“The Rabbis taught in a Baraita (Jewish oral law) that the recital of the Shema (Liturgy taken from Deuteronomy chapter 6) must be performed as it is written in the Torah (i.e. in Hebrew and no other languages) these are the words of Rebbi. But the Sages say: It may be recited in any language. … The sages, why do they rule like that? Because the verse states, Shema (Hear), which implies in any language that you understand”
(Talmud Brachot 13a)
Prayer is difficult. The idea of reaching beyond oneself in supplication and petition is daunting even to the most spiritual among us. Jewish prayer adds another level of complexity by insisting on offering our words in Hebrew, a foreign language that the vast majority of our community doesn’t speak or understand. This reality begs the question, “Why continue to use it?” There are other congregations that have added considerable amounts of English to their prayer experience. Although Ahavath Achim is committed to creating a welcoming and fully participatory spiritual experience, there is still much to be gained by a service in Hebrew.
- Hebrew is the language of our people. Through language, culture is passed on to succeeding generations. Hebrew has a special place in the historical and spiritual memory of our people. Just hearing it, even with a lack of understanding has the power to touch a very ancient part of every Jew’s soul.
- Hebrew is language of the soul – The Hebrew language is spiritually very special. Known by the tradition as the lashon kodesh, holy tongue, Hebrew speaks to us on a very different level than English or our native spoken language. Those who love opera don’t seek out productions in English. The original language still penetrates the heart in a way that an English version might fall flat. The soul connects on many different levels and sometimes our intellect has a way of preventing the soul from finding itself in the prayers if every word and idea is scrutinized (Critical analysis of our spiritual texts takes place in other aspects of synagogue life, See ‘Learn with us” for more details)
- Hebrew is the traditional language of Jewish prayer – Jews have been using Hebrew to pray for more than 2000 years. One of the goals of Jewish prayer is to connect us to something greater than ourselves. Obviously, the focus of this connection is God. When we pray we also connect with community, culture and tradition. The use of Hebrew has the power to connect us with our fellow Jews throughout space (wherever they live) and time (whenever they lived).
While Hebrew is the unique Jewish language of prayer, that fact may make prayer hard for us. We may not be able to comfortably read Hebrew. Our congregation has published a beautiful, engaging and informative prayer service supplemental booklet, Illuminating Our Way, to guide from the novice daven’er (Yiddish: A person sincerely engaged in prayer) to the most seasoned shul-goer. Printed copies are available at all synagogue prayer services, and the text is downloadable here.