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.


Treating "Kavanah Deficit Disorder": Praying With Your Kishkes

The Fight For Focus

The second hand of a clock ticks from the next room. Under normal conditions, I don’t even notice it. It blends into the tapestry that is the noise of midtown. As I attempt to read on in my book, it feels like someone is slowly turning up the volume knob on this incessant ticking. My focus begins to disengage from the words on the page, instead floating right over them, and the ticking is like a penny on a railroad track that somehow is able to derail my train of thought. My focus is going…going…gone.

Living life withAttention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD is something most individuals out-grow as the chemical balance of their brains steadiesitself as they mature. If they don’t out-grow it, they suppress it by using all methods of narcotics that limit the brain’s ability to perform multiple functions simultaneously — like, remembering to eat food, just as an example. Well, I didn’t outgrow ADHD and I didn’t want to take a Schedule II narcotic every day. I’m left to just deal with it. So, what’s that like?

I can compare having ADHD to some hardware I use at work. Two tools I use are a DLSR camera and digital sound recorder. The camera has a nifty auto-focus feature in which sensors communicate with a computer to tell the lens how much to adjust in order to have the image in focus. On the sound recorder, there is a handy “auto” feature where the recorder raises the volume on the most prevalent frequency in order to drown out background noise. My sensory perception is just like these, only the auto-focus sensors pick up on the bee that flies through the shot and the sound recorder’s auto feature prefer ticks of a distant clock rather than the varying sounds of midtown traffic. This difficulty is because I have faulty neurotransmitters in my brain.

Having ADHD can be a real pain during prayer. Prayer seems to be a two-step process in developing ideas to transmit and then the act of transmission. In Jewish thought, one aspect of prayer one hopes to achieve is called “kavanah.” This word literally means “alignment” in Hebrew, but is more of the deep spiritual focus in which one has the sensation that the Holy One has picked up the other telephone line and their prayer is being heard. When one is unable to achieve the sensation of kavanah due to an inability to focus, it feels as though I’m expressing my most inner heartbreak to a dear friend and they’re preoccupied with a game of Candy Crush. The problem isn’t that the Holy One isn’t listening, but that my brain’s spiritual auto-focus is busted due to faulty neurotransmitters. What is my solution? Bypass the brain.

The Passage Way For Kavanah/Alignment

Many make the mistake in thinking that prayer is an intellectual endeavor. It most certainly is not. In many ways, the ultimate champions of prayer on earth are little children. Because many children’s minds have not developed to the point of rationally conceiving of an all-power Creator that exists within the fabric of existence itself, they’re prayers are nothing more than elevated admiration for a parent-figure that exists within. This does not mean that prayer is by any means foolish, but rather this means the intellectual may struggle more to overcome his own thoughts in order to come to the Creator in prayer while the child’s natural state is prayerful pleading. What is an intellectual to do in order to attain prayerful alignment? Be smart enough to bypass the world of intellectual thoughts and tap into the heart – or, as I have found, the gut.

Just like clinical heartburn has nothing to do with the cardiovascular system at all and is instead stomach acid that has found it’s way up one’s esophagus nearest the chest, so too is one’s emotional and spiritual not so much the blood-pumping organ, but rather the seat of one’s second brain – the gut. One’s digestive system is frequently the canary in the coal mine of own’s emotional state. Anxiety, stress, and depression frequently take their toll on one’s guts. The expressions “go with your gut” is not without an anatomical basis. Yes, one is actually able to process information not only from one’s digestive system, but also within one’s digestive system. This is what is referred to as the enteric nervous system (ENS).
gut brainOne’s ENS is literally a second brain of sorts that runs throughout one’s digestive system. Actual neurons exists within the human gastrointestinal system. Has sadness ever put a lump in your throat? Have you ever had your heart broken to the point of feeling it in the pit of your stomach? Do instincts ever first manifest as a physical “feeling in your gut”? Biological research has shown that one’s ENS actually carries out functions independent of one’s brain. This area of study is known as neurogastroenterology. This form of neurological activity is responsible for many forms of bodily functions ranging from the esophagus’ ability to pull substances into the stomach (yes, you can drink water while upside down) to your gag reflex. Neurogastroenterology is also closely tied to one’s deepest feelings. This is the reason why extreme stress can cause one to vomit. But how does this connect to prayer?

