Rabbi Sholom Klass, zt”l 10 Shevat, 5760
As we go to press, we observe the yahrtzeit of my dear uncle, Rabbi Sholom Klass, zt”l. We therefore present a timely responsum of his that addresses a recent query in this column. Our discussion of the requirement of Mizrach in the synagogue will conclude next week.
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QUESTION: I have been told that one is not to pray in any other language than Hebrew. In many synagogues that I have visited I saw ArtScroll prayer books in use with English side by side with the Hebrew. May we pray using the English translation? I would greatly appreciate your answer.
A Newly-Observant Reader
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The following is a responsum Rabbi Sholom Klass wrote to a similar question:
ANSWER: “The Shulchan Aruch ( Orach Chayyim 102:4) states: You may pray in any language you desire when praying with a congregation but not when praying alone. Other [sources] state that this only refers to a personal plea such as a prayer for sickness or trouble, but for the standard prayers one may use any language. Some state that even personal prayers may be said in all languages, except Aramaic.
“The Gemara (Shabbos 12b) states: Rabbi Judah did not prefer the vernacular Aramaic for all petitions concerning personal needs. Rabbi Johanan preferred Hebrew, because ‘the attending angels pay no attention to Aramaic.’
“The Gemara (Sotah 32b) states: These may be said in all languages: the chapter of Sotah, repentances, tithes, Kerias Shema and prayers.
“Maimonides asserts that the use of foreign languages by Jews exiled in Persia, Greece and other countries from the time of Nebuchadnezzar caused Ezra and his synod to formulate the Shemoneh Esreh and the other prayers in pure Hebrew, so that all Israelites might pray in unison (Yad, Hil. Tefillah 1:4).
“However, private prayers in Aramaic were later inserted in the prayer book. Saadia Gaon included some in Arabic. Since the sixteenth century, the prayer book has been translated into most European languages because of non-educated people. But the original Hebrew always appeared in the Siddur.
“The Beth Yosef (Tur Orach Chayyim 102) explains the view of Rabbi Judah of not praying in Aramaic in that it is a language despised by the angels, but other languages are permissible. The Rosh concurs with this view.
“The Chochmas Shlomo (Orach Chayyim 101) explains the understanding of languages by the angels: Every nation has an angel in heaven representing it before G-d. This angel speaks the language of its nation and only understands that language and no other.
“The Archangel Michael represents Israel and he only understands Hebrew. Therefore if you pray in Hebrew he will aid your prayers by presenting it before G-d.
“The Yad Ephraim explains that although the Magen Avraham states that it is better to pray in a language which you understand rather than pray in Hebrew if you don’t understand it, this refers to a perfect translation of the Hebrew prayer, which we rarely have. Therefore he feels we should rather pray in Hebrew even if we don’t understand it, for the world was created in Hebrew and our Torah was given in Hebrew, and the language is holy.
“The Chofetz Chaim (Mishna Berura, O.Ch. 101:4) quotes the Chasam Sofer, who would only permit another language in case of emergency but not to establish it on a steady basis, which he prohibited. ‘One sin is usually followed by another sin,’ he states. ‘Some groups have omitted the prayer of Jerusalem and the prayer of the Messiah and now they seek to omit praying in the Hebrew tongue, our heritage. Prayers in Hebrew are preferable even if you don’t understand the language,’ concludes the Chofetz Chaim. Hebrew has many hidden secrets in every letter. This is the language G-d used when He spoke to His prophets and with it He created the world. Also, there were the 120 elders of Anshei Knesseth Hagedolah, among them many prophets, and they weighed and analyzed every Hebrew letter that went into the prayers.
“Therefore even if we don’t understand the meaning of the words, we can be assured that when we say the words prepared by the Sages and prophets, they will represent us before G-d, who is cognizant of all the thoughts of man.
“The Aruch Hashulchan quotes the Gemara in Sotah, which permits prayer in all languages, but he claims that this refers to the additional prayers such as Selichos, but not the regular prayers which were established for the daily, Shabbos and holiday service.
“‘Heaven forbid,’ says the Gaon, ‘that we should even change one letter of our prayer; so had decreed all the great people of the previous generations.’
“The Chasam Sofer was opposed to praying in any other language except Hebrew (Responsa, Hashmatos 192): ‘When Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly established our prayers in Hebrew, they realized that the majority of the people didn’t understand the language – as explained in the book of Ezra – and yet they established it in Hebrew. Why then should we change the language of our ancestors? It is called the ‘Holy Tongue’ because it is the language G-d used when He talked to His prophets.’
“The Otzar Yisrael (p. 288, Tefilla) has this observation: It is a known fact that where a congregation has changed its entire prayer service to the vernacular [such as English in our case], the worshipers decreased in number for the congregants who did not pray in Hebrew also did not pray in another language. They eventually kept away from the synagogue completely, whereas those who prayed in Hebrew still attend services and continue praying in Hebrew.”
Rabbi Sholom Klass concludes: “May I emphasize that at all times you should pray only in Hebrew. You could secure some of the siddurim which have an English translation and familiarize yourself with the meaning of the Hebrew words. This will give added kavanah [concentration] and sincerity to your prayers, which would then be more acceptable to G-d. The Hebrew language is a beautiful, poetic language and no translation can do it justice.
“May G-d in His mercy grant you the wishes of your prayers as well as the prayers of all Israel, Amen.”
May we add that if you do not know Hebrew, there are many outreach (kiruv) organizations and adult education courses available today to enable you to understand the Hebrew prayers we have all been reciting for millennia.
Rabbi Yaakov Klass can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.