April 13, 2008
We are proud to announce that the 56th Annual Combined Sisterhood Luncheon was a huge success! We had 230 ladies attend. Everyone greatly enjoyed the wonderful boutique with the beautiful piano playing by Celia Lemonik, the talented NSHA Chamber Choir, delicious food by Prestige Caterers, great raffle prizes and our special guest speaker Morton Klein, President of ZOA. The Passover food drive in conjunction with UJA was also a huge success. The Sisterhood of Great Neck Synagogue is extremely lucky to have such strongsupporters. We had 40 sponsors of the event which enabled us to recoup our entire costs for the event– and then some! A huge thank you to the following people who made this event possible: Sharon Ahdut, Farla Frumkin, Helene Gersten, Sharon Goldwyn, Erica Zucker Heisler, Cindy Hodkin, Sigalit Katz, Ilana Kroll, Vivian Kron, Janet Lenchner, Margery Libin, Judy Lillien, Randa Pittell, Galit Reichlin, Diane Rein, Anida Rosman, Chava Shalmon, Rachel Singer, Susan Smith, Jessica Smooha, & Elaine Wolf. Thank you to Mark Twersky, Adele Jackson, and Maxine Nasser for all their help. Thank you also to Richard Lillien and Philip Hanfling for their generous donation which enhanced our luncheon. A special thank you to Rabbi Polakoff for joining our luncheon and being such a strong Sisterhood supporter! Also, a very special thank you to Diane Rein for all of her diligent hard work in organizing this hugely successful luncheon, and for her continued leadership of our GNS Sisterhood.
April 11, 2008
This inspiring article about tefillah is sponsored by David and Diane Rein in memory of Diane’s mother, Helene M. Fink z”l.
One of the most challenging aspects of tefilla, of prayer, is the language barrier that exists between us and the siddur. Since the language of the siddur is Hebrew, those of us who live outside the State of Israel have a difficult time understanding the prayers. In truth, the Hebrew of the siddur is so poetic and complex that oftentimes even Israelis who are fluent in Hebrew have a hard time making their way through the words of the siddur.
Why should we pray in Hebrew if we don’t understand what we are saying? How are we supposed to have a meaningful experience of tefilla when we are mumbling words that we simply don’t comprehend? Is it permissible to pray in English instead of Hebrew?
Our sages placed great importance on praying in the Hebrew language and considered it to be the language of choice for prayer (Bach 193). The Hebrew language is sacred and its letters contain an inherent sanctity. It is the language through which the world was created, it is the language that the Torah was written in, and it is the language in which G-d spoke to the prophets. One who prays in another language and does not understand what he or she has said has not fulfilled the obligation in prayer. On the other hand, one who decides to pray in the holy language of Hebrew would fulfill his or her obligation of prayer without even understanding the words at all (Biur Halacha 101, “yachol”). The power of the words themselves is so great that they could reach the Divine Throne of Glory even if the person uttering them had no idea what he or she was saying.
Despite the great merit of the Hebrew language, our sages also valued the personal experience of tefilla and realized that one could never reach the heights of spirituality nor develop a deep relationship with G-d via prayers that he or she could not understand. Therefore, they permitted us to pray in the languages we are most comfortable speaking even as they decided to compose the formal liturgy in Hebrew.
Already in the time of the Talmud when Jews lived in Babylonia, the sages decided that certain prayers that would be included in the formal liturgy should be recited in Aramaic. Aramaic was the spoken language at the time and since some Jews did not understand
Hebrew, they decided that some of the more central prayers such as the kaddish would be recited in the vernacular so that everyone would understand what they were saying. It was assumed, as we would expect, that it is an even greater honor to G-d to be praised by people who understood the words of the praise (Brachot 3a, Tosafot “v’onin”).
While only certain select non-Hebrew prayers were included in the formal liturgy (Kaddish, Kedusha D’Sidra, Brich Shmey, Yekum Purkan, and some sections of the Selichot), the rabbis of the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods permitted us to recite any of the other prayers in the vernacular as well. The Shulchan Aruch, the Code of Jewish Law, rules that a person may recite any of the prayers including the shma and the amidah in any language that he or she understands (OC 101:4) provided that it is a direct translation of the text of the siddur and not a paraphrase or a personally composed prayer newly invented by the translator (Igrot Moshe OC 4:70). It would even be permissible for an entire congregation that didn’t understand Hebrew to pray together in a different language that they understood more clearly (Mishna Berura 55:1).
The Chatam Sofer writes that the Shulchan Aruch only permitted a congregation to pray in a language other than Hebrew in order to understand what they are saying on a temporary basis. They would not be able to establish the official language of prayer in that synagogue to be any language other than Hebrew (Chatam Sofer, OC 84 & 86).
There are numerous reasons why, despite the difficulty of the Hebrew language and the permissibility of prayer in the vernacular, we would still wish to recite the prayers in their original Hebrew especially in the congregational setting. Firstly, we are all familiar with the pitfalls of translation. All translation is interpretation. The translator’s choice of words may sometimes reflect his own understanding of the passage which may not be the only valid interpretation. Furthermore, there are just some words that exist in Hebrew that do not exist in other languages so that the translation of one of those words might limit or even change the meaning of the prayer. In addition to the difficulty of translation, maintaining a uniform Hebrew liturgy helps to preserve the unity of the Jewish people. The Rambam says that the reason why Ezra (The scribe and sage who led come of the exiled Jews back to Israel from Babylonia in the 5th century BCE and strengthened Jewish identity and practice in Israel at the time) and his court composed the siddur in Hebrew was to foster a universal language of Jewish prayer. It is very special to walk in to a synagogue in any country around the world and be able to follow the prayers as if you were sitting in the comfort of your own synagogue at home. Praying in Hebrew also keeps the Hebrew language alive. It is important to know Hebrew because it allows a person to delve in to the depths of Torah study. It also creates a common language that Jews can speak even when they don’t understand each other’s mother tongue. In today’s day in age, the preservation of Hebrew in the Diaspora also keeps us connected to the State of Israel whose spoken language is Hebrew, and facilitates our integration in to Israeli life whether temporarily while on vacation or permanently when making aliya. Lastly, praying in Hebrew connects us to a sacred tradition, to centuries of Jews who uttered the very same words. Besides the inherent sanctity of the Hebrew language, the Hebrew words of the prayers were infused with meaning and significance when Jews recited them in the most glorious moments of their past and in the most horrific times of their history.
It may, indeed, be advisable for someone who does not understand Hebrew to temporarily pray in a language more familiar to them in order to enhance their experience of tefilla. Yet even for that individual, use of the vernacular may not be the best way, in the long run, to attain the spirituality for which he or she is striving. If a person both reads and understands conversational Hebrew, but has difficulty with the language of the siddur in specific, that person could begin to study the text of the siddur one passage at a time. If a person can read Hebrew but can’t understand it, it would be advisable to recite the prayers in Hebrew while periodically peaking over to a good English translation for a little help. If a person can do neither, that person should begin to learn Hebrew in order to slowly recite the prayers one by one in the language that contains Divine mystery uniting with Jews past, present, and future the world round in a collective experience of tefilla.
Question to Ponder
Recently, a debate broke out in Israel whether to allow German Chancellor Angela Merkel, an ally of the State of Israel and the Jewish people, to address the Knesset in German. The opposition felt that the very sound of the German language should not be heard in the Knesset for fear of evoking fearful memories of Holocaust Survivors. What does this debate teach you about the significance of spoken language and the impact it can have on us and others? What implication would that have for your choice of language for tefilla?