If I Can Pronounce the Hebrew, Do I Need to Understand it? - Episode 67
Rav Avi: Hi, and welcome to Responsa Radio, where you ask and we answer questions of Jewish law in modern times! I'm Rabbi Avi Killip here with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, Rosh Yeshiva at Hadar, a center for higher Jewish learning based in New York City. I love this question, I think it's gonna apply to a lot of people. It's a question about being in the process of learning at all times, and also it sounds like in the process of taking on new observances, which is, I think, true for many of us in all moments, I think this particular situation probably plays out a lot. So I'm excited to hear your thoughts.
Alright, here's the question: "While I am presently learning Hebrew and am committed to achieving fluency, I currently possess the reading and comprehension skills of a complete beginner. Given my beginner Hebrew skills at present, I read most prayers in English or a hybrid of rote Hebrew, transliteration and English. When I read 100 percent of a prayer in a combination of rote Hebrew in transliteration, I then repeat the entire prayer in English, reading both the Hebrew in transliteration and then the English version of the prayer. However, it increases my prayer time substantially." It sounds reasonable to me, it takes a long time for me to even read about this person's prayer practice. "Especially during shacharit. While I would love to be able to spend hours every day praying and studying, alas, at this time I cannot. My question is: if I read a prayer in transliteration and in rote Hebrew, am I required to repeat it again in English? Especially for those I know well."
There are two elements of this question that I would love to hear about — one is the Hebrew question, and the other is a question probably a lot of people have, which is does it matter if I understand what I'm saying? Because tefilot, prayers, are gonna take a lot longer if that's the standard.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, great. Okay. I think about this a lot, it's so interesting to think about what would Judaism and the spread of Judaism and even the evangelizing of Judaism look like if you just completely dropped the Hebrew language requirement or character entirely. That's of course the basic history of Christianity.
Rav Avi: I was gonna say, changing the service from Latin to English.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, and even in a more fundamental way, beginning with the Greek translation of the Torah and then assuming that basically the basic ideas of the Bible can just be spread as ideas to all the languages of the earth. This really kind of, we start to feel, what are the limits of Hebrew and how do we respond to it?
Rav Avi: Well, also, this question starts from a desire to learn Hebrew. Before this person even writes the question, they are starting by saying, I am committed to achieving fluency. There is something inherent to this person about why they want to be a fluent Hebrew speaker.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, they're not looking for a way out or for a justification to do it in English. It's a question of, really from a place kind of of piety, I feel like I'm doing this technical thing that's important to me, I'd love to understand it someday, but I am praying, after all, shouldn't I understand what I'm saying? So, let me build up to that. There's a kind of base level here which I think is just important for us to acknowledge before we really get into the depth of the question. Which is, you in fact are allowed, according to the mishnah, to pray in any language. Tefilah b'kol lashon. Okay? Which is to say, big picture, you could have a prayerbook that's basically entirely in English, and that's what you say every day. So that sounds like —
Rav Avi: One question is, if I read the Hebrew, do I need to read the English? You're starting with the opposite: if they're working through the English and they don't get to the Hebrew that day before they ran out of time, maybe that's okay.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. I think it's important, ultimately, for what the questioner wants to get at, which is what is the relative importance of these two recitations? And starting with the notion that actually, the mishnah seems to start us off on a plane of, prayer is language-neutral, in terms of its legitimacy, effectiveness, checking off obligations. That's an important place to start. Now, there is a statement in the Talmud that complicates this; Rav Yehudah comes along and says, oh, you should never be praying in Aramaic! And the question is —
Rav Avi: Good thing I never do that!
Rav Eitan: And the question is, your comical answer is actually part of how it's coped with. Part of the question there is, he actually doesn't technically say "pray," he says, "lisholtracha," to ask for individual needs, and there's some degree of sorting out where does that leave us in terms of prayer. There is a view that comes out of that and says, yeah, you should not be saying the private amidah in anything other than Hebrew. That there's something almost like, magical, lyrical, about that prayer, that it's gotta be said in the original, and that's the only way that prayer will kind of get to G-d, as it were. But other views, which become more dominant, say no, no no no, even the amidah is fine to do in other languages. That text was only talking about almost spontaneous formulated prayer where you have no text or fixed idea to rely on. That you should only do in Hebrew.
