Vayechi — 5772: “Praying in Hebrew”

10/01/2012 at 18:01 2 comments

“Praying in Hebrew”


Parashat Vayechi

Neil F. Blumofe

7 January 2012


I am habitually asked – why do we pray mostly in Hebrew?  Many times, the one who asks the question is unfamiliar with the pattern and the scope of the liturgy and wants to learn more – or sometimes the person asking is uncomfortable with so much of a language that’s not understood so well or that wasn’t the language of prayer when growing up.  This question comes from a place of a person’s distance as well as interest and oftentimes sparks a good conversation about the meaning and the purpose of prayer.


Hebrew is considered to be lashon hakodesh – the holy language – a language that has the power to create and to destroy.  Among our sages there is an idea that chanting or praying in Hebrew brings with it a restorative power – that even though we may not be aware of it, while we are sounding out and pronouncing the various words and while we are listening to many in the congregation do the same, in that moment, our soul is filled with essential vitamins and minerals that replenish us and bring us longer term health.  There is something healing about our Hebrew prayers – and that our siddur, our prayer book, is not merely the latest stage in the editing of generations of human messages to God, rather it is a daily regimen both to prevent malaise and to boost our strength of spirit.  In short, according to this idea, we need to pray in Hebrew to keep rooted to the divine within us and thus to pray in Hebrew supersedes any normal or expected communication.


As we pray in a Hebrew that is different from today’s spoken Hebrew and in fact combines many of the stages of development from the origins of the language itself – Biblical, Mishnaic, Rabbinic, Medieval, Mystical, which includes some aspects of Aramaic into the Hebrew mix – we enter into a moment that is incredibly full and not assigned to any particular historical moment.  We live in all times at once, able to transcend space and time and to experience the enormous beauty and benefits from an entire tradition.  As we take our time to immerse in a language that is different for us – even if we are native Hebrew speakers – we enter into a different time – a mythic time where ordinary interaction is exchanged for something beyond us – where today, our lives are added to the vastness of a moment of revelation that continues – through us and through our students, as we can stand with Abraham, and Moses, and Rachel, and Hannah, and for some of us, our grandparents, as we unburden our heart directly before an ageless God.


Yet many of us crave understanding – and this explanation of cleaving to a tradition while nice, does not address real needs that many of us have to want to know what we are saying.  Before exploring this thought for a minute, let me say too, that a parallel position that some have expressed to me over the years is that they specifically like not understanding exactly what they are saying – that in the routine of their lives, it is nice not to have to be pinned down, not have to get involved to a degree, and to let go for a bit and not worry about communicating effectively, or God’s gender and specific images embedded in our prayers that if they knew more about, would vex them and in understanding would cause them to be more distant.


So, the good thing about our prayers is that they happen frequently and that we have a lifetime to enter into them and gain meaning from them.  While we may start with the line of Shema Yisrael, which proclaims God’s Oneness, every time that we engage in prayer in Hebrew, we can learn something more – truly, adding a word at a time.  Granted, asking an adult to make learning Hebrew a priority is not easy – however, knowing that there is no expected outcome and that the more frequently one prays – establishing a practice of prayer — the easier it becomes, is true.  There are many different prayer books available, both in book form and electronically, that provide useful study aids, such as interlinear translation and helpful commentary – in addition, classes in prayer book or liturgical Hebrew are readily found in our community and online that can bring a dedicated student much reward, even after a few weeks. 


And truly, there is no expectation that one pray everything, all the time.  While the shaliach tsibur, the pray leader establishes a pace, it is really up to us to find both our places of comfort and our places that gently push us a bit.  Dwelling on a Hebrew word – or struggling with a concept in prayer, or finding a silence – whether in our individual Amidah or in a blessing before or after the Shema is not only welcomed, it is desired.  I ask that we have patience with our progress and that we appreciate each word as we build our connections – that there is no expectation for finishing or for mastery as we devote ourselves to a regular connection with our prayers.


However, the real question might be – do we believe in these prayers in the first place?  While many of us welcome a prayer for healing for those in our lives who may be ill – entering into a conversation with our sages and those who have creatively come before us does not resonate.  Acknowledging this may help to ease our self-induced isolation.  Entering into the synagogue, it certainly seems that we should believe what is in front of us and for those who don’t, or who don’t have positive feelings of inclusion or who are not prepared to open up to a non-rational experience, Hebrew is just another hindrance.  While I don’t have a ready-made solution for this – I know that this kind of estrangement is more common than acknowledged.  Let me say, that music – and how we chant the prayers, helps.


And as you may know, I also am a strong advocate for our original prayer.  I recommend using our matbe’ah tefillah, our order and sequence of Hebrew prayers as a baseline.  Our tradition is nothing without commentary – so I invite each of us to enter into a convention of mastering the Hebrew, word by word, and then also responding in ways that continue the conversation that have been established. How rich our synagogue experiences can be as we pray a few words in Hebrew and then respond immediately to them – turning them over and over – allowing them to penetrate us at that moment – and while we may only pray just a few lines, our time would be meaningful as we bring our fullest selves into the conversation, rather than let they prayer leader just carry us along.  Even when we are not engaged in prayer at the synagogue – to try our hand at prayer – to open a siddur and with inspiration, draft our own poems about light, darkness, love, exile, and God.


Prayer is called avodat halev – service of the heart – and for us to open up a bit, to allow our self to flow even a little past our self-defined limits can be transformative.  Moving past our doubts and our defenses and learning to express ourselves in a foreign land – in another language — is powerful.  Incorporating elements of Hebrew – learning associations from our Torah and our prayer book and our oral texts like the Talmud is incredibly empowering and will serve us well as we encounter our identity and write the Torah of our lives. 


Our tradition asks, what is shefa?  And the answer is that is abundance in its highest form – a flow between the Creator to God’s creation.  And prayer is the return of this sheaf, this abundance – it is what we offer back to the Creator of all – it is who we are, in all of our majesty and all of our impurities that we offer back to God, and while the container of all of this is Hebrew – responding to God, as God spoke words of prophecy, prayer and instruction to us, Hebrew is many things.  Hebrew is just a beginning.  Hebrew is the channel previously dug by our ancestors – Hebrew is just the vessel in which who we are, is carried, and within that vessel are words of English, and too, words that cannot be expressed, our tears and our voiceless hurts and expressions.


So let us dedicate our lives to the Hebrew letters and as we do, let us continue to open them up to propel our understanding of this extraordinary fertile language, to improve our connections with the many stories and people of our tradition and too, to plumb the levels and the boundaries of our beliefs – finding conviction in what we say and consolation in our distance, as well.  Let Hebrew inspire us to create our own prayers, joined to the hopes and dreams of our resonant tradition as they too, implore, question, magnify and praise.

 Shabbat Shalom.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. shoshwrites  |  10/01/2012 at 21:28

    Hebrew prayers also connect Jews around the world. Having attended Shabbat services in foreign countries, I felt a strong sense of connection and comfort when we all prayed in our common language.

  • 2. Fred Freedman  |  30/04/2012 at 00:07

    While I experienced my first Israel trip back in 1992, I experienced oneness with myself with Hashem. My new stretch of being led me to remember countless small children on a particular shabbot morning, who couldn’t have been older than 4-5 years of age were able to recite themselves from start to finish the whole entire service by themselves and for themselves.

    I found this experience quite permanent and provocative in my current and future moments with Hashem. The image of all those very precious young children truely allowed me to see they could hold their own regardless of their small ages of chronological being.

    I’ll never forget the experience being around those children in Israel and immediately knew I never saw anything like it ever back in the states.

    Fred Freedman


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