Davening in English or Hebrew

As a BT I find davening hard, I grew up in a very spiritual house where my mother always said G-d is with you always and you can talk to him in anyway you choose the same way you’d speak to one of your sisters or friends and that is exactly the kind of relationship I had (have?) with G-d. At times we’d be the best of friends speaking 5 times a day and at others there would be some unspoken distance between us and weeks might pass without so much as a word (on my end of course).

As a frum person I am expected to daven from my siddur prescribed prayers daily. I find it quite difficult to find the meaning in the tefillot and I definitely don’t think I have the requisite awe. I flip back and forth between English and Hebrew, some days I am of the mindset that you have to daven in Hebrew it is Loshen Hakodesh, but most days I feel you should daven in a language you really understand and although my knowledge of Hebrew is not bad I don’t have the same feelings when I daven in Hebrew. I remember the first time I read nishmat in English it brought me to tears that has never happened to me in Hebrew.

I guess the only reason I feel this pressure is because I feel it keeps me apart it identifies me as a BT rather than an FFB and that does bother me. I also wonder what will I do when I have children and I need to teach them to daven? If I always daven in English how can I then convey the beauty of the davening to them? Well I don’t have the answer but if anyone else does I’d love to have some suggestions.

14 comments on “Davening in English or Hebrew

  1. Keeping in mind what was written above about 2 different kinds of tefilah, one composed by us in our own words, the other in the set Hebrew form, Personally speaking, I can say that discovering the writings of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch on the root meaning of Hebrew words has, for me, imbued davening from the siddur with so much more meaning.

    For example, take the Hebrew word translated into English as “salvation”. Its found throughout or tefilot. What the heck is ‘salvation’ though? There’s another religion that uses that word alot, but what is the Hebrew word and what does that word mean? Rav Hirsch’s explanation of the etymology and meaning of ‘yeshua’ is fascinating. For anyone interested, you should look in his commentary on the p’sukim in Torah which talk about Joshua’s name change from Hoshea to Y’shua, and in his commentary on Tehillim, where the word is used- start with the first verse of the first Tehilla of Kabbalat Shabbat.

    For that matter, since so much of our davening is from Sefer Tehillim, I suggest Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Tehillim for making davening much more meaningful.

  2. I write not to critique those whose kavanah or sense thereof militates that they daven slowly or with more understanding. My concern is what I perceive as some posts expressing a more “meaningful” experience in English or that a fixed text deprives one of a “true religious” experience of prayer. In contrast, I believe that an enhanced sense of regularity of tefilah in Lashon Hakodesh should be seen as preferable to not becoming fluent in Tefillah in the original because it is either too difficult or “less meaningful”.

    I recall that R Soloveitchik ZTL once mentioned that three days after the splitting of the Red Sea, Moshe Rabbeinu was told by HaShem to give some mitzvos to Klal Yisrael. The obvious question was how could the momentous events of the Exodus wear off so quickly. Rav Soloveitchik ZTL answered that events that produce an emotional “high” inevitably wear off in terms of their long term effect and can only be sustained by a regular regimen of Torah observance and study. That’s probably also why our Shabbos and Yom Tov tefilos seem to be so much emotionally charged than our weekday tefilos. Yet, Rav Soplveitchik ZTL pointed out that if we treated our weekday Tefilos properly, every weekday would feel as holy as Yom HaKippurim.

    I think that R Frand once mentioned that someone in our neighborhood once printed a nice card with a summary of the proper halachos for Tefillah and that that card inspired many people to purchase seforim and books on the halachos , minhagim and hashkafa of Tefilah. There simply is no shortage of excellent seforim and English language works on all of these aspects of Tefilah ranging from Halacha to hashkafa to the development of nussach. I think that seforim or books of this nature can only enhance one’s appreciation of Tefilah and the act of tefilah itself.

