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October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776
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Hebrew in Prayers

  1. Most of my life I did not think it was important to learn to read or understand any Hebrew, until I actually learned to read it. I'm still not very good at it, and I've learned a few of the meanings. But to answer the above question, I'd have to say it was an emotional response that I saw important in reading the prayers in Hebrew. The first time I could actually read the Sh'ma it was so exciting!!!! And now it is more important than ever to understand the impact that the Hebrew language has on the text, especially when the translations in the prayer book are not exactly what one is reading in Hebrew. It is also important, at least to me, to know that I can read the prayer in the language that has been used for generations. It is the language of the Torah and the Torah becomes more authentic to me if I can read it in its original language. When I sing an aria from an opera, it would be easier in some cases to just sing them in English, but it makes more sense to sing them in the original language; the words just fit the notes better. And then I want to know what the words mean so I know what I am singing.

  2. Whatever else may be said about worshiping in Hebrew rather than in the vernacular, it has no more important function than linking us with our people horizontally--in geography--and vertically--in time.

    I had recognized this intellectually for years--but two weeks ago, I attended Shabbat services in Rome. The service was according to the Italian minhag, which predates the Ashkenazi-Sephardi division. The music was totally unfamiliar. And yet, because it was all in Hebrew (which I am fortunate enough to know reasonably well), I was totally at home.

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  3. Mar 2005 Digest 045
    There are folks who prefer the service to be largely in English, but the reason is not that they're lacking in Hebrew.

    There are plenty of Reform Jews who are Hebrew-literate but prefer to have much of their religious service in their native tongue (i.e. for me, English).

    As one who was brought up in Reform, I can tell you where I came from: We were taught that the opportunity to have a religious service largely in English was one of the primary "positives" about being a Reform Jew.

    This is certainly not to say one can't experience "positives" reciting some of the prayers in Hebrew. But I daresay the majority of us think and process ideas far better in English. And at least some of us do have a deep need to think and process during the service.

  4. Mar 2005 Digest 045

                …some of the people I talked with told me that they only learned enough Hebrew to get through their bar/bat mitzvah or confirmation and then just forgot most of it. When Hebrew is recited in Shabbat services, many stand mute.

    If it was left up to me as an American whose native language is English (even though it's not "true" English (as in British context,) I would personally prefer that the entire Reform service be in English, with perhaps only one or two prayers in Hebrew. To me, learning Hebrew has been very hard--and not just because of my age, I don't think. It took me quite a while to understand how some people might want to have Hebrew in their services or even what value Hebrew could have to someone who doesn't really speak it on a regular basis.

    However, I did find that it made sense to learn Hebrew if a person was going to study texts written in Hebrew. Never really thinking before that learning a language to avoid relying on someone else's translation of something is an advantage to learning the "original language" (which is not the Hebrew spoken today for the most part) to me despite having a father who studied Greek to be able to interpret the writings of the "New Testament" (sorry, I don't know of another way to phrase it--unless you want to just refer to it as Christian writings. I truly try to be sensitive to other Jewish readers of my posts, as I am relative "new" in Judaism--not that I would be insensitive had I been Jewish for years and years!…


  5. Mar 2005 Digest 045

                Speaking only for myself, I pray in Hebrew. Period. I believe that prayers in Hebrew carry a mystical resonance that cannot be duplicated in any other language, English or otherwise.  I have never liked reading censored or adulterated material. Many of the prayers in the Reform siddur are just that-interpreted in the light of "progressive" Judaism. Although I pray in a Reform temple, I do not subscribe to many (most?) Reform concepts.


  6. Mar 2005 Digest 045

                Twenty plus years ago I went to Israel with a small group. Erev Shabbat we went to synagogue in Jerusalem. They knew we were coming and were very gracious to us--even having Gates of Blue available for us if we wanted them. After services and the Oneg Shabbat, we were talking outside the synagogue and one of our group said: “How can they call this a Reform synagogue, the whole service was in Hebrew?!”   Some of us are still chuckling about that one.  However, it points out that we Americans are rather egocentric. I had had no professional Hebrew teaching in twenty-five years, but I had no trouble with the prayers. It was strange to go to a service where there was no need to have translations or versions of the prayers. There were additional readings in Hebrew of course.