And a third view, which goes further and takes your side of this, which is, well, this must be a statement about Aramaic, and it doesn't apply to French, German, English, Arabic, et cetera, et cetera. So in any event, what that produces is, whith some degree of hesitation around certain parts of things, still, a broad sense that certainly if you're not talking about Aramaic, and you're dealing with some kind of liturgy, right? Like, the thing you would find in the siddur and open up, language is not a barrier to you doing it. And I want to be clear here: doing it in another language fully fulfills whatever obligations you have. Alright? So that I want just lurking in the background as we talk about the real question here, which is, okay, given that, given that English is a perfectly legitimate language to pray in, and given that I really understand it, and it's like an experience of full comprehension, how does that trade off against some degree of gobbledy-gook of, I'm muttering these words, they feel kind of holy and enchanting to me and I'm having like a Jewish identity experience while saying them, but I don't really understand anything I'm saying. What's better between those two?
Rav Avi: Meaning, if I can work through the Hebrew or the English, and I am actually choosing Hebrew that I don't understand or English that I do, maybe in an ideal world you do both, as this person is attempting to do, but if you just can't, which door do I choose?
Rav Eitan: Yeah. And the case for the English being better is, it's just as legitimate, and I understand it!
Rav Avi: That's a solid case.
Rav Eitan: So that actually comes up in the Sefer Hasidim, quite surprisingly, in the Middle Ages, so in 13th-century Germany. Sefer Hasidim it's a really interesting text, it's a kind of pietistic text that's focused on all kinds of practices or restrictions, prohibitions, among people who are really trying to live what you would call an extremely pious life. And one of the things that comes up is a case of someone who does not understand Hebrew.
Rav Avi: We're not the first.
Rav Eitan: We're not the first. Does not understand Hebrew, that was often a gendered divide in terms of the way people were educated, but there were many men who were phonetically proficient in Hebrew, but they really had no idea what they were saying. And the Sefer Hasidim says, actually, if that's who you are, it's better for you to pray in another language. Better for you to pray in Yiddish or German or whatever it is that is the alternative here. Because the point of prayer and of blessings — think about, just like blessings over food, the point is to have an experience of gratitude, not to say a formula.
Rav Avi: Yeah. I'm curious whether you think it's what you just said, which is the point is the experience of gratitude, or whether the words matter. Because I could argue it two ways. You could say the words aren't what's important, the experience is what matters, therefore pray in the language you know. Or I could say the words matter so much that you have to understand them, so say them in the language that you know.
Rav Eitan: Beautiful. So you've really anticipated the alternate approach of Rav Yisroel Meir Hacohen, also known as the Chofetz Chaim, in his work on the Beur Halakhah, on the Shulkhan Arukh. So now we're zooming forward to the late-19th century, early 20th. And it's exactly that debate that you just laid out. So he quotes the Sefer Hasidim. Okay? He says, there is this view that not just are you allowed to pray in another language, but you should, if you understand it better. And he's very nervous about it. And he says, that is davka im hu yireh shamayim, that is only if the person is, I'd say, uniquely pious, uniquely, kind of, seeking some deep spiritual engagement, and they feel like, but this is the only way I'm gonna really be able to talk to G-d.
Rav Avi: It's like you pour your heart out to G-d in your native tongue.
Rav Eitan: Yes. So the Beur Halakhah says, okay, that kind of person, who I think he's implying is one in a thousand, if not a million, sure, I can't stop that person from taking advantage of the linguistic neutrality of the halakhah around tefilah, to really deeply connect with G-d. Okay? But if it's not like that, and it's simply a case of someone who is like, yeah, I don't really get Hebrew, so doing it in English seems like it'd be easier, but it's not that they're trying to reach some deep, lofty heights in terms of their experience, he really hits back in the way that you started to talk, and say no, Hebrew has dimensions to it, kind of linguistically and literarily, that you will not capture in other languages. And he lays them out, and it's really interesting.
