“What The Heck Am I Praying?”
Many people have emailed me with tons of questions about becoming more Jewishly observant, but when I ask them about their Jewish communal life, they tense up —
“I haven’t visited one.”
“What do you mean you haven’t visited a Jewish community? You’re wanting to convert without a community?”
“Scared of what? Don’t worry — the old men praying don’t bite. Some don’t even have teeth! Haha.”
“It’s not that. It’s the prayer. I feel like I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. It’s all gibberish to me. I feel like I’m going to do something wrong and make a fool out of myself.”
While one response would be, “Well, there’s only one way to remedy that and that’s to learn Hebrew and jump in…” — that won’t answer the root cause of the fear. Even deeper, few people are drawn to a prayer that they themselves do not understand. Yes, learning Hebrew certainly helps, but it doesn’t help in the meantime. What will help is praying in your own language.
Don’t think that for a moment this article is anti-Hebrew tefilah (prayer). It’s certainly not. I personally believe the Jews have a responsibility to get an education in Hebrew, as it is the language of Torah and Jewish soul. There are so many concepts in Hebrew that have no counterpart in so many other languages. What I am talking about is the occasional mixing of hitbodedut (secluded prayer/conversation with the Creator in your own words) and liturgical Jewish prayer. Attaching this framework of feeling to your own soul via the pathway of the current condition of your mind. What am I getting at? Simply this: pray in your native tongue from time to time.
Native Tefilah: Speaking From Your Neshamah
Though opinions vary, certain kinds of tefilah in your first-learned language exist in every movement of Judaism. In Hasidic Judaism, the followers of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teach extensively about a practice called “hitbodedut.” Meaning simply “seclusion”, this style of tefilah is the act of secluding one’s self in a room or in nature and praying in your own words as well as the language you’re most comfortable speaking. On a different end of the Jewish spectrum, even though Traditional Karaite Judaism puts an extreme emphasis on every Jew learning and using Hebrew in their tefilah, there are sections of silent meditation built into most Karaite Jewish liturgies — sections where the participant communes with the Creator silently in their own words and language. It’s not that these two movements are deviating from traditional tefilah minhagim (customs) in their execution in order to facilitate personal prayer, but are actually looking backwards to how prayer began — a personal link to the Creator of the Universe. One should never forget that though much of Jewish liturgy are written Tehillim (Psalms) of King David, these are no more than David writing out his own tefilot to the Creator.
It can be extremely exciting to learn Hebrew and be able to implement it into one’s prayer life. Being able to read Hebrew writing, to get a gist of the understanding and the shapes of the words, and to be able to follow along in a group setting are all wonderful. Before I continue, it should be noted that this is an extremely admirable thing as Hebrew is the language of Torah and the Jewish soul. However, there are even Jews who have been praying in Hebrew every day of their lives who will admit that sections of the prayers can go from being elevated spiritual planes of communication to rushed mumbling. It’s for this reason that I must make the following recommendation: when you pray alone, pray in your native tongue regularly.
If you’ve been making the effort to pray in Hebrew for an extended period of time, there’s one thing you’ll notice about occasionally praying in one’s native language: it’s weird. It will feel like “cheating” because of it’s fluidity. The prayers will more easily flow from your kishkes (guts/insides) heartfelt way. For any secondary language for which you are not completely fluent, there is a slight delay as your mind translates words of the second language to the first and then finally into what your heart knows that word to mean.
The late Rabbi Zalman Schatcher-Shalomi, z”l, one of the founders of the neo-hasidic Jewish Renewal movement, recommended praying in one’s native tongue every day outside of the Shabbat. He believed in the power of this so much that he published an English-only siddur for this purpose entitled “Sh’ma: A Concise Weekday Siddur For Praying In English.” The idea of the siddur is to remove the perceived enormity of typical traditional Jewish daily tefilah and make Jewish prayer feel more accessible.
While I’m no student of Rabbi Zalman, many of his teachings on prayer speak to those attempting to acclimate themselves towards a life filled with meaningful tefilot. Many who were not raised in the concept of Jewish prayer as a daily part of life have trouble jumping into the idea of talking to the Creator of the Universe every day. Still more have trouble using the words of others in order to have this conversation. Still more may have trouble using the words of others in a language that is foreign to them for the most intimate act of speaking to their Creator like a swooning lovestruck romantic or a pleading child.
Yes, I do believe that communal tefilah should remain in Hebrew. There are too many concepts that can be lost in translation as well as the important act of maintaining Hebrew as the universal language of Jews. But when it’s just you and the magnitude of what is the Loving Creator of the Universe, feel free to speak to that Force in the way most natural to you. Doing this regularly and establishing your daily tefilot as a time you cherish will work wonders towards not only establishing a more intimate relationship with the Creator, but to help remove the fear of praying communally.
In this video, Rabbi Joseph Dweck, the current Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom, breaks down the essence of Jewish prayer.