Prayer in the Vernacular and Personal Requests During the Shemoneh Esrei

  • Rav David Brofsky



Last year, we studied the laws of tefilla, beginning from the netilat yadayim performed upon awaking in the morning, Birkat ha-Torah and Birkot Ha-shachar, Pesukei De-zimra, Keriat Shema and its berakhot, and concluding with the laws of the Shemoneh Esrei.


This year, we will continue of discussion of tefilla, focusing on the structure of the Shemone Esrei, as well as the Chazarat Ha-Shatz, the Birkat Kohanim, Tefillat Mincha and Tefillat Aravit. Upon completing our discussion of tefilla, we will study the laws of Keriat Ha-Torah, and kedushat beit ha-kenesset. I look forward to another fruitful year of limud ha-Torah.


Regarding tefilla, we discussed to source of the obligation to pray, as well as questions regarding the proper intentions (kavanna), position, mode of recitation and language of prayer. Those shiurim can be found at


            We concluded our study last year (see by discussing the fashion, as well as the language, in which one should recite Shemoneh Esrei.  We concluded by exploring the permissibility of praying in the vernacular.  We noted that while the Rishonim, based upon the Gemara (Sota 31a), disagree regarding praying privately in foreign languages, seemingly all agree that publicly, i.e. along with a tzibbur, one may pray in any language which one understands.


            This week we will conclude our discussion of prayer in the vernacular, and then discuss the extant to which one may insert personal requests and supplications into the Shemoneh Esrei.


Prayer in the Vernacular:


            In the first half of the 18th century, in Germany, the early Reform movement introduced numerous changes to Jewish ritual.  Aside from introducing an organ into the synagogue on Shabbat and abridging, and at times excising, large portions of the liturgy, they also replaced parts of the traditional Jewish Siddur with a German translation.  These early reformers established synagogues in central German cities, such as Berlin and Hamburg


            Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762 - 1839), one of the leading rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century, strongly opposed these reforms.  In his well known collection of response, called the Chatam Sofer, (Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Likutim 84, 1819) he was asked by a local rabbi, in order to stem the influence of the Reformers, to issue a letter prohibiting the use of an organ in synagogue on Shabbat, the abridgment of the prayers, as well as reciting tefillot in German. 


He responded:


"… [Even though Tefilla may be recited in any language] this refers to a TEMPORARY situation, however to do so permanently, and to appoint a shali'ach tzibbur to always pray in the vernacular [is prohibited].  If so, the members of the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola, who established the Tefillot in the pure and holy tongue… they should have written the prayers in Persian, as that was the common language in the time of Ezra… "


He continues to enumerate the advantages of prayer in Hebrew, and concludes that even one who does not understand Hebrew fulfills his obligation through praying in Hebrew. 


            In 1819, Rav Sofer's teshuva, as well letters from his father-in-law Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837) and others, appeared in a booklet published by the Hamburg Rabbinical Court, called "Ele Divrei Ha-Brit." This pamphlet ( called for prohibiting changes in liturgy, translating the liturgy into the vernacular, and using an organ in the synagogue.  This booklet was widely quoted by authorities writing on this topic. 


            Similarly, Rav Yisrael Lifshitz, (1782 – 1861) in his commentary to the Mishna, Tiferet Yisrael (Sota chapter 7), writes:


"… However in our days, those who love innovation have arisen, and they want to prove from our Mishna that they may pray in their synagogues in German… We are embarrassed by their new ways, as their primary intention is to make us similar to those who we cannot become similar to (i.e. the Christians).  And even if this wouldn't be prohibited by the injunction 'And you shall not follow in their paths…’ since the majority of Torah scholars are opposed… the Torah commands us in the prohibition of 'lo tasur' to listen to their voice…"


The Mishna Berura (101:13), as well as the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (101:9 and 185:1-3) cite the Chatam Sofer and strongly criticize those who tamper with, or introduce translations of, the traditional liturgy.


            More recently, Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (1878-1966), author of the response Seridei Eish, responded (1954) to a question regarding introducing psalms translated into English into the service. 


            After citing the Mishna Berura quoted above, who permits using the vernacular "temporarily," but not "permanently," he enumerates other objections to introducing English texts into public prayer.


            Firstly, he suggests that in the modern era, the only home of "complete and pure" Judaism is in the synagogue, and therefore one should insist that only Hebrew be used in the Beit Kenesset.  He suggests that prohibiting the use of foreign languages will underscore the necessity of learning Hebrew, and that Hebrew prayer subconsciously strengthens the sense of kedusha of tefilla and of the Beit Kenesset


            Secondly, he argues that maintaining the customs of old helps to preserve and sustain our religion.  As Rashi comments on the verse, "Go out in the path of the sheep" (Shir Ha-shirim 1:8)- "[go out] on the steps, in the path that they walked in… examine the ways of your forefathers and walk in their path…"


            Thirdly, he invokes the "slippery-slope" principle.  Introducing some English passages to the service, he claims, may set a precedent to transform the entire tefilla to English.


            Rather, he suggests that those who have difficulty with Hebrew prayer should glance at the English translation in their siddurim, but communal prayer should still be recited in Hebrew.


            Seemingly, the decision to insert non-Hebrew texts into public prayer is complicated, and both halakhic, as well as communal considerations, should be taken into account. 


            Finally, I would like to point out that the question of praying in the vernacular is just another example of a tension we have already seen between two aspects of Tefilla.  We've noted, in previous shiurim, that prayer has a formal aspect, as the rabbis taught, prayer is instead of the sacrifices.  On the other hand, prayer was established by the avot; prayer is also spontaneous and intimate, as man bares his soul to his creator.  Seemingly, while a prayer said in Hebrew which isn't understood may be similar to the first type, prayer recited in the vernacular expresses the inner most thoughts of the mitpallel, and may be recited in either language. 


