I received the following e-mail question from Verna Acular*:
I much prefer to pray in English, since reading the siddur in Hebrew provides me with no emotional connection to G-d. I was told to read the Hebrew even though I cannot comprehend it, yet other people I know were told that they could pray in English. Which approach is correct?
Bella, a middle-aged, new immigrant from Central Europe, struggles to ask the rabbi:
I became frum in Hungary and Hungarian is the only language that I can read and understand. Someone told me that now that I am living in the United States, I cannot pray in Hungarian, but must learn to read either English or Hebrew. Is this so? I am really too old to learn to read a new language.
Bracha Acharona asked me the following:
I heard that some authorities rule that if one recited a bracha in Japanese before eating, one should not recite the bracha again, even if one does not know a word of Japanese; yet, if one bensched in Japanese, one would be required to bensch again. Is there indeed a difference between a bracha before eating and one afterwards?
The Gemara discusses whether a kohen who knows no Hebrew may duchen in translation. Since this mitzvah is in the current week’s reading, we have an opportunity to discuss whether mitzvos that require speaking must be recited in Hebrew, or if they may be recited in translation.
Those That Can and Those Than Cannot
The Mishnah (Sotah 32a) supplies a rather long list both of mitzvos that are fulfilled only when recited in Hebrew and of those that are fulfilled when recited in any language. For example, one cannot fulfill the requirements of chalitzah (see Devarim 25:7-10), duchening (see Bamidbar 6:24-26), and the narration that accompanies bikkurim (see Devarim 26:5-11), unless one recites the exact Hebrew words that the Torah cites. On the other hand, other mitzvos, including the reciting of shma, prayer, and birkas hamazon (bensching) can be fulfilled by translating the relevant passages into a language with which one is familiar. Indeed the Gemara (Brachos 40b) records an instance in which an individual named Binyomin the Shepherd bensched in Aramaic, and Rav ruled that he had fulfilled his requirement. The Gemara explains the reason for which some mitzvos may be fulfilled in translation, but not others, on the basis of several intricate interpretations from various verses.
Which is preferable?
Having established that one may pray in a vernacular, the first question on which we will focus is whether it is preferable for someone who does not understand Hebrew to pray in a language that he understands, or whether it is preferred to pray in Hebrew, even though it is not understood.
From Tosafos (Sotah op. cit.) we see that someone who does not understand Hebrew and recites a prayer, shma, or bensching in Hebrew does not fulfill the mitzvah. Tosafos asks why the Mishnah omits hearing Megillah from its list of mitzvos that may be fulfilled in any language. Tosafos answers that the mitzvah of Megillah is qualitatively different from all the other mitzvos mentioned in this Mishnah, because one who does not understand Hebrew fulfills the mitzvah of Megillah in Hebrew. Tosafos clearly understands that someone who prays, bensches or reads shma in a language he does not understand does not fulfill the mitzvah, even if the language is Hebrew, and the Mishnah is listing mitzvos that one will fulfill only in the vernacular. Thus, according to Tosafos‘ opinion, Verna should be reciting her prayers in English, and Bella should recite them in Hungarian.
Hebrew for the Hungarians
Although Tosafos holds this way, later authorities reject this conclusion. The Keren Orah notes that, according to Tosafos, someone who does not understand Hebrew will be unable to fulfill the mitzvos of bensching and davening if he does not have a siddur handy with a translation in a language that they understand. He cites other early authorities who answered Tosafos‘ question (from the Gemara in Megillah) in a different way and concludes that one who prayed, bensched or read shma in Hebrew fulfills the mitzvah, even if he does not understand Hebrew, providing that he knew that he was about to fulfill the mitzvah.
Quoting other earlier authorities, the Mishnah Berurah (62:2) extends this concept, ruling that it is preferable to daven, bensch and recite shma in Hebrew, rather than to use a different language, even when one does not understand Hebrew.
What does veshinantam mean?
The Mishnah Berurah adds an additional reason why one should recite shma in Hebrew. This is because there are several words in shma that are difficult to translate, or whose meaning is unclear. For example, the word veshinantam may often be translated as teach them, but this translation does not express the full meaning of the word. The word for teach them in Hebrew is velimadtem, which is the word used in the second parsha of shma, Vehayah im shomo’a. The word veshinantam includes teaching students until they know the Torah thoroughly, and simply translating this word as and you shall teach them does not adequately relay the intended meaning.
By the way, this difference in meaning is reflected in the Targum Onkeles Aramaic translation, where velimadtem is translated vesalfun, whereas veshinantam is translated u’sesaninun, which comes from the Aramaic root that is equivalent to the Hebrew veshinantam. Thus, Aramaic possesses two different verbs, one of which means to teach and the other meaning to teach until known thoroughly, whereas English lacks a short way of expressing the latter idea.
I have heard it suggested that one may alleviate this problem in English by translating the word veshinantam with the entire clause you shall teach it to your sons until they know it thoroughly. This approach should seemingly resolve the concern raised by the Mishnah Berurah, although I am unaware of an English translation that renders the word veshinantam in this way.