    In my opinion, one cannot write away the insistence of Chazal , Rishonim , Acharonim and Poskim that while certain Tefilos can be said in any language, Lashon HaKodesh , especially that in Tanach, Siddur and Machzor is a major unifying force between Jews in far away countries. Simply stated, a Tefilah in the plural in Lashon HaKodesh creates achdus. I think that it is fair to say that the implementation of a fixed text in Lashon HaKodesh for such a central text as the Shemoneh Esreh and Krias HaTorah was to emphasize that we are truely Am Echad despite outside differences and that communal prayer represents a microcosm of the Jewish people. Of course, one experiences a more profound sense of this mitzvah during Yamim Noraim or in a yeshiva where a properly answered bracha should shake the walls. Yet, when you go to an average weekday minyan where people are davening with their eyes on the Siddur and their minds about getting to work on time , the regular experience of davening the same words as someone else in a geographically distant location is for me an invaluable training experience for the more meaningful days of Elul and Tishrei. In other words, one cannot experience the heights of the mitzvah of prayer without establishing it a a daily routine, even if your kavanah or those of some of your fellow mispallelim seems less than optimal.

  3. When I was first becoming frum, I picked certain prayers to always say in Lashon Ha”Kodesh and said the others in english. As my speed increased, I added more prayers in Hebrew.

  4. More on prayer in Hebrew:

    Something that many contemporary people overlook about prayer is its devotional aspect. We tend to think of prayer as an opportunity to be needy (before G-d) without the guilt or as an occasion for poetic self-expression without the critics. But even a cursory glance at our prayer books will reveal that a major theme in prayer is dedication to, and the greater glory of, G-d. If you had a meeting with a foreign dignitary and wanted to pay them respect, wouldn’t you try to learn their language, even if they were fluent in yours? It would be a way of honoring them, manifesting their exalted position and demonstrating that you were extending yourself to please them. In much the same way, writes the Chasam Sofer, we ought to offer up this honor to G-d by speaking to Him in His language of choice, despite our absolute belief in His omniscient fluency not only in all other languages but in our own innermost thoughts! (Responsa of the Chasam Sofer, Volume 5, addenda responsum 192)

    I’d like to wish all Bloggers on Beyond BT that G-d respond to all your prayers among the prayers of all of Klal Yisroel, especially at this critical time for our people and our land, irrespective of which language they are voiced in!

  5. To illustrate the other side of the debate more from the “Heritage Chats” D’var Torah from 10.28.02:

    Elana said that she felt connected both to Jewish history and to Jews around the world by praying in words that have been used around the world and throughout the generations. She felt that those “innovators” who had deleted some of the traditional prayers from their services were missing something very precious. As for the major criticism that can be leveled against all proponents of prayer in Hebrew. To wit: for Diaspora Jews who lack fluency in Hebrew is it really worthwhile pouring your soul out to G-d in a language that you neither understand well nor enunciate properly? In fact, the same holds true even for the majority of Israeli Jews whose spoken Hebrew relates to the classical Hebrew of the prayer book, much as the text of a daily tabloid relates to a Shakespearean sonnet. Elana said that even if she did not understand the Hebrew liturgy on a dictionary level, she did on an intuitive level. She felt that she understood Hebrew as though she was inborn with the knowledge as a baby and that she just “had a feel” for language.

    This is what many non-fluent Hebrew speakers, experience when they pray in Hebrew. I’d like to offer some insights into why we feel this way. The prayer book (mainly) is composed not in Hebrew but in Lashon haKodesh, the holy tongue. The Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that this is the language of Creation as well as the language with which G-d communicates to His prophets and, through them, to us all. There is an organic connection between prayer and prophecy. On the most prosaic level, prayer is when we communicate with G-d and prophecy is when G-d communicates with us (harvey siegler). As such, they comprise the two halves of a synergetic dialogue. It is essential for us to begin thinking of our prayers as taking part in a conversation rather than as soliloquies directed at a silent unresponsive, albeit Divine, Being. In this light we see G-d responding to our prayers in a myriad of ways, even when the actual requests, despite countless repetitions, seem to be going unfulfilled. The Talmud teaches that if the Jews are no longer prophets, they are still considered “the children of prophets.” We should always be looking for ways and means to sensitize our spiritual antennae to the low-level prophetic messages that G-d has never ceased to transmit.

