Dear Rabbi Fried,
A short time ago in your column you addressed the issue of talking in synagogue and attributed the problem, in part, to the lack of connection most Jews today have to the prayer service due to our deficiency in Hebrew. You suggested that shuls should have training programs to educate the congregants in the understanding and nuances of the prayer service. If my place of worship does not offer such classes, what do you recommend I do to become educated and connected to the service?
—Curious but Clueless
You could check the community calendar and see what courses are available for you to study Hebrew. The problem, however, with most such classes is that they will focus on modern Hebrew and not the classical Hebrew of the siddur (prayerbook). I will add your e-mail to the DATA list to keep you apprised of the courses we offer, from time to time, on Hebrew reading and comprehension based on the siddur and classical texts which would be helpful in your quest.
Next is what I have recommended to many for private self-study; most have reported back that this was helpful for them and they achieved success. That is to pick one blessing of the Amidah, or the first line of the Sh’ma, and work on understanding each word of that particular prayer. That line or prayer should be recited in Hebrew until you totally master it; the rest, pray in English. Once you are completely fluent in that prayer, then move on to the next one and do the same. You will find each prayer successively easier, as many words are repeated throughout the service which you already know from the previous blessing or line. You’ll pick up a few new words with the next. Never move on to the next prayer until you’re confident of the one at hand.
While studying the translation of each prayer, it’s a great time to focus on its meaning as well. Whether using your own thoughts or by studying a commentary, try to understand what that prayer asks for and how to make it relevant to your own life. In the Amidah, it’s relatively easy to connect to requests like those for healing and material success. It’s more difficult, for many, to personally connect to those asking for the return of the Judges, or rebuilding Jerusalem or the Davidic dynasty. For that I recommend the ArtScroll Siddur, which has a concise but meaningful commentary. To go more in depth, I suggest “Rav Schwab on Prayer,” a powerful, profound commentary which explains the far-reaching significance of each prayer and how it affects our lives and the Jewish people.
Even the prayers for health and the like have a deeper layer of significance. If you look carefully at the wording of all the prayers in the Amidah (the focal point of the daily service), you will find that they are in the plural; we are not simply requesting for ourselves, but for all of klal Yisrael. This raises our focus to a higher level and creates a much bigger picture. It opens our hearts much wider whenever we pray, for we not only focus on our own individual needs, we force ourselves to be constantly aware of the needs of the entire Jewish people.
This is the deeper meaning of the Sh’ma, which is not actually a prayer per se, rather an affirmation of our belief in G-d. This proclamation begins with the words “Sh’ma Yisrael,” “listen Israel,” which means that we accept G-d’s Oneness not as individuals but as part of klal Yisrael. The custom is to cover one’s eyes when reciting the Sh’ma, for concentration. One rabbi, however (R’ Moshe Scherer ob”m), used to explain that when one’s eyes are open they can see only the Jews in the shul. When one’s eyes are covered, however, they can see all the Jews in the world!
Lastly, if there’s an interest among the readers to create a new, in-depth class to understand the prayers, I will make sure it happens. Just e-mail me and let me know!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
Ask the Rabbi
Dear Rabbi Fried,