    I was not uncomfortable, but suppose the service had been in Zagreb or Athens or Japan in the vernacular with no Hebrew prayers. I would have been totally lost. Like the old Latin Mass (which appears to be making a come back), the use of Hebrew makes the service, even with variations, coherent, recognizable, all over the world and I don’t have to figure out what the editors were thinking when they chose one version over another if I’m lucky enough to understand the language being used. I suspect…that in Europe and the Western Hemisphere only the Anglican Church can claim that its original language of liturgy was and is also its vernacular.

    (Although it might have been Latin and I'm leaving Native American religion out)


  7. Mar 2005 Digest 045

                One of the many joys of my role in our synagogue is that I have the opportunity to teach a variety of adult Hebrew classes, all of which focus on prayer and liturgy. My classes are basically the only ones offered in town, so I have people attending from a variety of local synagogues and movements. In our study we use Sim Shalom as well as Gates of Prayer (gray version) and more traditional translations provided by ArtScroll and a Torah Aura Productions publication entitled Shema Is For Real.

    What becomes a realization for my students each year is that, even when the words are recited in English, or when they chose to quietly read the English in the midst of a worship service, much of the meaning doesn't soak in. As we begin to explore the text together, look at the reasons and intent that  the rabbis had when placing it in the service, and then discuss the  personal connection and meaning that makes it relevant (or not) for them, the  prayers come "alive."

                As we look at the Hebrew words and the translations, they can best see what is interpretation and what is translation and can really begin to "make meaning." It is often a surprise for all that Sim Shalom also offers interpretation as much as translation for most see the Conservative Movement as having a "traditional" take on the service.

    So, I guess that the short summary of what I said above is that whether our service is in English or Hebrew or some combination thereof, in the end, it is understanding through learning that truly makes it meaningful.


  8. Mar 2005 Digest 045

                I simply find that Hebrew prayers bring me closer to G_D.

    Larry R

  9. Mar 2005 Digest 046

                When it comes down to it, the issue of Hebrew seems to spin around two very important

    issues: inclusion/marginalization, and authenticity.

    …Regarding the "authenticity" issue, I have a brief thought. Here in Israel, in the IMPJ, we pray in the vernacular, which is Hebrew. Or at least it seems like that. The Hebrew of the siddur is to the Hebrew of the street as the English of the KJB is to the English you speak, and sometimes more like that of Chaucer. So it would seem that in certain moments of the service, we would opt for "translation"--for a more colloquial language, rather than the "stilted" or "poetic" Hebrew of the siddur. But that would somehow be "inauthentic", so most congregations tend to stick to the text of "Avodah Shebalev", the IMPJ siddur published in the early 1980s, with additions.

    But the issue of "authenticity" has been a bugaboo in Jewish life since the Septuagint was miraculously published about 2050 years ago. Back then, the Greek speaking Jews were complaining that they couldn't get any religious spiritual meaning from praying in Hebrew, so--"nothing is new under the sun, said Qohelet ben David"

  10. Mar 2005 Digest 046

                The authenticity issue is clouded by historical and linguistic issues, all of which can potentially reduce the potential of the text to be meaningful for the individual who wishes to use the text.

    Authenticity can create even more clouds when it is used to determine authority. For example, a tumult might occur if the Union were to authorize a siddur that contains certain relatively inauthentic "new" prayers or modified ancient prayers. I suggest that we minimize our concern for authenticity of a prayer and declare that the criterion of a prayer, whether in Hebrew or in English or in both, should be the ability of the individual to find spiritual meaning in it. The authors of the original prayers do not now need authenticity, and God never did. But we need meaning! For us, the meaning of the prayer is everything!

  11. Mar 2005 Digest 046

                I think prayer in Hebrew has a resonance and spiritual vibration that cannot be duplicated in any other language. Meaning may be derived from the medium as well as from the context. Meditative prayer depends on this.

  12. Mar 2005 Digest 047

                As I've become more adept in Hebrew and better able to comprehend its role in our history and its internal subtleties, I appreciate more and more the value of praying in the original rather than English. As a member of our Torah Study group on Shabbat mornings, I often go to our shelf or Torahs and look up the Hebrew words, and also the various translations. It is an enlightening exercise.