Just as referenced before, the basics of prayer can be broken down into a few simple parts. For prayers of thanks or worship, the feeling of gratitude is processed neurologically before it is transmitted spiritually beyond this dimension into a heavenly realm — God’s telephone, if you will. The same goes for prayers of request, whether for your own needs or for the wellbeing of another. In many instances, these styles of prayer have a much more complex “signal” to convey and details to transmit. Still too these prayers are processed. Where the the neurogastroenterological system comes into play with prayer is in one’s ability to reverse engineer the emotional process. Usually, an event causes one to feel an emotion that may or may not be processed into a biological response by the gut, but rarely does one consciously utilize the guts (or “kishkes”, if you prefer Yiddish) as the cosmic telephone receiver into the next dimension. But how are the guts actively targeted?

When one is actively processing information, there can actually be a sensation that one’s cranium is doing the computing. Now, whether this just a perception simply due to our understanding that our brain performs our problem-solving and also exists in our head or whether we biologically have a sensation of thought existing in our head, both of those are beside the point that this sensation is perceived there. Even beyond one’s five senses, one can be more conscious of a certain area of the body at a given time. During a guided meditation, one way the leader of a group of meditators gets the group to relax is to get them to close their eyes and consciously relax each section of the body. It may go something like, “Now, I want you to imagine your shoulders becoming more relaxed. No longer tense, your shoulders are soft and loose. This loose sensation now travels down your back…” with the leader doing this until the meditator has consciously envisioned each section of the body, to relax it, which in turn has a biological sensation of relaxation. Praying with one’s guts is very similar. In prayer, more complex thoughts will still be processed by the brain, but the sensation of kavanah which perpetuates greater spiritual focus is greatly enhanced when one prays “through” the guts.

While I’ve provided some of the science behind why it may be that “praying with your kishkes” may ultimately enhance your kavanah, or your spiritual connective focus during prayer, I can’t make the claim that it will work for everyone. I can only share my own experiences on what works for me.

Watch The Weirdo Squirm– The Biological Side Of My Prayer

When I pray, I obviously find that it needs to be in a fairly quiet place or as quiet as the situation will allow. Though some traditional Jewish prayer requires standing, I find standing to be beneficial for prayerful focus. In addition to praying, I believe there is some benefit to either swaying slightly in a semi-conscious rhythm from the hips. Sometimes, a slight rocking back and forth that some Jewish movements call “shockling” or “shuckling” (from the Yiddish word meaning “to shake”) also help in focus. I can’t attest that these are beneficial for everyone, but being ADHD, the physical repetitious movement works to quiet my mind. At times, I also use my free hand (the hand not holding the prayer book) to occasionally express the concepts I’m praying — for instance, sometimes my hand will flip down for “when you retire” and flip up for “when you arise” when praying the Veahavta. This certainly isn’t the case for all of my prayers, but I occasionally semi-consciously do so as a means of making the concepts I’m praying more alive.

Praying From My Kishkes

Before this was what is visible on the outside during prayer, but what is to follow is what is happening on the inside. There are some quotes from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that influenced my prayer a tremendous degree and helped me understanding how to go about prayer.

When you speak to God, you should arouse your heart to the point where your soul all but flies out of you. This is true prayer.
You must cry out to God from the very depths of your heart.

The biological act of sobbing is not just a facial expression, a release of tears, or a vocal eruption, but also a tightened release of emotion from one’s guts. The same abdominal muscles used to squeeze air up and out to produce a wail also constrict and produce a form of a gut-check, not unlike someone preparing for a punch. For some reason, this is my seat of kavanah. When I feel as though I am at the height of spiritual focus, my stomach is in the same state if I’m getting choked up from a beautiful piece of music and I’m trying to express the sound to someone else. While my brain attempts to process the details of the greatness of the Creator, my messages gratitude and admiration are processed through my kishkes like an umbilical telephone line to the heavenly realms.

True prayer isn’t processing your emotions with your mind but instead wringing the tears of joy and sadness out of your guts before the Creator.