Personal Requests and Supplications during Prayer:


            We also see these two aspects of prayer converging regarding the question of inserting personal requests into the pre-established formulaic berakhot


The Gemara (Berakhot 34a) teaches:


"Rav Yehuda said: A man should never petition for his own needs either in the first three benedictions or in the last three, but in the middle ones… for R. Chanina said: In the first ones he resembles a servant who is addressing a eulogy to his master; in the middle ones he resembles a servant who is requesting a largess from his master, in the last ones he resembles a servant who has received a largess from his master and takes his leave…"


According to the Gemara, one should not petition for one's personal needs during the first three and last three berakhot, as the first three focus on praise (shevach), and the last three on thanksgiving (hoda'a), and it is inappropriate to insert one's personal requests into these units. 


            However, the Geonim, as well as many Rishonim (Tosafot Berakhot 34a, Megilla 4a, and Avoda Zara 8a, as well as the Rosh 5:21, and Rabbeinu Yona Berakhot 22b) rule that while one may not petition for PERSONAL needs, one may inserts requests for COMMUNAL needs.  Therefore, the Rishonim explain, we add "zokhreinu le-chayyim” and "mi ka-mokha" into the first and second berakhot during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva (between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur).  Some Rishomin cite a Mishna (Sofrim 19:8) which implies that even communal needs were "barely permitted" during these berakhot.


            The Shulchan Arukh (112) rules in accordance with these Rishonim, and allows one to inset requests for communal needs during the first and last three berakhot.  Interestingly, the Mishna Berura explains that the community expressing their dependence on God is itself a shevach (praise), and consistent with the berakha's theme.


            Regarding the middle thirteen berakhot, the Gemara (Avoda Zara 8a) teaches:


"…Rav Yehuda the son of Shmuel b. Shilat said in the name of Rav: Even though it was said that one should pray for his private needs only at Shema Koleinu, nevertheless, if he wishes he may supplement at the end of each berakha [by personal supplications] relevant to the subject of each particular berakha… [So also] said R. Chiyya b. Ashi in the name of Rav: Even though it has been said that one should pray for his own needs only at Shema Koleinu, still if [for example] one has a sick person at home, he may offer a prayer at the berakha of Refa'einu, or if he is in want of sustenance, he may offer a [special] prayer in connection with the berakha of Barekh Aleinu.  R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: Though it has been decided that private prayers for personal needs only may be inserted in the berakha of Shema Koleinu, yet if one is disposed to offer supplication AFTER the Shemoneh Esrei, [even] to the extent of the Day of Atonement Service he may do so…"


The Rishonim agree that one may add personal requests and petitions into Shema Koleinu, regardless of whether they are personal or communal.  Furthermore, one may also add petitions, even long ones (as long as Yom Kippur!) after the Shemoneh Esrei.


            However, the Rishonim disagree as to where one may add petitions germane to specific berakhot.  Rabbeinu Yona (Berakhot 22b in Rif) suggests that requests formulated in the plural, for public needs, should only be inserted at the end of the berakha, after the actual "barukh ata…" is said.  Otherwise, he explains, since all of the berakhot are written in plural, for communal needs, it appears as if he is ADDING to the formula established by the rabbis.  Nevertheless, one who wishes to add PERSONAL requests, formulated in the SINGULAR, may insert them in the MIDDLE of the berakhot.  Others do not distinguish, and permit an individual to insert any request, private or communal, in the middle of a berakha, as long as it is relevant to that specific blessing. 


            The Shulchan Arukh (119) cites both opinions.  The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (119:3) writes that the halakha is in accordance with the latter view.


            The Chayyei Adam (cited by the Mishna Berura 122:8) writes that it is proper to add one's own personal requests and petitions daily.  For example, he writes, one should pray for his own needs, livelihood, and the spiritual success of his children.  However, he adds, preferably one should inserts these requests AFTER one's Shemoneh Esrei (before retreating three steps), in order to be able to answer Kaddish and Kedusha


            While preferably these insertions should be formulated in Hebrew, one may even say them in the vernacular.


            Regarding permanent insertions into the Shemoneh Esrei, the Taz (122:2) critiques the practice of permanently altering the berakhot of the Shemoneh Esrei.  He writes:


"…Although one may add petitions for one's needs… this is only temporarily, depending upon what one currently needs, however, to permanently add into each berakha, every day, we have not evidence that that is permitted…”


Similarly, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (119:2) writes:


"… It is obvious that the rabbis didn't permit adding to the Shemoneh Esrei except for cases in which a person needs something.  However to permanently add to the Shemoneh Esrei entails extraordinary brazenness and gall against the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola, and all scholars and those who have the fear of Heaven should agree.  Therefore one should rebuke the printers who added in the siddurim, in the berakha Shema Koleinu, the addition 'ana chatati' (I have sinned…)… in our great sins the world has been entrusted to the stupid and the printers do as they wish and we are unable to rebuke them… and that which the Zohar writes that one should petition for sustenance always, even if one is wealthy, and one should confess one's sins, this is certainly true, but one should NOT make a permanent formula in the tefillot of the Anshei Kenesset Ha-gedola, and if one wishes, they can say them AFTER yihiyu le-ratzon… as the Gemara said, 'After one prays one may add like the order of Yom Kippur!...'"


Once again, the halakha grapples with maintaining the balance between the set, formal and established prayer, and the intimate, personal and at times spontaneous prayer.


            Next week, we will begin our discussion of the structure of the Shemoneh Esrei, and the order of its berakhot.