    But on a deeper level, prayer and prophecy are one and the same. Biblical etymologists have pointed out that there are two words in the Torah for a prophet: Chozeh and Navee. The term Chozeh connotes the gift that we more commonly associate with prophetic powers, namely to foretell the future and see into the souls of human beings. However, the more common term, Navee, speaks primarily to the prophets’ rhetorical skills. It is etymologically related to word ‘neev’in the phrase “boray neev sefatayim” – he who creates the murmuring of the lips. Both Moses and Jeremiah tried to refuse their prophetic missions by claiming a lack of oratorical skills and fluency.

    We know that prayer is more than mere meditation. Prayers cannot just be cogitated they must be spoken. The identity of prayer and prophecy stems from the fact that both aspire to the pinnacle of the uniquely human faculty for speech and verbalization. [The most striking example of the direct connection between prayer and prophecy occurs in Genesis 20:7 where being threatened with an untimely death as a result of kidnapping the matriarch Sarah, the Philistine king, Avimelech, is instructed by G-d (doesn’t this already make him what we would call a prophet?!) to return Sarah to her husband Abraham. The motivation for so doing is provided as being because “he (Abraham) is a prophet and he will pray for you ”]. As such, it is easy to understand that most people would feel a special “oomph” when praying in Lashon haKodesh, as it is the language of prophecy and Torah.

  6. I want to share some ideas on these issues that first appeared in the “Heritage Chats” D’var Torah from 10.28.02:

    There is something to be said for prayers said in a language that the pray-ER is most fluent in. English may not be the language of Creation or prophecy nor can even the very best or faithful of translations capture the metaphysical power woven into the words by the “Men of the Great Assembly”. Still, we ought not to forget that prayer is described by our Sages as “the service of the heart” and that Kavvanah = directing and concentrating one’s mind and heart, is of paramount importance in Jewish prayer. In light of this, a strong argument can be made that concentration can be more easily achieved and heartfelt emotions more eloquently expressed when speaking/praying in one’s native tongue.

    I am of Ashkenazic origin and I’m familiar with the “Rav Peninim Tekheena”, a compendium of prayers in Yiddish favored by Jewish women for well over three centuries. It would not surprise me at all if a corresponding work in Ladino or Judeo-Arabic existed among Sephardic Jews.

    We are all familiar with the Chassidic tales of the unlettered Jews entering the synagogues on the High Holidays who carried everyone else’s prayers up to the gates of heaven with either a whistle or the pure recitation of the Hebrew alphabet. These anecdotes are illustrative of the principle that a powerfully heartfelt prayer, no matter how it is expressed, can carry more metaphysical weight than even the most beautiful high-flown liturgy, i.e. the High Holiday Machzor. What many members of Heritage Chats may be unaware of is that the sainted Klausenberger Rebbe, o.b.m. (One of the greatest of post-war Chassidic masters) regularly punctuated (in a strict Halachic sense interrupted) his prayers with his own original ones in Yiddish (that were often audible to the other congregants)! What the Rebbe writes in his book of Responsa is even more surprising. Basically it translates as follows: “And maybe this is what my master Reb Tevele, the Rav of Dukla, o.b.m, meant when he cited the Sefer HaKanah, pg. 22A that today we don’t really pray. (All that we do in terms of) prayer is only so that Torat Tefillah – the basic technique and concept of prayer not be forgotten (totally from among our people so that we shouldn’t be totally unfamiliar when “real prayer” returns in the Messianic Era). Because we really don’t even know how to pray. And in truth it would be better for us to pray in the vernacular if not for this principle of ‘not forgetting Torah Tefillah ‘”! – Teshuvot Divrei Yatziv, Yoreh Deah responsum 53.

  7. We (and I use that rhetorically and to include myself as one of the mistake makers) have to be careful about not pushing too much davening too early on our children.

    Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and Rav Shlomo Wolbe discuss the possibility that children who are pushed to daven too early really don’t come to appreciate what davening is all about. That will often result in rote davening and viewing davening as a chore. Rav Wolbe discusses it in Zeriah u’Binyan beChinnuch which has been adapted in the English Planting and Building (the footnotes of the English version add a lot).

  8. Rabbi Goldson, I like that idea and think I will try it.

    Michael Noach I woudl appreciate any tool syou could send me

    Kressel, I lived with a family that offered their children daavening treats, they had a certain candy that they only received after daavening and it worked. As a behaviour anayst that woudl be my recommendation for any behaviour you want to increase and I know that Rav Sheinberg recommends alot of behaviour analytical techniques to parents!

  9. Kids learn the formalities of davening in school and in shul. Their attitude toward davening, however, is something you can influence. When they see you daven, it gives them more of a desire to do it.

    But kids do have yetzer haras and that’s a hard thing to fight. I don’t have the answer to this one either, though it’s a problem BT and FFB parents share. Do we nag or let it slide when our kids don’t daven or fail to say brachos? I seem to be making mistakes on BOTH sides.

  10. Seriously, try the Artscroll siddur with interlinear translation. I had the same problem as you and it revolutionized my davening. You can read the hebrew and look at the translation. I find it also helps you pick up a lot of vocab just by using it while davening.

  11. I don’t really agree with Menachem that you don’t have to worry about your kids davening.
    If you want your kids to love davening they need to learn about davening.A few Rabbis told me already that nowaday we don’t find anymore people who are really working on davening.I heard from a Rabbi that The Chazon Ish use to have more difficulties and had to put more effort on learning about prayer than learning Gemara.
    But besides that , you have to know that there are two types of prayer: first is the prayer that comes at certain times straight from your soul, it comes almost by itself , like a urge , this type of prayer should be said in the language you know the best.
    They once heard the Chofetz Chaym confessing on Yom Kippur in Yiddish , the Talmidim couldn’t believe it ! when they asked him why he didn’t daven in Hebrew , he answered them , He is my Tate/Daddy , that’s the way I talk to my dadddy, like when I was a child…!
    Rabbi Nachman of Breslov says that that type of prayer is more powerful than the one you recite everyday because it is new,with new words, and the Yetzer Hara is not used to it , he doesn’t know how to counter it.
    the second type of prayer comes from our sages and is necessary to say because it contains all the words necessary to activate the gates of prayers and to be answered, so even if you don’t have as much devotion and understanding (due to rote (the yetzer hara), or lack of study on the meaning and power of the words), it still works and is powerful.

    therefore you should ideally spend some time learning about the meaning of the Brachos and the shema until you feel devotion coming, and in the same time make a Tefilah from your own words ,or just pray from the english translation of the Siddur.

    I am working since a few years already on davening with groups , so if you want tools for understanding the structure of the siddur or meaning of the words , or how to increase Kavanah , I can send you some of the material I have.
    all the best , may Hashem open your heart to all the words of prayer.

  12. Rav Dovid Gottleib suggests the following strategy: Study the first bracha of Shmoneh Esrei. For one week (longer if necessary) make sure that, no matter what else you might space out on, you keep focus on that bracha. (Anyone can maintain concentration for ONE bracha, no?) Then next week, work on the second bracha. In this way one can dramatically improve kavanah on all of Shmoneh Esrei in about four months. Then move on to Shema, pesukei d’zimra, and the rest of davening. I found this helped transform my davening into a completely different experience when I tried it. Good luck!

  13. The most important thing for you to realize is that the issues you are experiencing with davening are not unique to BTs. Everyone grapples with these issues from the greatest “gedolim” on down.

    We, as BTs, actually have a distinct advantage in that we’re not locked into certain patterns of behavior when it comes to davening. The fact that you are willing to switch between English and Hebrew upts you ahead of the game. It shows that you’re trying to keep your davening fresh and are not allowing yourself to slip into a rut, at least not willingly.

    Don’t worry about your kids. When the time comes it will come naturally, both for you and them. The fact that you care so much about your davening will be much more important than any nuances of Hebrew you may not be able to give to them.

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