The Laws of the Shemoneh Esrei (4)

  • Rav David Brofsky
This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.





            Last week, we discussed the type and amount of kavanna required during prayer.  We noted that while one might argue that intention is the essence of prayer, and, that prayer without kavanna is akin to "a body without a soul," other sources seem to emphasize the act of prayer itself.  In fact, Rav Chaim Volozhin, in his Nefesh Ha-Chayyim, argued that Tefilla is NOT fundamentally different than other mitzvot ma'asiyot – and that the formalistic rules governing the recitation of Shemoneh Esrei prove his thesis.


            This week, we will explore some of the halakhot relevant to the actual recitation of Shemoneh Esrei, such as whether Tefilla should be audible, or silent, as well as the language in which one may recite Shemoneh Esrei.


Tefilla Be-Lachash:


            The Gemara (Berakhot 31a) derives a number of halakhot from the prayer of Channa (I Shemuel 1:11-13), who after years of barrenness, tearfully prays for a child. 


"And she vowed a vow, and said: 'O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your handmaid, and remember me, and not forget Your handmaid, but will give unto Your handmaid a boy, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head.  And it came to pass, as she prayed long before the LORD, that Eli watched her mouth…"


The text continues to describe her prayer, and how Eli the Kohen mistakenly perceived her to be inebriated. 


"Now Channa, she spoke in her heart; ONLY HER LIPS MOVED, but HER VOICE COULD NOT BE HEARD; therefore, Eli thought she had been drunk…"


The Gemara learns:


"R. Hamnuna said: How many most important laws can be learnt from these verses relating to Channa! Now Channa, 'She spoke in her heart': from this we learn that one who prays must have proper intention (kavanna).  'Only her lips moved': from this we learn that he who prays must frame the words distinctly with his lips.  'But her voice could not be heard': from this, it is forbidden to raise one's voice in Tefilla.  'Therefore Eli thought she had been drunk': from this, that a drunk person is forbidden to say Tefilla…"


The Gemara teaches us two halakhot regarding the recitation of Tefilla: one should enunciate the words with one's lips, and one should not raise one's voice.  The Gemara elsewhere (Berakhot 24b) teaches, "One who raises one's voice during tefilla is counted among those of little faith…." Rashi explains that by raising his voice, he implies that God is unable to hear a prayer uttered quietly.


What does it mean "not to raise one's voice"?


The Tur (101) cites two understandings of this halakha.


Some suggest that one should recite one's prayers so quietly that it they cannot be heard even by one's own ears.  The Tosefta (Berakhot 3:9), for example, teaches, "I might have thought that one should make one's prayer audible to one's own ears, but it says, 'But her voice could not be heard'…"


            Furthermore, the Zohar (cited in Beit Yosef 101) agrees with the Tosefta, and insists that the Shemoneh Esrei should be recited SILENTLY.


            Others, however, insist that while one's prayers should not be audible to others, one may, and possibly even should, be able to hear one's own prayers.


For example, the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefilla 5:9) writes:


"One who prays should not raise his voice, nor pray in his heart, but rather enunciate the words with his lips, and whisper [the prayer] to his ears, and not raise his voice [to others]…"


Similarly the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 2:4) implies that preferably one should hear his own Tefilla, and the Rashba (Berakhot 31a) rules this way as well. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (101:2) rules that preferably one should recite Shemoneh Esrei so that one can hear the words.  The Mishan Berura (5) concurs, citing other Acharonim (Magen Avraham, Gr"a, etc.) who agree.  Yet, Rabbi Chaim Yosef David ben Yitzchak Zerachya Azulai (1724 –1807), in his notes on the Shulchan Arukh, known as the Birkhei Yosef, disagrees, citing a well established kabbalistic tradition from the students of the Ar"i z"l that one's prayers should be said silently.  


            The Rambam, and subsequently the Shulchan Arukh, note that one who finds it difficult to concentrate may raise one's voice during Tefilla, but ONLY when praying privately, as praying out in company may distract others.  


            The Taz even rules that one who cannot concentrate unless he says Tefilla out loud, may pray individually, at home, without the tzibbur! The Biur Halakha questions whether one should apply this "leniency" to ordinary people. 


            The commentators differ as to WHY one should pray out loud, with one's lips, and not silently in one's heart.  As one might expect, the different explanations reflect different perceptions not only of Tefilla, but of different religious outlooks as well. 


            Some attribute mystical value to the physical recitation of the words.  For example, the Chida, as well as Rav Chaim Volozhin in his Nefesh Ha-Chayyim, as well as the Ar"i z"l, focus on the supernatural impact of the enunciation of the prayers on this world. 


            Others (see Rav Soloveitchik's Worship of the Heart, for example), view the outward details of prayer, such as the requirements for proper posture, direction, intention and alertness, as well the necessity to bow, and enunciate the words, as a means of formalizing, intensifying, and even deepening the inner prayer experience. 