    In services too I've become more sensitive to the original. We're still using the Gates, but when I've seen Mishkan I've been struck by some of the alterations in the English. Some I like; others are less to my taste. But I'm always balancing the two languages and their respective value against my own momentary state of mind and soul. I usually pray in Hebrew as much as possible, but every once in a while--

  13. Sept 2006 Digest 139

                We recently received a complaint from a congregant that our services were not inclusive to everyone. He felt we did not include enough English in our service. I would like to ask everyone how much English they include and if they read all the Hebrew prayers in both Hebrew and English.

  14. Sept 2006 Digest 139

                This has not been a real issue until recently, when because of the closing of one of the local smaller synagogues, we have had a number of "shoppers", some of whom have voiced their concerns over the amount of Hebrew that we use. It has never seemed a problem to me, as I see it as an opportunity to improve my Hebrew, but many of these people are of an age to have "grown up" with a more classical Reform Judaism.

                Over the last few years we have pursued an informal policy of not repeating something in English that we have read in Hebrew and likewise if it is a prayer that is sung/chanted, it is not then read in either Hebrew or English.

                I think that the lack of inclusivity argument is an excuse for something else. a) I really don't want to take the trouble to learn Hebrew; or b) there is some other dissatisfaction for which the too much Hebrew issue is a convenient scapegoat.


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  15. Sept 2006 Digest 140

                We do about 50% Hebrew…As a reader of both languages, I find it pleasant to sometimes read the Hebrew, but other times hear it as background while I read and consider the diverse English translations available in the many Roman Numeralled Services of the GOP.

                Isn't the point to read and process the meaning of each prayer? This is possible no matter which language is used publicly, since an English translation appears immediately below each Hebrew paragraph.

                To read Hebrew, then English, would feel overbearing in my opinion. It would be like reading something twice in English.


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  16. Sept 2006 Digest 140

                In our small synagogue, we have been using the interim copy of the Mishkan T'filah. What we do is pick one of the quadrants to read for each prayer--whether it is in Hebrew or in English. The only exceptions are that we read/sing the V'Ahavtah both in Hebrew and in English, and we use one of the English selections as a lead-in to the candle blessings. I have not heard any complaints from our congregants, who have learned to turn the page to look for the next selection.

  17. Sept 2006 Digest 140

                …an old issue in Reform circles, going back to the early days in Germany. The argument for using the vernacular was originally that people did not know enough Hebrew (and couldn't translate it). So the leadership translated the prayers into German.

                Part of the early American reformers feud was that over how much of the service to retain, and whether to translate it. Einhorn's prayer book kept almost none of the prayers intact, while Wise included significantly more. When the first Union Prayer Book was created in the 1890s, Emil Hirsch, one of Einhorn's sons-in-law, was asked to create the siddur. Despite the fact that Wise's Minhag America was preferred in many synagogues, Hirsch followed Einhorn's lead and shortened the siddur more to his own liking. The discussion goes on.

                In my place, we are still using the Gates. We have done services almost all in Hebrew (and much of that chanted or sung), and have also prayed primarily in English. It depends which of the nine Erev Shabbat services we use (we do about four of them frequently). We rarely backtrack after reading in Hebrew and also read the English on Friday nights, but we do more of it on Shabbat mornings when we have B’nei Mitzvah.


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  18. Sept 2006 Digest 140

                [At our congregation, some] said there was too much Hebrew, others said they would be comfortable with more. So our committee analyzed how much English and how much Hebrew we actually use in the Friday night service and it turned out to be about 50% English and 50% Hebrew. Since that didn't seem to favor either side, and it was the rabbi's current way of doing it anyway, we did not seek any change. I am interested to see if more of the service will be conducted in Hebrew when we switch to the Mishkan Tfilah siddur since that has everything in transliteration.....

                …in my  experience, when praying with the congregation in Hebrew it is not really  possible to concurrently read and think about the English translation. I like to understand and think about what I am reading, therefore my own personal preference is to have the majority of the service in English. However the reality is that with a diverse congregation we have tried to reach and live with compromise.

  19. Sept 2006 Digest 141

                At [our congregation], we created our own prayer book many years ago--one of the first egalitarian prayer books with beautiful English (poetical) translations. We still use this prayer book today.  About 75-85 percent of what we use from it on any given Shabbat is Hebrew. It's worked well for us, but I do wish there was a transliteration for folks who are visiting. Regulars know the text very well.


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