Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Question: When reciting a berachah in English, does a person fulfill his obligation if he says “Hashem” instead of “L-rd” or “G-d”? 




Answer: The Mechaber rules (based on Shabbos 12b and Sotah 32a) that one may pray in any language when praying with a congregation, save for Aramaic, which angels do not know. The Beit Yosef explains that Aramaic is an unpleasant language.

The Aruch Hashulchan argues that a Jew should pray in Hebrew except when it comes to prayers like selichot and yotzrot. Shulchan Aruch HaRav states that it is far better for someone who has not mastered the Holy Tongue to pray in a language he understands.

Last week we cited a responsum of the former chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, zt”l (Yabia Omer, vol 1, Orach Chayim 12). He was asked about transliterated siddurim (for the Turkish Jewish community), the basic question being whether a person can discharge his obligation by reading prayers whose meaning he doesn’t understand. Furthermore, can he discharge his obligation by listening to someone else say them?

Rabbi Yosef cites authorities who are strict and maintain that a person must know what he saying when he prays (or listens to others praying to discharge his obligation). He leans towards this view, but notes that if it were the halacha, the prayers of multitudes of Jews would be considered worthless, which is a difficult position to maintain. He therefore endorses the printing of the transliterated siddurim he was asked about.

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Rabbi Ovadya Yosef raises a further difficulty with transliterated siddurim, though. In Hebrew, the alef and ayin are pronounced differently, but English only has one letter for both: ‘o.’ Thus, someone using a transliterated siddur will not distinguish between an alef and an ayin. (This is just one example of Hebrew sounds that are not properly represented in transliterated siddurim; there are others as well.)

The Gemara (Megillah 24b) quotes R. Asi: “A kohen from either Haifa or Beit She’an should not rise to the duchan [to recite the Priestly Blessing].” A baraita also states that we should not allow someone from Beit She’an, Haifa, or Tib’onim to lead the congregation in prayer because the people from these towns pronounce an alef as an ayin and an ayin as an alef.

The Gemara mentions these two rulings in response to the ruling of the Mishnah (supra Megillah 24b) that a kohen whose hands are deformed should not raise his hands to pronounce the Priestly Blessing. In other words, the Gemara is stating that just as deformed hands are an impediment to reciting the Priestly Blessing, so is mispronouncing various sounds.

Both the Tur (Orach Chayim 53:7) and the Mechaber (Orach Chayim 53:12) rule that one who mispronounces sounds should not to be appointed to lead the services. The Rema in his glosses to the Mechaber, as well as in his commentary to the Tur, offers no comments on this ruling, indicating that he agrees with it and that it applies to both Sefaradim and Ashkenazim.

Rabbi Yosef seems to find some leniency, writing that the ruling only applies when the one mispronouncing Hebrew is being relied on to discharge another’s obligation (and generally today the chazzan is not relied on in this manner as each individual recites his own Amidah). And a kohen who mispronounces Hebrew is only forbidden to rise to the duchan if he is in a community where people know how to properly pronounce Hebrew.

In support of this position, Rabbi Yosef cites the Radbaz (Responsa, Vol. 1:394) who states: “Certainly the kohanim of Haifa and Beit She’an would rise to the duchan to pronounce Birkat Kohanim in their locality…as it is unlikely that they would bring kohanim and chazzanim from a different locality. In their place, their speech is not considered ‘deformed.’ It is only if they come to our locale, where all pronounce Hebrew correctly, that their speech would be considered an impediment.”

The Mahari Mintz (Responsa Even Ha’ezer 16) writes similarly. He discusses a man needing to perform chalitzah (to enable his childless sister-in-law to remarry) who has a speech impediment. He argues that since we know that he always speaks this way, his recital of the chalitzah text is considered acceptable – as long as he says it in Hebrew. The Mahari Mintz also refers to the kohanim of Haifa and Beit She’an and writes that although they mispronounce individual letters, everyone in their locale understands them.

The Taz (Orach Chayim 128:31) writes that the rule that one who pronounces an ayin as an alef should not rise to the duchan only applies to earlier times when people knew how to differentiate between these two letters. Nowadays, however, when people do not know how to distinguish between them, every kohen may say the Birkat Kohanim. The Rambam mentions the Bnei Ephraim (Judges 12:6) who pronounced “Shibboleth” as “Sibboleth,” and Rabbi Yosef notes that Jews todays similarly mispronounce “sh” as “s.” (Jews who grew up in certain Lithuanian towns often say “s” instead of “sh” and Jews from areas of Russia, Ukraine, and even Hungary often pronounce a heh as a gimmel and a chet as a heh.)

Rabbi Ovadya Yosef concludes that in our holy land, Eretz Yisrael, the practice has spread that all kohanim recite the Priestly Blessing and no one says a word. The same, he notes, applies to recitations of Kaddish. He is also emphatic that the recital of those who say Pesukei D’Zimrah aloud, without even fully knowing what they are saying, is surely likened to the pleasant aroma of the karbanot offered before Hashem and accepted by Him with great rejoicing.

In summation, he heartily endorses the printing of transliterated siddurim and states that those doing so will surely be blessed. He concludes by offering a short prayer: “Let it be His will that our portion be amongst those who seek out the righteousness of the masses so in that merit we not suffer shame or humiliation both in this world and in the world to come. May we experience, as well, the fulfillment of those prophetic words (Isaiah 11:9): “ki mal’ah ha’aretz de’ah et Hashem ka’mayim la’yam m’chasim – that the earth be filled with knowledge of Hashem as the water covers the sea bed.”

(To be continued)