Other hard translations
Whether or not one can translate veshinantam accurately, the Mishnah Berurah questions how one will translate the word es, since it has no equivalent in most languages. He further notes that the word totafos, which refers to the tefillin worn on the head, is also difficult to translate. However, when we recite these words in Hebrew, we avoid the need to know the exact translation, since we are using the words the Torah itself used. The Mishnah Berurah feels that for the same reasons, someone who can read but does not understand Hebrew should recite Kiddush, bensching, davening and his other brachos in Hebrew.
Although the Mishnah Berurah does not mention this predicament, a problem similar to the one he raises concerns the translation of the Name of G-d. When reciting a bracha or any of the above-mentioned requirements in a different language, one must be careful to translate this Name accurately (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Orach Chayim 4:40:27). Rav Moshe Feinstein notes this problem in the context of the anecdote I mentioned above about Binyomin the Shepherd, who bensched in Aramaic. The Gemara records that Binyomin the Shepherd referred to G-d as Rachmana. In a teshuvah on the subject, Rav Moshe notes that although the word Rachmana obviously derives from the same source as the word rachum, mercy, one would not fulfill the requirement of reciting a bracha by substituting the word rachum for Hashem‘s Name. Thus, Rav Moshe asks, how could Binyomin the Shepherd have fulfilled his bracha by reciting the translation of the word rachum? Rav Moshe answers that although the source of the word Rachmana and the word rachum are the same, Rachmana is the translation of G-d’s Name in Aramaic, and therefore it is used in Aramaic prayers and blessings. However, rachum is not a translation of G-d, but an attribute of G-d, and its recital in a bracha is not adequate.
We thus realize that someone translating Hashem’s Name into any language must be meticulously careful to translate it with complete accuracy.
Is “G-d” Correct?
I have seen two common ways of translating the Name of Hashem into English, one as Lord and the other as G-d. Translating His Name as Lord is based on the meaning of the Name Adnus as Adon hakol, the Lord of all, which is the basic understanding one is required to have when reciting His Name. However, I have noticed that some recent translations now transliterate the Name in English as Hashem. This is not an accurate translation, and a person reciting the bracha this way will not fulfill his responsibility. I strongly suggest that the publishers not do this, since they are performing a disservice for people using their translation.
The Position of the Sefer Chassidim
Notwithstanding the Mishnah Berurah’s conclusion that it is preferred that one recite davening, bensching, and shma in Hebrew, even if he does not understand them, in an early Rishon we find a compromise position between Tosafos, who holds that one does not fulfill the mitzvos if he does not understand the language, and the Mishnah Berurah’s approach. The Sefer Chassidim (#588) advises, “If a G-d fearing man or woman who does not understand Hebrew comes to you, tell them to learn the prayers in the language that they understand, because prayer can only be recited with understanding of the heart, and if the heart does not understand what the mouth expresses, it does not accomplish anything. For this reason, it is best to pray in a language one understands.
He states this even more clearly in a different passage (#785).
It is better for a person to pray and recite Shma and brachos in a language that he comprehends, rather than pray in Hebrew and not understand… It is for this reason that the Talmud, both in Bavel and in Eretz Yisrael, was written in Aramaic, so that even the unlettered can understand the mitzvos.
We should ask: Why did the Sefer Chassidim reserve his comments for someone who is G-d fearing? Clearly, he holds that one fulfills the mitzvos whether one recites these prayers in Hebrew that he does not understand or a translation that he does (similar to the Mishnah Berurah’s position), but the Sefer Chassidim rules that it is preferable to recite these prayers in a language he understands (unlike the Mishnah Berurah’s position). The Sefer Chassidim’s position is subsequently quoted by the Magen Avraham (101:5), who also cites this approach in the name of the Asarah Maamaros of the Rama miFanu.
The Yad Efrayim’s approach
The Yad Efrayim quotes the Magen Avraham (who ruled as the Sefer Chassidim), but feels very strongly that one should recite the tefillah in Hebrew. To quote him: In our days, when there is no one who can translate the Hebrew accurately, one should rebuke anyone who follows a lenient route and prays in the vernacular. Rather, one should not separate himself from the community to read the prayer in Hebrew and one fulfills his mitzvah even if he does not understand. Someone concerned about the issues raised by Sefer Chassidim should learn the basic understanding of the Hebrew enough to know what he is asking. Although he will not understand each word, we are not concerned about this… If he does not want to learn the Hebrew, then he should pray in Hebrew with the community, and then, afterwards, he can read the prayer in translation.
Thus, we see that the Yad Efrayim is a strong advocate of one’s praying only in Hebrew, and he presumably was one of the authorities upon whom the Mishnah Berurah based his ruling.
At this point, we can return to Verna’s question:
I much prefer to pray in English, since reading the siddur provides me with no emotional connection to G-d. I was told to read the Hebrew, even though I cannot comprehend it; yet, other people I know were told that they could pray in English. Which approach is correct?
