Jewish Prayer In Your Native Tongue

“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?”

“I’m scared.”

“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.

reb-zalmnThe 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.

Bonus material:

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.


I Lost My Blankie…Err…My Tallit

“Where IS IT?”

In preparation for my upcoming nuptials to the lovely Shakhar bat David, I recently found an apartment even closer to our neighborhood synagogue – a charming 2-bedroom place in the extremely hip Cherry Street District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. This meant I needed to move a whopping 4 blocks from my rag-tag bachelor pad in the same area. Because it was only 4 blocks and I’m a simple fella, I just threw everything in the back of my hatchback and made trips back and forth till I was eventually moved. Being that the new apartment wasn’t quite ready and it was snowing HARD during the move, my move was…well…less than methodical. I basically tossed all of my belongings in Rubbermaid tubs and hefty garbage bags in order to move it from point A to point B. Because of this, some of my more crucial belongings were not immediately found…my tallit (prayer shawl) and siddur (prayer book).

This normally wouldn’t be as big a deal for some people, but, being that my prayer schedule is really the only thing that keeps this almost frightfully ADHD kid (…oh, look…a squirrel…) even somewhat focused, I had the most out-of-it week imaginable.

I’m not sure why I couldn’t find my tallit and siddur, but I just couldn’t! Every box I overturned and trip to my car with a flash light turned up with bunk. How could it have gotten lost? I only moved 4 blocks! I did my best to pray with other books I had and other tallits, but there’s just something about using your tallit that makes it…well…that makes it feel right – feel like home. Shakhar was wondering why I seemed a little bit out of it this last Shabbat. The best I could do is to describe what it felt like on the inside by relating it on the outside. She knows how much my prayer life is to me (I’ve been late for our dates before because of it) and how I probably wouldn’t miss my morning prayers maybe even if the building was on fire, but she didn’t quite understand the toll it took.

“Well…um…imagine that you went a whole week…um…without showering? Maybe you don’t stink and you may not seem to look that crusty to your co-workers, but you just feel…gross. It’s like a secret that only annoys you. It feels like someone has stolen the soap out of my shower – only instead of soap, it’s my tallit and siddur. Instead of soap for the outside, it’s soap for the inside.”

Shakhar is amazing companion in the sense that she worries more about me usually more than I really worry about me. She could tell I was out of sorts. “You really need to find that your tallit and siddur.” She said this with her “serious eyes.” Usually, I rarely see her eyes because she’s laughing about something, but when she has something serious to say, she does so with those eyes.

Ok, she was on the case now. Extra heat on the case – but not necessarily motivation to get her off my back, but the only reason she could be misconstrued as being on my back is because she was so for me. She knew it was bothering me and she knew that her pressure would heighten my search skills.

“Look at what I just found!”

After ripping apart my quasi-unpacked home, I finally found my tallit bag – containing both my tallit and my siddur…way down deep in laundry hamper that was being used during the move for the very last items in my old apartment. It was like reuniting with an old friend. I hugged it and immediately started in on my evening prayers – being sure to include thanks for finding my old “security blanket” of a tallit to HaShem. It felt like my new home was just home finally. The picture you see in this post is the picture I sent her after just having found my tallit bag with the caption, “LOOK WHAT I JUST FOUND!!”

tallit karaite prayer shawl
“Look at what I just found!”

To be honest, I didn’t used to always pray that much. It took me years of trying to get into the swing of things. Either I’d make up an excuse not to (“I was up way too late” or “I just got home from work – I just want to relax”), but with time and diligence, I really grew to yearn for those times with HaShem. It was special quality time I got to spend with a loved one. I realize you don’t necessarily need a specific tallit or siddur to make this time special, but being wrapped in my familiar fabric and letting your brain disconnect from the world and reconnect to your own heart are just short-cuts to connecting with the Creator of the Universe. They’re like those passageways in a video game to the next level that your friends may not have caught on to yet. To me, that’s my tallit and my siddur.

If my house were to catch fire, I’d grab Shakhar (if she were there), Ramone (my cat), and then probably my tallit bag. That’s how much my time with the Kodesh Baruch Hu means to me and it’s only a miracle that this ADHD kid can have that glimmer of structure to his life. Baruch HaShem. Ooh…look…another squirrel!


Making Your Own Prayer Book: Siddurim For Dummies

Lately, I had been growing somewhat spiritually lazy in my walk with the Most High. After a couple traumatic events in my life as well as some greatly beneficial occurrences, I’ve recently decided to rededicate myself to the God of Israel all over again. What this really means is that I’ve been trying to light a fire under my own tuchus to become passionate about the things of God on a daily basis. For the past several months, my prayer life and Torah study had been a touch less than regular – which was especially detrimental because it was when I needed both of those things the most. One aspect of my spiritual recharge has been daily prayer. By making genuine prayer a go-to activity, you’re helping to strengthen your bond with your Creator everyday and you feel like He’s not quite so far away. One great way to do this is to have set prayers for certain times that you attach your heart to while you pray in those times when you don’t know what to pray. Though certain denominations have their own prayers that they pray, the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), though full of prayers itself, does not require anyone to use any specific prayers at any specific times. While some say this is because that we are to follow the traditions of elders and sages to figure out which prayers to pray and when (you may already know how I feel about that), I personally feel like this freedom that HaShem has purposely inserted into a Torah-observant life is so that we can choose which prayers best jive with our hearts to make our time praying as meaningful as possible. One of the best ways to exercise this freedom of prayer is to make your own prayer book, aka: siddur (“see-door”).