Language of Tefilla:


The Mishna (Sota 32a) teaches:


"The following may be recited in any language: the section concerning the sota, vidu'i ma'asrot, Shema, Tefilla, grace after meals, the oath concerning testimony and the oath concerning a deposit… The following are recited in Hebrew: the declaration made at the offering of the bikkurim (first fruits), the formula of chaliza, the blessings and curses, Birkat Kohanim, the benediction of the high priest, the section of the king, the section of the calf whose neck is broken (egla arufa), and the address to the people by the priest anointed [to accompany the army] in battle…"


Seemingly, this Mishna rules explicitly that one may "pray" in any language.  In fact, the Gemara (33a) explains that prayer may be recited in any language because "it is only supplication, and one may pray in any language he wishes…"


            One might ask, what is the difference between mitzvot which may be performed in any language, as opposed to those which may only be fulfilled in Hebrew?


            Seemingly, the difference between the two categories may depend upon comprehension, and not language.  Some mitzvot require the recitation of a pre-determined text, while others aim to relay a message, to convey content, which may therefore be recited in any language.  In fact, when the Gemara explains that Tefilla may be recited in any language because "it is only supplication, and one may pray in any language he wishes…," apparently the Gemara understands that since the essence of Tefilla is to convey a message, or thoughts, to God, there is no reason why that must be restricted to Hebrew.


            If so, than it would seem that one may only pray in a vernacular which one understands! Furthermore, one might even question whether one who prays in Hebrew, without understanding, has fulfilled his obligation, as the essence of Tefilla is to express one's thoughts and requests to God.


Tefilla Be-Lashon Ha-Kodesh - For Those Who Don't Understand Hebrew:


            Regarding praying in Hebrew without understanding, the Rishonim discuss two separate scenarios.


            Firstly, when employing the principle of "shome'a ke-oneh," through which one person recites a text for another, the Rishonim question whether the person LISTENING to another needs to understand that which is being said, even in Hebrew, or not.  Incidentally, as women were often uneducated, those who most often didn't understand their prayers were women.


            The Tosafot (Berakhot 45b), as well as the Rosh (Berakhot 7:6), ask whether a man may recite Birkat Ha-mazon for a woman who does not understand Hebrew.  They cite the Gemara (Berakhot 45b) which teaches:


"… If two persons have eaten together, it is their duty to separate (i.e. to recite Birkat Ha-mazon separately).  When is this case? When they are both educated men.  But if one is educated and the other illiterate, the educated one says the benedictions and this exempts the illiterate one…"


On the one hand, they explain, some bring this Gemara as a proof that one person may fulfill the obligation of another, regardless of whether the second person understands Hebrew.  On the other hand, may the second person understands Hebrew, yet simply doesn't know how to recite the berakha.


            They also cite Rashi, who proves from the Gemara (Megilla 17a), that just as someone who doesn't understand Hebrew fulfills his obligation of Keriyat Megilla through hearing it read in Hebrew, similarly even one who doesn't understand Hebrew may fulfill his obligation of berakhot and Tefilla through hearing the recitation of another! They refute this claim, explaining that as pirsumei nisa is the central element of Keriyat Megilla, one can fulfill one's obligation even without understanding. 


            The Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona (Rif, 33a) rules that she must recite Birkat Ha-mazon in a language which she understands, and cannot fulfill her obligation by listening to another. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (193:1) rules that one may only recite Birkat Ha-mazon for another if the other person understands Hebrew. 


            Rav Moshe Isserlis (Darkhei Moshe 193, Rema 199:7) notes that the custom is in accordance with the position of Rashi, who rules that one MAY fulfill an obligation through listening to another recite a Hebrew text even without understanding the meaning.  The Mishna Berura (193:5) concurs, pointing out that common custom is for one to fulfill the obligation for another, regardless of whether the second person understands Hebrew. 


            Incidentally, the Shulchan Arukh (183:7) writes that nowadays, each person recites Birkat Ha-mazon to one's self, even in the presence of a zimmun, as it is difficult to listen and concentrate for the entire Birkat Ha-mazon.  The Mishna Berura, citing the Magen Avraham (193:2), adds that similarly, those who don't understand Hebrew should preferably repeat the text, even of Kiddush, word for word, after the reader, as it is difficult to concentrate and listen. 


            Secondly, regarding one who actually recites the words in Hebrew, most authorities assume that one can fulfill one's obligation without understanding the text (although understanding the first verse of Keriyat Shema, as well as the first berakha of Shemoneh Esrei, may be crucial).


            However, some authorities believe that even when reciting a berakha, or prayer, in Hebrew, one MUST understand the meaning.  For example, some derive from the position of Rabbeinu Yona, cited above, that even one who prays in Hebrew MUST understand the words.  Similarly, the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav (185:1-2) brings two opinions regarding this question, and concludes that one should follow the more stringent position, and therefore "the illiterate who do not understand the holy tongue MUST recite Birkat Ha-mazon in a language which they understand, and NOT in Hebrew…"


            Most Acharonim (see Bach 124, Magen Avraham 123 and Levush 123) disagree with this somewhat shocking position, and agree that unlike one who hears a berakha from another, one who actually says the words certainly fulfills his obligation, even without comprehension. 