Verna has been told to follow the ruling of the Yad Efrayim and the Mishnah Berurah, which is the most commonly-followed approach today. We encourage anyone who can read the words in Hebrew to recite the prayers and brachos in Hebrew. However, assuming that the “other people” can read Hebrew, they were instructed by someone who followed the approach of the Magen Avraham and the Sefer Chassidim. It is also possible that the “other people” cannot read Hebrew properly. Someone who cannot read Hebrew has no choice but to recite prayers in the best translation that he/she can find.
Is this the Language of the Country?
At this point, I would like to address Bella’s predicament.
I became frum in Hungary and Hungarian is the only language that I can read and understand. Someone told me that now that I am living in the United States, I cannot pray in Hungarian, but must learn to read either English or Hebrew. Is this so?
What is the halacha if someone does not understand the language of the country in which he/she lives? Can one fulfill the mitzvos of shma, brachos and davening by reciting these prayers in his native language, notwithstanding the fact that few people in his new country comprehend this language?
Although this may seem surprising, the Bi’ur Halacha rules that one fulfills the mitzvos in a vernacular only when this is the language that is commonly understood in the country in which one is currently located. Following this approach, one who recites a bracha in America in a language that most Americans do not understand is required to recite the bracha again. Bella was indeed told the position of the Bi’ur Halacha that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of praying in the United States in Hungarian or any other language that is not commonly understood, other than Hebrew.
The Bi’ur Halacha based his ruling on a statement of the Ritva (in the beginning of his notes to the Rif on Nedarim), who implies that halacha recognizes something as a language only in the time and place that a people has chosen to make this into their spoken vernacular.
Rav Gustman’s position
Some later authorities disputed the Bi’ur Halacha’s conclusion, demonstrating that this concern of the Ritva refers only to a slang or code, but not to a proper language (Kuntrisei Shiurim of Rav Gustman, Nedarim page 11; and others). This means that if someone prayed or recited a bracha in something that is not considered a true language, he would not fulfill his mitzvah and would be required to recite the prayer or bracha again. However, although most Americans do not understand Hungarian, since this is considered a bona fide language, Bella fulfills the mitzvah by davening in Hungarian. Rav Gustman writes that he told many Russian baalei teshuvah that they could pray in Russian when they were living in Israel or the United States, even though Russian is not understood by most people in either country. He acknowledges that, according to the Bi’ur Halacha, this would not fulfill the mitzvah.
Must one understand the foreign language?
At this point, we will address Bracha’s brachos question:
I heard that some authorities rule that if one recited a bracha in Japanese before eating one should not recite the bracha again, even if one does not know a word of Japanese; yet if one bensched in Japanese, one would be required to bensch again. Is there indeed a difference between a bracha before eating and one afterwards?
According to Tosafos, someone can fulfill reciting the brachos before eating and Hallel and Kiddush even in a secular language that one does not understand. Tosafos contends that although one fulfills the mitzvos of bensching, davening and shma only in a language that one understands, there is a difference between them and brachos before eating, Hallel and Kiddush, where one fulfills the mitzvah without understanding the language.
Do We Follow Tosafos’ Opinion?
Although the Magen Avraham (introduction to Orach Chayim 62) rules in accordance with this Tosafos, most later commentaries do not (Keren Orah and Rav Elazar Landau on Sotah ad loc.; Bi’ur Halacha 62 s.v. Yachol; Aruch Hashulchan 62:3). Several authorities state that they do not understand Tosafos‘ position that there is a difference between shma, shemoneh esrei and birkas hamazon, which can only be recited in a language one understands, and Kiddush, Hallel, birkas hamitzvos and brachos before eating, which Tosafos rules one may recite even in a language that one does not comprehend.
The answer is: the drasha of Chazal states that one fulfills shma only in a language that one understands. This is logical, because shma is accepting the yoke of Heaven, and how can one do this without comprehending the words? The same idea applies to the shemoneh esrei — how can one be praying if one does not understand what one is saying? Birkas hamazon is also a very high level of thanks, and what type of acknowledgement is it, if one does not know the meaning of the words he is saying? However, one can praise in a language that one does not understand, as evidenced by the fact that chazzanim or choirs may sing beautiful praise, although they do not necessarily comprehend every word. Similarly, as long as one knows that the Kiddush is sanctifying Shabbos, one fulfills the mitzvah, even if one does not understand the words.
The Keren Orah answers Tosafos‘ question in a different way, arguing that although the Mishnah omits these four cases, each should be included in one of the cases mentioned by the Mishnah. Both Hallel and Kiddush are part of davening, and therefore are included when the Mishnah says that tefillah may be recited in any language, and it is implied that brachos on mitzvos and before eating food would be included in the statement of the Mishnah that one may bensch in any language.
Some people, who cannot read Hebrew at all, have no choice but to pray in the language that they can read and understand. However, anyone who can should accept the challenge of studying the prayers a bit at a time, gradually thereby developing both fluency and comprehension. In the interim, they can read the translation of each paragraph first, and then read the Hebrew, which will help them develop a full understanding of the prayers as Chazal wrote and organized them.
*All names have been changed to protect privacy.