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praying in Hebrew

Do We Have to Pray in Hebrew?

    When we pray as Jews, do we have to pray in the Hebrew language or can we use a different language with which we are more fluent?  This classic question is very relevant for those of us who may not be native Hebrew speakers or who may not have had a yeshiva background.  To fully address this question we must first understand something of the nature of Jewish prayer and its history.

    In Judaism, prayer is understood as a great privilege as well as a daily obligation.  It gives us an ability to forge a special relationship with God by which we can change not only our own destiny but also the destiny of all those around us.  The first person to pray was Adam HaRishon, the first man. Our rabbis tell us that after he was created, Adam recognized the need for rain and then proceeded to pray for it. From that time on, until many generations later, each person would compose his own prayers, speaking to God from the depths of his own heart as he felt the need.  Finally, the Anshei Kenesset HaGedola, the rabbinical body that led Bnei Yisrael after the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash, saw that the ability to effectively compose tefillot was being lost. At that time, they took it upon themselves to use their prophetic vision and great wisdom to compose all the basic prayers that the Jewish people should say.  With very little change, these are, in fact, the very tefillot that have come down to us today.  
    The rabbis designed every word of the text of our tefillot to be effective on many different levels from the simple meaning of the words to the deepest mystical implications imaginable. They used the language of Lashon Hakodesh to accomplish this.  Lashon Hakodesh, literally “the holy language”, is colloquially known as Biblical Hebrew since it’s the language of the Torah and the language that God used to create the world.  So if our tefillot have been written with such care in the original Hebrew so that each word has many layers of meaning how can we then say them in any other language?
    To answer this question we must first look at the Gemara in Masechta Sotah. The Gemara tells us that a person who prays with the tzibur or congregation may pray in any language he wants. However, one who prays by himself should not ask for his needs in Aramaic (which was the common spoken language of the time). The commentaries explain that when there is a minyan, God’s presence is in attendance and our tefillot are accepted readily by Him. However, when a person prays as an individual, his prayers need the help of the melachim which are the heavenly angels to bring it inside the pargod, or heavenly curtain.  The melachim, it is said, are “not attached to the language of Aramaic” and therefore will not bring that tefilla to God.

    The commentaries glean many important halachot from this Gemara. The first concerns the differences between Lashon Hakodesh, Aramaic and other languages. The rishonim offer three different ways of explaining the phrase “the angels are not attached to Aramaic” and from each we gain a different perspective on our problem. The first opinion is that of Rabbeinu Alfalsi, the Rif, who says that the Gemara cites Aramaic only as an example to illustrate that the angels do not understand any language other than Lashon Hakodesh.  Subsequently, according to the Rif, the halacha would be that one should only pray in Lashon Hakodesh. The second opinion understands the Gemara to mean that while the angels understand all languages, they prefer Lashon Hakodesh. The third opinion is that of Rabbeinu Asher, the Rosh, who interprets the Gemara to mean that the angels find Aramaic to be disgusting, but that they understand and will bring all other languages to God. The opinion that one accepts determines the language that he will use for prayer.  Most halachic authorities agree that the halacha follows the Rosh and, therefore, an individual may pray in whichever language he wants, with the exception of Aramaic. However, in deference to the Rif, it is considered a mitzvah min hamuvchar, the choicest way to do the mitzvah, to pray in Lashon Hakodesh.

    The second set of halachot that are learned from this Gemara concern the differences between communal prayer and individual prayer. One of the great advantages of praying with a minyan is that God is in attendance and the petitioner’s prayer is readily accepted by God Himself. Indeed, we see this in practice regarding various tefillot that are in Aramaic, such as yekum porkan which we say on Shabbat. If one is praying by himself, this prayer is omitted.  Similarly, since God’s presence rests next to the bed of a sick person, one can pray for that sick person in any language he wishes, even Aramaic.
    How should a person who does not have an understanding of Hebrew pray? That really depends on the temperament of the person. He could either recite the prayers from a siddur that has a reliable translation or recite them in Hebrew. Our rabbis tell us that although prayer from the heart comes from a language one understands, there is a distinct advantage to praying in Lashon Hakodesh. Namely, that if one does not understand every word he is saying he, nevertheless, has still fulfilled his obligation and his tefilla will be accepted. Rav Moshe Feinstein cautions against one making up his own tefillot because they probably would not be able to include all of the components necessary in order to fulfill the Biblical obligation of tefilla.  The Mishnah Berurah tells us that every person should make it his daily habit to ask for his needs at the end of his tefilla. He should pray for his livelihood and that his Torah learning not be forgotten.
    In the final analysis, prayer is the time to have a personal conversation with one’s Creator. If one cannot organize his thoughts in Hebrew then he should do so in whatever language he understands.  Although our tefillot are always heard and desired, there are preferred ways to fulfill this great mitzvah that we have. Lashon Hakodesh remains the preferred language for Jewish prayer but no matter what language we use Hashem is always ready and able to hear our heartfelt supplications.

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas