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Sunday, 29 November 2015

Substandard Prayer

Daf Yomi Sotah 33

A century and a half ago in Germany, a number of people gathered to introduce some radical changes to Jewish practice and liturgy.  One of the amendments was to change the vernacular of the prayer to German.  Why did they decide to abandon the Hebrew?  The obvious reason, one would think, was so that people could better understand what they were praying.  Most of us don’t understand every word in the original and so praying in our local language would make the prayers more meaningful.

But that is not the explanation of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in the Mishnah Berurah, also known as the Chofetz Chaim.  He explains that their motivation was to instill in our people the belief that a German Jew should be a proud German citizen and cease longing to leave for Israel with Moshiach.  And so, they deleted the brachos dealing with the messianic era – such as the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem – from the text of the siddur.  The switch to German language was a further attempt to negate any reference to redemption.

How so?  We know that our nation was redeemed from Egypt on account of our unique ethnic symbols – our clothing, our names, and our language.  Says the Chofetz Chaim, “Just as they wanted the people to forget the memory of Jerusalem, similarly they desired that the Jewish people should forget the Holy Language (Hebrew), lest they be redeemed in the merit of not changing their language!  May the Almighty protect us!”

Mishnah: The following may be recited in any language: The sotah chapter, the tithe confession, the recitation of the Shema, prayer.
Gemara: Prayer is a request for Divine mercy and one may therefore pray in whatever manner.
The Gemara asks: May one indeed pray in any language?  Did Rav Yehuda not teach, ‘A person should never beseech his needs in Aramaic?’ For Rabbi Yochanan taught, ‘Whoever beseeches his needs in Aramaic is not assisted by the angels, because angels do not know Aramaic!’
The Gemara answers: There is no contradiction.  That teaching refers to an individual, whereas our Mishnah refers to a community.
Rashi explains: An individual needs angels to carry his prayers, whereas communal prayers are accepted directly by Hashem.

So what’s the bottom line about praying in a language other than Hebrew?  The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states, “One may pray in any language he wants.  That is the case for communal prayer.  An individual, however, should only pray in Hebrew.  Some say that is only the case when one is beseeching one’s needs, such as praying for healing of the ill or distress at home; whereas the regular fixed prayers may be recited in any language even by an individual.  And some say that even an individual beseeching his needs may pray in any language, except Aramaic.”

So, if you’re making a habit of praying at home, you have what to rely upon.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, some say it’s okay to pray as an individual in any language.  If some say it’s okay, then I guess that works.  But I don’t know about you; I know that I’m not leaving my prayers to chance.  I put in way too much time and effort to rely on the fact that ‘some say’ it will work!  (I should note that for women, it’s 100% acceptable to pray as an individual; although if you can, it’s still better to pray with the community.) 

Even davening in English at shul is not so simple.  The Mishnah Berurah stresses that the permission granted to communal prayer in a language other than Hebrew is only on a temporary basis.  To amend the prayer service to permanently abandon the Holy Language is unacceptable.   In other words, bottom line is that you should make every effort to daven with a minyan in Hebrew. 

If your Hebrew reading and comprehension are not quite there yet, then work on it!  Stop using the English translation or transliteration as a crutch.  They’re only there as a temporary fix.  Long term, you should be davening in Hebrew. 

Why?  The Sefer Chasidim writes, “Hebrew has greater power than any other language.  It is the language in which the Almighty speaks to His prophets.  Our Sages teach that the world was created using the Holy Language.  Furthermore, when the Men of the Great Assembly instituted the formula of the prayers, there were 120 elders, many of whom were prophets.  They manifested each blessing’s words and letter formation with esoteric and exalted secrets.  When we recite the words as per their formulation, even if we don’t understand, our prayers rise up to Heaven properly, since the words themselves effect holiness in Heaven; which is not the case for other languages.”

Daven in Hebrew.  Daven with the minyan.  It’s way too risky to take chances on substandard prayer.  May all your prayers be answered by Heaven immediately!