Hebrew & Prayer

Prayer in Hebrew, even in when the language is unfamiliar, can have an emotional impact, which is deepened by an understanding of key concepts and words.

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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.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.