Make a prayer book that reflects how to interact with the Creator.

If you were to look on my bookshelf many years ago, you would have found an entire row of different siddurim (prayer books). There were different translations put out by different publications and sects within Judaism. Some were long, some short, some English, some Hebrew, and the like. Why so many? Because I was having trouble finding a prayer book that really jived with my neshama (soul) to get me to a place of true kavanah (spiritual alignment/concentration) with HaShem. If prayer doesn’t ultimately help elevate your spirit to the Creator, it doesn’t do a lot of good. Some siddurim had prayers I liked, but disliked the service while others had some with prayers I felt no connection to and drove me to boredom. Overtime, I would pray with multiple siddurim – jumping to this book for this prayer, that book for that prayer, etc. This got to be very disruptive to my kavanah. One day, I had the idea to make my own prayer book. Sounds easy, right? Well, it all depends. Here are a couple of my tips.

The Obvious: Find prayers that speak to your soul.

Maybe you own many different siddurim and you’re fishing out which prayers you like the best. Maybe you don’t own any and you have no idea where to start. Before you drop a bunch of money on siddurim, explore online resources for possible prayer resources that jive with you. Resources can run from Chabad-Lubavitch Prayers to Karaite Jewish University’s Online Siddur and beyond. Check your local library to see if they have some siddurim (many do) as well as the library of a local synagogue. Borrow some siddurim from friends who don’t use them on a regular basis, but make sure to return them or they’ll haunt your shelves. (Just kidding…kind of.)

Even with all of these prayer books from great minds, never forget that some of the greatest prayers ever written/prayed were that of David ha’Melech (King David) and Shlomo ha’Melech (King Solomon) in Tehillim (Psalms) and Mishle (Proverbs) in the Hebrew Bible. Many siddurim make use active use of these works and some even simply reorganize the chapters for specific prayers. For instance, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism) used to pray what he called the “Tikkun Ha’Klali” (the Great Remedy) for helping remedy or immoral thought or for penitence. What is the Tikkun Ha’Klali? It is simply certain chapters from Tehillim prayed in a particular order: chapters 16, 32, 41, 42, 59, 77, 90, 105, 137, and 150. Just as Rabbi Nachman did, search through the Scriptures to find passages that speak to your soul in certain situations. Organize these passages into sections and use them to make a prayer service custom fit to your heart. 

Make your prayers/prayerbook convenient enough for you to use. 

This tip has multiple implications. On one hand, this means to keep the length of the prayers in mind and on the other, it means to give thought to how convenient the physical book will be for you to take with you for years to come. If you assemble a prayer service for yourself that takes 45 minutes to an hour to pray, the chances of you going through this prayer service on the daily basis multiple times are slim. Keep the services within a time frame that would make them easy to pray in the morning before work or school, maybe a shorter one in the afternoons when you find time, one in the evenings possibly after dinner, and then one that you say right before you turn off the lights to go to sleep. Again, when you pray is still up to you. Scripture says that Daniel prayed 3 times a day facing Jerusalem, so many base their prayer schedule off of that. Still, you have quite a bit of freedom according to the Scriptures. Look to the text to see when certain characters prayed. Figure out a schedule that works for you. 

As far as a physical book goes, that’s completely up to you. Some people choose to just print out a prayer book they’ve made for themsel
ves while some even choose to have one especially bound – which can get expensive, especially for just one copy. Personally, I’m a fan of the Moleskine notebook. Moleskine is a brand, but it also denotes a certain style of notebook. Typically, it’s a blank notebook with either lined or unlined pages, a hard, leather-like cover, and an elastic band that can keep it closed when you’re on the go. I especially like the Moleskine notebooks because they’re fairly tough and they can fit even in your back pocket. While you can choose to go out and drop anywhere from $10-$20 on a new Moleskine-brand notebook from most any bookstore, you can also buy a similar style notebook from most office supply stores for $2-$5. The only difference would be brand name and possibly quality. Once you have your book, you can carefully hand-write your prayers into your book for a personal feel that will last for decades – if not longer. 

Leave room for hitbodedut – personal prayer. 

One of the downfalls of pre-written prayers is that they can limit your prayer life if spur-of-the-moment outpourings of the heart are not incorporated into one’s prayer life. Over time, if someone never prays in their own words, their prayer routine becomes just that – a routine. When you put your prayer services together, make sure to leave proper gaps for what Rabbi Nachman of Breslov would call “hitbodedut”, or secluded personal prayer. Nachman encouraged his students to pray to God every day for an hour in their own words. This was to be in addition to their daily prayers. Nachman would instruct them to speak to God in a conversational tone, as though the Holy One was sitting right beside them, listening like a dear friend. While your personal prayer doesn’t have to be quite an hour (I realize that we live in a pretty fast-paced world), inserting pockets for personal prayer surrounded by your favorite pre-written prayers can really help your kavanah while you pray. Just like the opening band of show gets the crowd warmed up for the headliner, pre-written prayers when you don’t know what to pray can help open your spirit to what’s really on your heart.

Most of all, never feel like you must be locked in to one set prayer service. Just as your heart is always changing, let your prayers change to reflect it. Still, from getting your day started out of a sleepy stupor to wanting to pray when you’re lost for words and you simply wish to cry out to the Creator, your trusty siddur is a great place to start.

Here is a video I made on the subject of liturgical prayer in 2009. Don’t mind the terrible jokes and other assorted nonsense.