So, one is a kind of mythical thing, right, playing off of a lot of midrashim. It's like, but, you know, G-d created the world in Hebrew! Or, more to the point, in what language did G-d speak to the prophets in the Bible? In Hebrew! And that there are wordplays in Hebrew that you cannot appreciate in translation, that are part of the literary texture. And at the end of the day, the liturgy that we inherited from the past is in Hebrew, even if there have been translations of it over the years, but people don't have, like, an inherited text in German that is the translation of the amidah. Even though they do have a thing of, oh, this is my traditional, communal text of the amidah. And therefore, he says, for all of those reasons and other kind of mystical connections, he says even if we don't understand Hebrew — and it's actually interesting, he puts it as someone who clearly did, he puts it in first person — you know, even if, af sh'ein anu yodim l'chaven, even if we can't get the full power of all the things that this text has bequeathed to us, nonetheless it counts, and here's the amazing phrase: ki hatevot b'atzman poalim kedushatan l'maalah, even the words themselves somehow effect some kind of spiritual channel going up to G-d.
Rav Avi: I think that is a lived experience for a lot of people. I think there are a lot of Jews who don't understand Hebrew, who are incredibly moved by singing adon olam at the end of a service, and to take that away from them, to say, well, we did some studying, and we as a community have determined that those of you who don't speak Hebrew will henceforth be in an English-singing section, you know, that would be such a crime to those people, you'd be taking so much away. Because it is totally possible for speaking Hebrew words to be moving, because you know they are the words, you know, these are the words of the kiddush that I know my grandfather used to say at the seder every year. Even if I have no idea what I'm talking about.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. No, that's right. And I think, you know, it's important, I want to make sure we give the context here. There's no question that the Beur Halakhah here definitely has anxiety around some institutional moves made in the context of European reform, where there are synagogues that are doing just what you're saying, but not necessarily around adon olam. Including, around, like, the shema, and other stuff, where there's a kind of saying of, well, people really understand German, it's legitimate to do it this way, more of the service should be in German. And there's definitely anxiety about having that on an institutional level. But here I think what's interesting is the Beur Halakhah, and it really goes with how you're formulating it from personal experience — is saying even on the individual level, when you're talking about oding this, like, in your living room at home, be very careful that you are getting the balance right between actually what I think he's saying or kind of competing dimensions of what tefilah does, one of which is kind of the prose as it were, do I understand this in some, you know, meaningful way or not? But then there's kind of the poetry dimension of it, which has to do with —
Rav Avi: And the ritual.
Rav Eitan: — and the ritual, how the words flow off my tongue, and what it conjures up for me in the way that the language of my everyday speech may not.
Rav Avi: Right. There's a way in which translation might be impossible, actually. I'm curious, it makes me think about the questioner, which he or she would rather do, right? Would they rather be told, go with the English, or go with just the Hebrew, you know, which one of these is the preferred short version?
Rav Eitan: Right. So I think going back to how you described it, which I think is accurate, the questioner seems really very much to really want the Hebrew. There's sort of no option here of abandoning the Hebrew. The anxiety is, but is the Hebrew good enough? Do I have to also check the box of the kavanah? Now here, if we follow the Beur Halakhah — so I think the Beur Halakhah comes out very clearly saying yeah, it's good enough. It's fine enough to just say the Hebrew, and even if you don't fully understand it, the words will carry themselves and you don't have to worry about that. I think the Beur Halakhah might say to the extent on a given morning you are particularly rattled by feeling like, I need to, like, speak directly to G-d, I need to connect, okay, there might be some place that morning to do the English, but we still have to actually answer the question of, do you do the English instead of the Hebrew or is it legitimate, or does it make sense to do both?
