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!