Prayer Essentials

For the week ending 2 April 2016 / 23 Adar II 5776

Praying in Any Language

by Rabbi Yitzchak Botton
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Regarding the language of prayer, the Talmud clearly states that one may pray in any language that he understands. (Berachot 40b; Shulchan Aruch 101:4)

However, this ruling seems to apply only to an individual, and only on a temporary basis. This is why we see that all places of worship, not only in Israel but even in America and other countries around the world, pray only in Hebrew. In fact, praying publicly in a language other than “lashon hakodesh” (“the holy language”) is strictly forbidden. (Mishna Berurah 101:13 in the name of Sefer HaBrit)

Therefore, if at all possible, it is preferable to pray in lashon hakodesh (Mishnah Berura ibid.). Some authorities stress that due to the great spiritual power invested in the lashon hakodesh it is preferable to pray the set, daily prayers (i.e., Shacharit, Mincha and Ma’ariv) in Hebrew even if one does not understand the words (Solet Belulah). Others maintain that it is best to pray in the language that one understands (Asara Mamarot; Sefer Chassidim). Based on the above the Kaf HaChaim (101: 16) rules that one who is able to pray in lashon hakodesh should do so even if he does not understand; and only one who cannot pray in Hebrew at all should pray in another language.

One fulfills his obligation of prayer in another language only if he understands that language. (It seems that paying attention to the words he is reciting is also required. Thus, when a person does not pay attention to the words he is saying it is questionable if he fulfills his obligation to pray.) One of the differences in halacha between Hebrew and other languages is that when praying in Hebrew one fulfills his obligation even if he does not comprehend the words he is saying. (Mishnah Berurah 101:14 and others)

On the surface this ruling appears difficult to understand. How can one be considered to be praying to G-d if he has no idea what he is saying? The answer is that the text of the prayer we are talking about is of rabbinical origin, instituted when the Jewish People went into exile. Therefore, when the great Sages, known as the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah (“Men of the Great Assembly”), established the set text of prayer in Hebrew, they instilled within it the power to ascend to Heaven even without understanding the words. (Kaf Ha’Chaim ibid; Mishnah Berurah 101:14)

In closing I would like to say: It is taught that all of the prayers of the Jewish People unite as one, ascending Above, becoming a “crown for G-d” (Zohar). Accordingly, it would seem that the heart we invest into our prayers is the crown jewel, for Above, the Merciful One desires the heart. (Zohar)

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