Rav Avi: We have something that I don't think they had, which is transliteration. It feels to me like that's just Hebrew that you don't understand. I'm curious if it feels different to you.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. That is an interesting question. I mean, in the context of writing a megillah in different languages, those are split. This kind of discussion as to whether the important thing that it be written in Hebrew characters, even if it's a transliteration of another language, kind of reverse from what we think of. I think we talked about this partially in an earlier podcast, but, right, it's almost an imagination that you would translate the opening lines of the megillah as "in the days of Achashveirosh," you know, written in Hebrew characters —
Rav Avi: Like in the ketubah readings, when it's like, we are in "Boston, Massachusetts."
Rav Eitan: Right, exactly right. And that is a sort of antecedent of transliteration the other way. In that sense it's not brand-new, recognizing that people might be working with an alphabet as opposed to a language, and what's essential. Look, when we're talking about the discourse that the Beur Halakhah introduces of sort of the magical, mystical quality of something, so the visual version of that is definitely only brought out by the Hebrew characters. Like, if you're saying the words yitkadal v'yitkadash, and you're looking at a yud, I think it's different than if you're looking at a y. But not necessarily sort of orally or in terms of the speech act. So there's probably a way also of kind of splitting the difference there, on the question of which of my faculties or senses are having which of these experiences.
Rav Avi: I'm curious about the way the person phrased the question, they positioned themself as a student in the process of learning. And I will speak very personally, that, you know, this question is really real for me, as someone who's dyslexic, that I wonder if there are texts or sources that speak to this differently if you are someone who could learn Hebrew versus if you're someone who says, you know, I put in decades of trying to learn this language and I can't learn this language. Is there any text that says, well, if you don't know Hebrew, learn Hebrew. And that doesn't solve the question if you were in the process of learning Hebrew like this questioner, who says, okay, but tomorrow morning, how do I handle the morning service? But is there a mandate that you should study it if you don't know it? As opposed to sort of a fixed, well, the world's Jews divide into two groups: those who speak Hebrew and those who don't speak Hebrew, and that's just the way it is.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to know how much normative force there is on that at different points in time. And I think when we talk about the earlier centuries of the common era and the branching off of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, that's definitely a piece of what's being tussled over there. How much are you expected to step into a specific linguistic culture in addition to stepping into a set of practices, covenantal belonging? And, you know, there are some texts — I think a lot of the earlier texts just sort of take it for granted that you're going to teach people Hebrew, either in spoken or written form, such that it's hard to know whether it's normative.
Rav Avi: Who do they think these people are, who don't know Hebrew?
Rav Eitan: Yeah, to give an assumption of the people, right, it's like when you talk about what's the age at which a kid should begin to say the shema, it's correlated with when do they begin to know Hebrew. Right? That is to say there's a certain notion of learning the letters, the words that make up this language, and then I tell you how to say something doctrinally important in that language. Which just sort of assumes that, but that may just be assuming, in a culture where there is Hebrew that's gonna happen first, is it making a normative claim? How do we relate to the leuzot that the mishnah and tosefta talk about, classes of people who they just don't speak Hebrew? They're Jews hanging out in Alexandria, in Egypt, right, or in other places like that. I think it's fair to say internal rabbinic culture always regarded those people as a kind of bedievad, post-facto, non-ideal situation, but that doesn't mean that there's an outright condemnation of their —
Rav Avi: Yeah, I think my question is more of do we think of the categories of fluid. Like, is there an assumption that any person who doesn't know Hebrew could learn Hebrew? Or is this more of a fixed — yeah, if you could learn Hebrew, you would know it, and we're talking about the people who for some reason aren't gonna know Hebrew.
Rav Eitan: Right. So once you could talk about the leuzot, a category of people who don't speak Hebrew, that feels to me like at least as a sociological category —
Rav Avi: Do you want to just explain what that is short for, it's like an acronym?
