a a new word or sentence per week. Putting on tefillin and at least saying Shma every morning helps as well.

Don't give up. I Reply

Jeff Ohio October 11, 2015

Should I be guilty - am I disrespecting my father Thank you for this post and the website in the global application. I feel that I'm a "bad Jew" I went to Hebrew school and had by bar mitzvah in Jerusalem. However, as the years went by I started to get to the point of just being able to sound out Hebrew. I do know what some prayers mean. However, when I go to synagogue with my father which now I'm sad to say is only on the high holidays I also work on Shabbat and my dad would go to temple if I was going along with him. So I go and I know some of what I read in the Hebrew maybe a third of it. It is a reform temple and at least half of the services in English. Although, the rabbi says all the prayers and Hebrew. I have a lot of guilt because my dad is in his early 70s and I know he would go more if I went. Am I disrespecting my father by not trying to attend proactively services with him more and also I know the Orthodox temple near us has daily services. My father can read it and understand biblical Hebrew. I will have to continue this in another message he did the character restrictions Reply

Joshua G. E. September 7, 2015

I must learn hebrew Reply

Menachem Posner Chicago May 19, 2015

To Chaim: As you can read in the article, the Code of Jewish Law brings two further qualifications to the notion that angels do not understand Aramaic:

a. 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.
b. The Talmud specifically mentions Aramaic. However, all other languages may be acceptable. Reply

Michael Brooklyn May 22, 2017
in response to Menachem Posner:

If one prays in English, how should he say the Sheim Hashem? Is L-rd acceptable? Reply

chaim May 18, 2015

please help So if I pray alone in english and the angels don't understand and they are supposed to carry out my prayers then my prayers our never heard? Reply

Gershon M KS January 23, 2015

To L in Vancouver Neither of the items you mentioned are prayers. In Uva Letzion, we tell of the angel's devotion to G-d, and then translate the Hebrew text into Aramaic. Patach Eliyahu is also not a prayer, but a quote from the Zohar, telling of G-d's unity in the 10 Sefirot.

Just a thought Reply

L Vancouver BC January 22, 2015

Aramaic in the U va le tzion goel Shalom. There is Aramaic in the U va le tzion goel. And this part one can pray without a minyan.
Same with Patach Eliyahu in the mincha for Friday.
How is it possible? Reply

Anonymous New Jersey January 22, 2015

Where does Greek fit in? My family heritage come from the name Kolunymous which means "good name" in Greek and Shem Tov in Hebrew, Are there any prayers that were said in Greek?
I went to Yeshiva and learned to read Aramaic for the Mishna and Gemorah and Hebrew for the Torah. It has been 60 years since my instruction and I am now relearning. Reply

Anonymous Howe January 22, 2015

Zohar I have been told that if I scan the Hebrew words with my eyes and my heart, and then read the English translation then I am doing the best that I can. Is this true, please? Reply

Jeanne Florida January 16, 2015

Mark, I too heard that subtle voice that continually encouraged me to go over to the Hebrew and begin to learn to read it as well as learning the translation. I obeyed and now I also take the daily siddur ( which has no transliteration ) and each evening I take a small portion and transliterate it, and then look up the meaning of the words I do not understand. What a wonderful experience this has been for me. I am 77 years old and about two years ago I told a friend that I was learning Hebrew, and she said, "You are learning Hebrew now!" ....And I said, "Helen, if not now, when?" Nothing compares to learning HaShem's language. Also, I read Art Scroll's The Wisdom of the Hebrew Alphabet." I am reading it again the second time. It is a splendid tool. Wishing you the very best! Reply

Mark Ranger-Latham Jamaica January 5, 2015

Praying in Hebrew I am able to read Hebrew almost perfectly but my comprehension is not as fluent. When I pray in Hebrew I feel each word moving through me literally. The English word have very little impact on me, hardly.

I learned to read Hebrew mystically. I used to rely on the English translation from the Art Scroll Siddur until I heard a subtle voice instructing me to read in Hebrew and and if I ignore the more intense the voice became and consequently I began reading in three days. Reply

Jeanne Florida 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. Reply

Howard Altholz New York 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? Reply

Josh Pactor Seattle, WA 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! Reply

New to Chabad California 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. Reply

Anonymous World December 25, 2013

Helpful Great Reply

Jeanne Lunkowski Florida 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. Reply

Steve Toronto November 24, 2013

This was very helpful - thanks so much! Reply

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