Prayer in the Vernacular:


            Regarding prayer in the vernacular, Tosafot (Sota 32a) questions whether one must understand the vernacular in which one prays. 


"… 'May be recited in any language…' - in other words a person should say it in a language which he understands….  However 'any language' implies that regardless of whether or not he understands it…"


Seemingly, according to our understanding above, i.e. that the difference between mitzvot which must be fulfilled in Hebrew, and those which are fulfilled in a vernacular lies in the necessity for comprehension, such a position is untenable. 


            Apparently, Tosafot must be suggesting that other languages may be acceptable NOT because we focus on comprehension, but because fundamentally, some mitzvot require Hebrew, and others don't, regardless of whether the text is understood. 


            Interestingly, the Shulchan Arukh Ha-Rav cited above, who even required one to understand prayers recited in Hebrew, must also believe that the difference lies in the necessity for Hebrew as opposed to a different language, but he would insist, unlike Tosafot, that ALL would agree that we require comprehension!


            Most Rishonim and Acharonim, as well as the Shulchan Arukh (185:a), assume that one may only use another language that one UNDERSTANDS for prayer. 


            The Acharonim, however, question whether it is preferable to pray in a language which one understands, or in Hebrew without comprehension. 


            The Magen Avraham (101:5), for example, cites the Sefer Chassidim (588 and 688) who insists that preferably one should pray in a language which one understands, even in the vernacular.  "If the heart doesn't understand what come's forth from the lips," asks the Sefer Chassidim, "then what it is really worth?"


            The Bi'ur Halakha (101:4), as well as Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margolis (17621828), in his Yad Efraim (on the Magen Avraham cited above) disagree.  They point to the uniqueness of the Hebrew language, both from a mystical perspective, and as a language with which God speak to His prophets, as well as the difficulty in correctly and accurately translating Hebrew texts, as reasons to prefer praying in Hebrew. 


            Furthermore, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (101:9 and especially 185:193), in his polemical comments against the ritual changes introduced by the Reform movement, writes that one should never recite a prayer composed by the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola in a different language. 


            As we shall see, there may be other considerations regarding prayer in the vernacular, such as individual versus communal prayer, a permanent arrangement as opposed to a temporary practice, etc. 


Using the Vernacular in Public and Private Prayer:


            As we learned above, the Gemara (Sota 33a) teaches that one may recite prayers (such as Tefilla) in the vernacular.  The Gemara (33a), however, qualifies and limits the scope of this leniency. 


"…But may 'prayer' be recited in any language? Behold Rav Yehuda has said: A man should never pray for his needs in Aramaic.  For R. Yochanan declared: If anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not pay attention to him, because they do not understand that language! — There is no contradiction, one referring to [the prayer] of an individual and the other to that of a Congregation…"


Rashi explains that since the prayers of an individual are attended to by a ministering angel, one may not pray in Aramaic.  However, communal prayer always receives direct Divine attention, and may therefore be recited in any language. 


            In other words, communal prayer, which merits direct Divine attention, may be recited in any language.  Private prayer, however, which is attended to less, must be recited in Hebrew. 


            The Rishonim question the definition of individual, as opposed to communal prayer, in this context.  The Rif (Berakhot 7a) rules that one may not use Aramaic when praying with a tzibbur.  Rabbenu Yona (ibid.), among others, questions the common practice of women, who did not understand Hebrew, to pray in the vernacular.  Apparently, this practice was so common, and so troublesome, that the French Rabbis, cited by the Rabbeinu Yona, offer a different interpretation.  They suggest that "individual" and "communal" refer not to the PLACE/COMPANY of prayer, but rather to the text itself.  Those prayers recited by the community, like Shemoneh Esrei, may be recited in the vernacular, while individual prayers should be recited in Hebrew. 


            Some Rishonim also distinguish between different languages.  While both the Rif and Rabbeinu Yona equate Aramaic with other languages, the Rosh (Berakhot 2:2) explains:


"…Only in this language (Aramaic) should one not request his needs, and that which Tosafot asked, that don't the ministering angels know our inner thoughts? But rather this language (Aramaic) is too vulgar a language for them (to relate)…"


The Shulchan Arukh (101:4) actually cites all three opinions.  He quotes the Rif, who prohibits using the vernacular in private prayer.  He then cites the French Rabbis, who distinguish between formal prayers said by the community, and personal supplications.  And finally, he brings the Rosh, who allows all prayers languages other than Aramaic to be recited privately.


            The Mishna Berura (19) relates that one should not recite Aramaic texts, such as Yekum Purkan, when praying privately.


            Next week we will conclude discussion of praying in the vernacular, and explore laws relevant to the recitation of Shemoneh Esrei.