The classic Jewish prayers of antiquity and many composed in the centuries since then are in Hebrew. (Some are in Aramaic, a closely related language.) The talmudic rabbis composed the earliest prayers in the Hebrew of the Bible, archaic even for the rabbis, and while they permitted prayer in other languages, the tradition of prayer in Hebrew remained strong throughout the centuries. In this article, a contemporary scholar of Jewish prayer addresses the challenge of making prayer in an unfamiliar "sacred tongue" nonetheless meaningful. Reprinted with permission from Entering Jewish Prayer (Schocken Books).
The language of Jewish prayer is Hebrew. Certainly it is permissible to pray in any language. The Sages of the Mishnah indicated how important they thought it was that we understand what we say:
"These may be said in any language . . . the recitation of the Shema, the Prayer [the Amidah], and the Blessing After Meals" (Sotah 7:1).
If that is so, what need is there for the non-Hebrew speaker to pray in Hebrew? Franz Rosenzweig remarked that "the uncomprehended Hebrew gives him more than the finest translation…. Jewish prayer means praying in Hebrew." There is an emotional element that reciting prayer in Hebrew can add even to those who do not comprehend every word. There is a feeling of identification with an ancient tradition and with other Jews wherever they may be which enhances the experience of prayer.
There is nothing magical in Hebrew, but there is something culturally meaningful that is lost when traditional prayers are said in other languages. Even if one does not understand the words, a glance at the translation will enable one to bring some level of meaning to the recitation, which is then supplemented by the emotional impact of the Hebrew text. Furthermore, by learning about the texts themselves, you can apprehend the sense of the texts, if not of every word.
Obviously, the more one knows the text in its original language, the better. The real meaning of the text lies in its original language. The terms that are used, the multiple meanings and echoes within them, can seldom be fully conveyed in translation.
Language is Culture, and Translations are Inexact
Languages are also reflections of specific cultures. When God is called "go’el" and the English renders it "redeemer," we have entered into another thought-world with connotations not to be found in the Hebrew. For Christianity–and English is a Christian language–redemption means saving someone doomed to perdition because of sin. For Judaism, it means rescuing Israel from the enslavement of foreigners.
When we thank God for "torah u-mitzvot,” we are not speaking of "law and commandments." "Law" is a set of legal norms. Torah is God’s instruction, either in a specific book or in all of Jewish tradition as it has developed. "Commandments" has the harsh sound of orders given by a commander. Mitzvot are both actions we are expected to perform and actions of a positive nature which stem from religious convictions.
All of this is on the most basic level of semantics. If it is true, as has been said, that reading a work in translation is like kissing through a veil, what shall we say about trying to pray through translation? Beyond the basic level, there is the level of emotion that only the Hebrew can properly achieve.
Even a Limited Amount of Learning Can be Valuable
What are we to do, therefore, when so many Jews do not understand the language? It is fatuous to say, "Learn it!" as desirable as that would be. But we can say, "Learn the vocabulary of prayer." It is possible to study enough about the prayers so that even if you do not understand every word, the main words and phrases will be familiar to you.
Glance at the translations as you pray to remind yourself of the meaning, but do not depend on them. For if all translations are interpretations, translations of prayers are even more likely to be explanations and to contain the theology and philosophy of the translator. If you have read about the prayers, you will know enough to assign whatever meaning you feel appropriate at the time you are saying them.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.