Prayer And The Hebrew Language
Hebrew is our ancestral language, as well as the revitalised language of modern Israel. Most importantly however, Hebrew is the valued mark of our cultural and national identity. It may therefore surprise some people to learn that Talmidi Jewish prayer makes infrequent use of Hebrew, most of it being in the vernacular (e.g. English).
Within the various sects of modern Judaism, debates continue where the usage of Hebrew in prayer is concerned. Hebrew usage is strongest with the Orthodox, and until recently was weakest with the various Reform movements of Judaism. Yet even within the liberal wing of Judaism, there is a trend towards an ever-increasing use of Hebrew language in congregational prayer.
Hebrew and Jewishness
While we understand the concern for use of Hebrew in Jewish prayer, and that it is an integral part of our identity, nevertheless we counsel for common sense to prevail. The increased use of Hebrew in the Reform movement may be due in part to taunts from the Orthodox that liberal Jews are losing their Jewish identity. At this point I must say: Don’t give in to taunts. Do something because you have chosen freely to, not because someone has goaded you into it.
It may also be that others feel that without Hebrew, there is nothing left of any kind of Jewishness in the service. To this I would reply: Take our example. The Jewish nature of Talmidi culture is very strong; our mindset and our psyche are distinctively Jewish; the rhythm and form of our prayer is Jewish; the ritual and focus of our prayer is Jewish. To us, it does not matter what language we pray in, we have so much Jewishness oozing out of our prayer, you couldn’t possibly mistake our identity!
There are deeper issues here. Some Jews think that, simply by using some Yiddish word here, or a Hebrew word there, that this is all they have to do to be Jewish – nothing else. Such people are in effect, part-time Jews. Obviously if you took away Hebrew, such individuals have nothing Jewish left about them.
We have to show that being Jewish means much more than a language. We need to re-examine what it means to be Jewish. A re-awakening of Jewish culture and Jewish values would give such individuals a greater sense of their Jewishness, more than simply the way they speak. We need to give these people greater access to, and understanding of, a deeper Jewish identity, so that their Jewishness means more than just the language they use in prayer.
The Importance of Understanding What You Pray
Some traditional Jews feel that it is not important to understand what you are praying, as long as God understands it. There is the often-told tale of a man who didn’t know how to pray. So he decided to recite the Hebrew alphabet. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I say the letters, and God will fill in the words.” While a quaint story, underlying it is the belief that Hebrew is inherently holy, and you don’t have to understand what you are saying – God will understand it. This ignores the fact that prayer is a two-way communication, and part of God’s communication with us, believe it or not, is the understanding we have of our own prayers.
It also assumes that God speaks a human language – Hebrew. This is self-evidently not possible. God is not human, and so does not communicate in the way we do. Besides, prayer is the expression of the human heart, which speaks no one language either.
Secondly, Talmidi tradition impresses upon us that we should not babble in prayer “like the Gentiles do.” In ancient times, pagans used to believe that if they spoke a “holy language”, or spoke a particular formula of words, or repeated something over and over again, then it was more likely to be heard by their gods, and therefore more likely to be responded to.
To pray in a language you don’t have any comprehension of (even if it is Hebrew), and thereby thinking that you are more likely to be heard by God, is an old pagan way of thinking; it is babbling, and we should not engage in it. Mindlessly saying words you don’t understand is pointless – you may as well recite a laundry list in Hebrew, and it will have the same lack of effect.
Also, thinking that prayer consists of a particular set of words, and that a prayer must be said in precisely the “right” way, is typical within the practise of magic. Again, it is a pagan way of thinking, and should again be avoided. Yahwism is not simply a rejection of many false gods for the worship of One True God; it is the rejection of old pagan ways of engaging with one’s religion too.
Prayer Changes You From Within
Followers of the Way have found that reading written prayers, whether in congregation or in private, have an effect on us. The prayer should evoke special thoughts and feelings within us, eventually leading to change.
Few people who have read a Talmidi Jewish synagogue service have failed at the end of it to be moved. The words of our prayers have a powerful effect, and this cannot be achieved if the service were in a language the reader could not understand.
We do have Hebrew in our services, but it is infrequent. When it is used, it is usually a very short prayer or blessing, or the first line of a long prayer. However, the important thing in our services, is that whenever a Hebrew sentence is read out, it is ALWAYS followed by a translation in the vernacular.
Prayer Reminds Us of Who We Are
In these days when so many Jews are being lost to Christianity, it is all the more reason why Jews should know why they pray what they pray, and practise what they practise. I have met so many former Jews who have said that they learnt nothing from Jewish prayer, because it meant nothing to them.
Converts are always encouraged to try to learn Hebrew. Some people just have no natural talent for learning languages, but for most people, learning and mastering Hebrew can only benefit a convert. It will cement your identity with the Jewish people for one thing. Secondly, if you feel that you will be spending most of your life in an environment speaking the language you were brought up with, then you will have an special advantage over native Hebrew speakers when praying in Hebrew.
Scientists studying how the brain copes with the speaking of several languages, have found that the brain copes by compartmentalising each language in the brain. That is, you store English in one section of your language centre, Spanish for example in another, and maybe French in another.
The implications are, that if you ensure that you learn Hebrew in a positive environment, and in a positive mood, then whenever you say a prayer in Hebrew, the brain will recall that positive mood. This will mean that Hebrew can induce an attitude of prayer, simply from the manner in which it was learnt.
We learn from prayer; lessons can be re-enforced through prayer; prayer can remind us of why we are who we are. And most of all, prayer changes us for the better. None of this can be achieved by praying words you don’t understand. Hebrew is there for our benefit, not God’s.