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Q & A: Selichot Restrictions (Part III)


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Question: The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch states that an individual praying selichot without a minyan is not allowed to recite the Thirteen Midot or the Aramaic prayers. What is the rationale behind this halacha?

Moshe Jakobowitz
Brooklyn, NY

Answer: The Beit Yosef on the Tur (Orach Chayim 565) explains that the Shelosh Esreh Midot represent a communal prayer and thus a davar she’b’kedushah. A mishnah in Tractate Megillah (23b) enumerates the situations that incorporate a davar she’b’kedusha and require a minyan. Among them is communal prayer.

Last week we discussed whether it is permitted to pray for sick people in Aramaic, since, according to R. Yochanan (Shabbos 12b), ministering angels do not understand Aramaic. R. Yochanan’s statement is at odds with the opinion that these angels know the innermost thoughts of man (see Tosafot ad loc.). We concluded that praying for sick people is different since, as the Talmud (loc. cit.) states, the Divine Presence comes to help sick people in their suffering. Thus, there is no need for the aid of angels.

We asked, though, why the intercession of angels is ever necessary since we address our prayers directly to G-d. We also pointed out that there is a difference between individual prayer (tefillat yachid) and congregational prayer (tefillat hatzibur); we are assured that the latter one will be accepted.

* * * * *

The Shiltei HaGibborim to the Rif (Berachot, beginning of Ch. 2, “Ha’ya korei baTorah”) says a person may pray in a language other than Hebrew if he doesn’t know Hebrew as he needs to be able to pray in a language he knows (even if it is Aramaic). This is in accordance with Tractate Berachot 3a: “Whenever Israelites convene in synagogues and houses of study and respond, ‘Yehe shmei [shemo according to the Maharsha] hagadol mevorach – May His great name be blessed,’ the Almighty nods and says, ‘Happy is the king who is thus praised in his house.’ ” Tosafot remark that this Hebrew response is the equivalent of the Aramaic sentence in Kaddish: “Yehei shemei rabbah mevorach.”

Tosafot dispute those who maintain that this beautiful prayer of praise was instituted in Aramaic so that the angels would not fathom it and thus not cast a jealous eye upon us. Tosafot note that there are many other beautiful liturgical passages in Hebrew. Rather, Tosafot explain, Kaddish (in the Talmudic period) used to be recited at the conclusion of lectures given for the populace at large, amongst whom were many uneducated people who did not understand Hebrew. Kaddish was therefore composed in Aramaic, the language spoken by everybody.

Why, then, are individuals not generally supposed to pray in Aramaic? The Tur (Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 101) quotes his father’s statement that an individual may pray in any language – except Aramaic. The Beit Yosef (ad loc.) explains that angels have an aversion to Aramaic, which is not the case regarding any other language. The Chochmat Shlomo, commenting on the Mechaber’s ruling in the Shulchan Aruch that prayers can be recited in any language, notes that the angel of each of the 70 nations intercedes for that nation in its own language, and therefore an individual should not pray in a language that his nation’s angel does not speak. Michael, the angel of Israel, uses Hebrew, so Israelites should pray only in Hebrew, the Chochmat Shlomo writes.

This statement runs counter to the rulings of the Tur and Mechaber. The Chochmat Shlomo, in fact, goes further and cautions against people who have instituted prayers in any language other than Hebrew. (He is referring to “formally structured communal prayers” recited to fulfill our daily obligations of tefillah, not personal supplications.)

To explain the aversion angels are said to have for the Aramaic language in particular, we turn to the statement of Rabbi Yehuda in the name of Rav in Sanhedrin 38b. He says that the first man, Adam, spoke in Aramaic, for it is written (Psalms 139:17), “Ve’li mah yakru re’echa, Kel – How valued (or weighty) are your thoughts of me, G-d.”

To explain this statement, the Maharsha quotes Rabbi Yochanan’s statement in Bava Batra (75b) that in the time to come, the righteous will be called by the name of G-d, for it is written (Isaiah 43:7), “Every one that is called by My name, whom I have created for My glory – I have created them and fashioned them.” The Maharsha asks: Where in that pasuk are the “righteous” and the “time to come” mentioned? He explains that honor is attained only through the Torah. Indeed, the Gemara (Sanhedrin loc. cit.) continues its comments about Adam, stating that G-d showed him every generation to come and its scholars and sages. When it came to the generation of Rabbi Akiva, Adam rejoiced at his learning but was grieved at his martyr’s death at the hands of the Romans That is when Adam exclaimed, “Ve’li mah yakru re’echa, Kel.”

Mah yakru” is the Aramaic equivalent of “mah kavdu – how valued.” Adam did not want the angels to understand what he was saying to G-d because they would be jealous of him. Not only had G-d created man, but He also intended to give the Torah to a human being. Angels, therefore, have an aversion to the language Adam used to affirm our right to the Torah, which the angels would have liked to possess themselves. Thus, it is only in Aramaic that we are not permitted to pray.

Interestingly, it is precisely from this Gemara that we can bring another proof to the efficacy of tefillat hatzibur since it is obvious that notwithstanding any restrictions related to praying in Aramaic, when a tzibbur offer a prayer as one, it can do so even in Aramaic. This surely portends well for prayers in other languages.

However, the saintly Chofetz Chayim – in line with the previously-quoted Chochmat Shlomo – comes out very strongly in his Mishnah Berurah against those who would alter the language of our prayers from Hebrew to another language. He underscores that our tefillot are ancient, instituted by our Sages in Hebrew, also called lashon hakodesh, the holy language. (Obviously those age-old prayers and piyutim that our sages instituted in Aramaic are an exception and not subject to the Chofetz Chayim’s critique.)

The Chofetz Chaim is also contemptuous of those who remove referenced to Jerusalem and the ingathering of the exiles from their congregational prayers. He concludes that it was precisely because the Children of Israel did not alter their language (“shelo shinu et leshonam”) that they were delivered from servitude in Egypt. In that merit we will hopefully be delivered from this galut as well.

Notwithstanding all the above, we will shortly be sitting in our sukkot reciting – in Aramiac and without a minyan – the short “ushpizin ila’in – exalted guests,” which refers to the seven shepherds: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Why? The answer is that this recitation is not a prayer, but rather an invitation and greeting to our Patriarchs to join us and bear testimony as we fulfill G-d’s command.

May this mitzvah too serve us well as we seek Hashem’s blessing and deliverance speedily in our days.

Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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