Rav Eitan: Right, well, it's short for la'az, which, you know, have origins in a passage in Tehillim, in Psalms, that people are familiar with, perhaps from Hallel, you know, me'am loez, from a nation that is sort of foreign or speaks something else in some way. Later it becomes kind of treated as an acronym, as lashon am zar, the language of a foreign people. But it's a root, lamed-ayin-zayin, that will be used to convey, you know, someone in another basically linguistic space. And calling a group of people that, I think, is an acknowledgement, even if only tacit, that you're not gonna change that. Like, there might be individual people that will cross that line. But there's gonna be a group of people that they have that status —
Rav Avi: On the whole, American Jews speak English.
Rav Eitan: That's right.
Rav Avi: That would be sort of a blanket assumption to say, should a person who doesn't speak Hebrew pray in English versus if American Jews speak English, should they pray in English?
Rav Eitan: Correct. Here, speaking sort of with my own, you know, ideological bent on this, it's like, yeah, I'm totally a hebraist, an evangelist about that, believing that people should make that move. I'm, like, really inspired by the questioner in that way. That doesn't mean I can't have a sociological reality check, where if you ask me, are American Jews gonna speak Hebrew in large numbers in 50 years, I'd be like, come on, that's not gonna happen. But that doesn't mean either you give up on it or there aren't significant numbers of them who will be disproportionately influential who will. But, yeah. In terms of this local question, I think, I think the other thing I would want to say is, the Beur Halakhah puts this spin on the Sefer Hasidim that, well, it's only about a person who's particularly pious. I don't know that that was the original meaning of the Sefer Hasidim in the 13th century. And he might well have actually been focused on people who it were just clear they're not gonna learn it. Right? They're not gonna learn Hebrew. And at that point he says to them, I don't want you spending the rest of your life mumbling words you don't understand. Then you should daven in the other language. And that's where the beur halakahah, I think, is pushing back with a slightly different model and saying, no, I kind of do want people to mumble things they don't understand, not because there's a value in them not understanding it, but there's a value to these specific letters and words.
Rav Avi: Yeah, there's something I like in putting these different opinions together, of saying, it's not really clear which is the higher bar. Is it the higher bar to say you gotta know all these words, or is it the higher bar to actually understand everything you're praying and mean it? That sounds to me, you know — someone who knows no Hebrew might be having a much more pious prayer experience than someone who prays every single day in Hebrew fluently and there's no intention behind those words anymore. It's interesting to say, you know, maybe in an ideal world you have both, but that it's not clear which of those is actually the harder thing to achieve, or the more important.
Rav Eitan: Yeah. Let's add one more dimension here before we close out the question, which is really important to the question of saying both. So, Rav Moshe Feinstein, 20th-century American posek, has a very practical question where basically someone asked him, he's clearly in some kind of, like, either interdenominational or maybe even interfaith setting, can I say hamotzi over the bread in Hebrew and then translate it into English, and then eat the bread?
Rav Avi: Meaning, that would cause a break in between —
Rav Eitan: Ah, so you're already anticipating what the concern might be! Alright, so the question is, what can I do there, can I repeat it? So Rav Moshe plays out two possible ways that this could happen. He says, well, one possibility is that you would say the English first.
Rav Avi: That makes me think of the hamotzi song that I grew up with, which starts with "we give thanks to G-d for bread," and then goes into the, you know, the Hebrew version of it after.
Rav Eitan: Great, so tell me what you think about this! It would depend what the formulation was, but Rav Moshe says at least if you said a translation that enough counted as sort of hitting all the things you needed to say there, if you said the English first, well, then you definitely can't say the Hebrew afterwards, because you would have fulfilled your obligation with the English statement because actually, blessings can be said in any language.
Rav Avi: Yeah, so powerful.
Rav Eitan: And then the Hebrew blessing which, okay, to bless G-d is fine, but which includes G-d's name, is then taking G-d's name in vain, because you already fulfilled your obligation. So he says, so you can't do that, okay? Now, that song, we could maybe argue, doesn't quite apply, it doesn't say "blessed are you," okay. Alright.
Rav Avi: It would be so sad if we had to stop singing that song.
