Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently purchased an ArtScroll Siddur, and am enjoying the English translation. I really don’t understand Hebrew, although I can read it. Is the translation just for understanding what the Hebrew means, or can one actually pray in the English? I personally can’t see why not, as I assume God can understand all languages?
As you assumed, God understands all languages, and Jewish law permits one to pray in the language they understand (Talmud, Sotah 33a and Shulchan Aruch O”Ch 101:4). However, there are a number of reasons why Hebrew is the preferred language for prayer:
First, Hebrew is unique in that it is called the “holy tongue.” This is because it is pure, and has no swear words, not even any words directly describing intimate relations or any such matters. It is, therefore, the ideal language through which to approach God.
Furthermore, explain the Kabbalists, Hebrew is the language God used to create the universe. It is the language of creation, the language the Torah was given in, the language of the prophets, King David and his psalms. Hebrew carries the soul of the Jewish people, our heritage and destiny. It is ideal to communicate with God in the same language He communicated with us.
Second, the “Men of the Great Assembly,” the sages who penned the words of the established prayers of the Siddur, cloaked untold layers of meaning in the words of the prayers — from the simplest meanings to the most profoundly Kabbalistic. One could spend an entire lifetime studying the Siddur/prayerbook, and still not plumb the most profound depths of its meaning. Vast Kabbalistic works are dedicated to uncovering the concealed meanings within the prayers. Those veiled meanings, which accompany our prayers uttered even with a simple understanding, “hitch a ride” to the highest heavens through the vehicle of the Hebrew verbiage, which contains those meanings. (See Biur Halacha to Shulchan Aruch, loc. cit.)
Third, by praying in the original Hebrew we join the millions of Jews throughout the world and the generations who have uttered the same exact words for thousands of years. These holy words have been uttered throughout both the best and the most trying of circumstances, and are above time and circumstance.
However, the most important part of prayer, as the Torah itself says, is to pray from the heart. If praying in Hebrew will deprive one of feeling and meaning from the heart, it is better to pray in English to get the main point of prayer, the cake itself, than all the above points, which are the icing on the cake. The prayer needs to be an integral part of our love relationship with God — and it’s difficult to maintain a relationship when the partners don’t understand one another!
I have recommended to many beginners to pray mostly in English, but to choose one blessing at a time to study and know its entire meaning in Hebrew. Just say that one blessing, or verse, in Hebrew until you’re totally comfortable with each word. Then go on and do the same with another blessing or verse, such as the Shema. Bit by bit, each small portion will become like building blocks to build your understanding of the Siddur. One day, you’ll wake up and find that you are saying and understanding a large part of the Siddur in the original! Good luck!
Dear Rabbi Fried,