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Judi's Journal 02-18-2011

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Why Jews pray in Hebrew

By Judi Siegal

 As president of a Jewish congregation, many times people will come up to me and ask why Jews pray in Hebrew and why the services are so long. The first question I would like to address in this column while the other I would like to answer with: “We have a lot to say”! How did the idea of praying in Hebrew come about and why is it an important component of a Jewish service?

          To begin with, Hebrew is the language of the liturgy.  When the rabbis compiled the siddur or Jewish prayer book centuries ago, they chose the language of the Jews of Israel. While Aramaic, a form of Hebrew, also has a place in the liturgy, most familiar being the Kaddish or prayer of sanctification, Hebrew is the dominant language. It has sentiments and nuances that render translations inadequate as to understanding the feeling that the prayer is trying to convey. Abraham Millgram in his classic work, Jewish Worship (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1971) points out this fact in quoting a Reform rabbi: “Hebrew is the language of prayer. While God does understand every language, as the Sages said centuries ago, the Jew has discovered Hebrew to be the most appropriate vehicle for communion with the deity, the most perfect instrument for placing before Him the yearnings of the heart and the needs of the soul.  Many of the traditional prayer and petitions defy translation.  Who can render into English “Ribono Shel Olam”? Master of the Universe does not convey the overwhelmingly religious content of these untranslatable Hebrew words, which are unique to the Jew.  And this is true of the entire liturgy, which loses much of its power and inspired character when rendered in another tongue.”

Hebrew is a holy language.  It is the language of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible), which includes the Torah.  It is the medium for the sacred writings of the Jews and while the Torah has been translated into Greek and other languages, Hebrew was and still is considered the more important language since it was the original. In synagogues all over the world, the Torah is read weekly in its original language, Hebrew. Because of its sacred nature, the rabbis ruled that it was the most appropriate language for prayer. Of course, God understands all languages but for the Jew, Hebrew has a special significance.

Because Jews are a dispersed people, Hebrew acts as a common denominator when it comes to prayer. While the Jews of the Orient and southern countries such as Greece, Turkey and Morocco speak Ladino, the Jews of Eastern Europe speak Yiddish.  The former is a mixture of Spanish, Turkish, Greek and another languages, the latter is a mélange of German, Hebrew, Russian and Slavic. No matter where you are in the world, attend a Jewish service and the Hebrew prayers will be familiar.  The Shema (Hear O Israel) is recognizable from Aden to Zanzibar.

          I once attended Shabbat services in Denmark.  I did not know a word of Danish but I could follow the entire service in Hebrew! Of course the translation meant nothing to me because it was in Danish, but at least I was on familiar ground with the Hebrew. But there is, of course, one country, where even the translation is in Hebrew.  That country is Israel but even in Israel the prayers are in Hebrew even if the language is the vernacular. I find it to be very spiritual to know that my fellow Jews are reciting the same prayers whether they are in Africa or the suburbs of New Jersey, the language, Hebrew, unites us as a people.

The Hebrew language has a rhythm and cadence all its own. Many times you will see Jewish worshippers swaying and bowing as they pray. The way the words are arranged enables the worshipper to really get into the essence of the prayer.  Many of the words are chanted aloud and they have an almost hypnotic effect.  When repeated over and over, they become a mantra and this concentration can take the worshipper to a higher spiritual plane. I have participated in services which have had guided meditation and mantras and while it is a bit different from what I am used to, it does add another dimension to the service.

          Rabbi Goldie Milgram, a Reconstructionist rabbi who I met recently, puts a mystical spin on the subject of Hebrew prayer. Founder and executive director of ReclaimingJudaism.org., her mission is to bring spirituality into Judaism making it relevant to modern seekers. Her insightful book, Meaning and Mitzvah, Daily practices for reclaiming Judaism through prayer, God, Torah, Hebrew, Mitzvot and Peoplehood,( Woodstock: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2005)offers many ways to experience God in Jewish life. She points out how the ancient Hebrews developed language from simple pictographs to letters and consonants with vowels. She illusrates how Hebrew words are built upon a shoresh, or root and how by adding vowels the words take on various meanings. Using the word, baruch, bless, for an example, she progresses from bless to pool to blessings, all by changing a vowel.  She points out that it is nice to know that “linguistically bundled into “bless” is the sense of living near a pool of blessings.” (p.145)

And what were the vowels that the Hebrews used that were also consonants?  They were yud, hey, and vav.  These are the very “letters that form the most sacred sequence in Torah, the letters of Hashem, “The Name” of God: …giving the power of reading and writing; advancing the capacity for shared learning.”

I love Rabbi Milgram’s beautiful thoughts and it nice to know that the power of language can contribute so much to our understanding of the divine and the nature of Jewish prayer.