Rav Eitan: But that's one angle. So he says, okay, what about the other way? Says there, you don't have the problem, because you have a solid argument that the blessing said in English fulfills your obligation in the blessing, but when you say "Lord" or "G-d," it's not considered taking G-d's naim in vain. You're mentioning G-d, and that might be good enough to fulfill the obligation, but you're not, like, repeating G-d's name unnecessarily. But the problem here would then be what you raised, which is, but because this is a birkat haneenim, because this is a blessing that I say in order to then eat something, it's not permissible to have a break between the blessing and the action. And therefore you can't do that either. So —
Rav Avi: So you're out of luck on the translation.
Rav Eitan: So he says, on this particular case, okay, what you actually have to do is say hamotzi, take a little bite of bread, and then you translate it into English.
Rav Avi: Yeah. Or, ironically, you could, according to him, choose English.
Rav Eitan: You could choose English, that's correct. But the person here wanted some sort of, like, authentic — but yes, on some level, he would say that would be the better solution, provided you had a precise enough translation, you could do that. So this is the one thing I would warn the questioner about. Which is to say, the repetition of things into other languages, you do have to actually think if you're seriously engaging with the notion that tefilah is valid in every language, you don't want to put yourself in situations where you're saying G-d's name in vain. So anything that's a verse, where you're always allowed to say a verse, a complete verse, and if it's in a prayer context, say G-d's name, sure, you could say the translation first and then you could say the pasuk and it would be no problem. But in context where there's a real obligatory blessing, you actually would want to make sure, which it seems this person is doing, that you're saying the Hebrew first. That when you're mentioning G-d's name in something like barukh ata Hashem, but really saying G-d's name, yotzer or u'vorei hosekh, you know, that first bracha there at the beginning, or the birkhot hashachar, malbish arumim in the morning, who clothes the naked — so you could say that in English and Hebrew, you want to make sure you were saying the Hebrew first.
Now, if it's a case like certain brachot where you're not supposed to be interrupting, that's also something to be sensitive to. As this teshuva of Rav Moshe Feinstein talks about, you know, certainly a bracha where you're about to eat something, but even cases, I gave the example of yotzer or, even things, like, around the shema that are supposed to have a certain integrity without interruption, that seems to me that if you really wanted to do both of them, you should probably come back to it after you had already completed the section through the amidah, because there's certain, there's supposed to be a certain integrity to that section.
Rav Avi: Don't use the interlinear translation, use the book that has paragraphs on either side.
Rav Eitan: Yeah, that's right. Now, I think probably what the questioner has to think through is, you know, what kind of practice, how consistent, you know, do they need or want to be on this front? It's pretty clear everyone would agree, I think, even the Beur Halakhah, that if on occasional mornings they want the experience of deeply connecting to G-d through a language they fully understand, then that morning they should just pray in English. And they should have that as a part of their practice if they need it, in order to feel vitally connected. If this is about building up in a more regular way but feeling like I need little bits along the way of my long Hebrew davening, where I'm inserting some English, so, either you could switch back and forth at certain points, or, yeah, in keeping with the guidelines we laid out here, find moments that don't need to be completely with integrity and don't need to be completely, you know, uninterrupted, where you can break in and after you've already done the Hebrew, do a translation of something.
Rav Avi: Yeah. I think this, as I started with, is a really live question for a lot of American Jews. I think even a large swath of the population that are not thinking of it as a question, maybe, through a halakhic framework in terms of Jewish law, but who find themselves sitting in services in communities where they have a choice to sing along to something in Hebrew or to stop and read it in English, and have to experiment to see which of those is more meaningful, which of those is more authentic. And I think probably people find that they connect differently and in different ways depending on the language, and which language they choose and which language is more comfortable. I wish so much luck to the listener who wrote this question in your Hebrew learning and that you find all of your tefilah, all of your prayer experiences, to be enriching and meaningful in whatever language.
Rav Avi: Responsa Radio is a project of the Hadar Institute and Jewish Public Media. Thanks to Annah Leah Bernstein Simpson for producing this podcast and to Noa Gendler for editing this episode. Have a halakhic question you'd like answered on the show? Email us at [email protected] You can also leave us a message at (215) 297-4254.