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Praying In A Language Other Than Hebrew

  • Rav Moshe Aberman
Years ago, the issue of praying in a foreign language - i.e., any language other than Hebrew - was relevant only for those who had difficulty with the Hebrew language. Today, the topic is far more relevant to all strata of the population, both because of the many Hebrew-speakers who work with new immigrants not yet fluent in Hebrew, and because of the many emissaries who are sent to Jewish communities around the world. The essential question is whether it is fitting and proper to pray in Hebrew, even at the cost of not understanding the prayer texts, or perhaps it is preferable to pray in another language and thus allow people to experience their prayers more fully.


The issue of praying in another language is raised by the Mishna in the beginning of the seventh chapter of tractate Sota (32a):

The following may be recited in any language: the section concerning a sota, the confession made at the presentation of the tithe, Keri'at Shema [the recitation of Shema], prayer, Birkat ha-Mazon (Grace after meals), the oath concerning testimony, and the oath concerning a deposit.

The following are recited in the holy tongue [Hebrew]: the declaration made at the offering of the first-fruits, the formula of halitza, the blessings and curses, the priestly benediction, the benediction of the High Priest, the section of the king, the section of the calf whose neck is broken, and the address to the people by the priest anointed [to accompany the army] in battle.

We shall relate primarily to the issue of prayer, though we shall also deal with Keri'at Shema and Birkat ha-Mazon, because the halakhic authorities have related to these three areas as a single unit.

The Tosafot (s.v., elu ne'emarim) note:

This means - each person in the language that he understands. This comes to exclude a Mede from saying it in Persian if he does not understand [Persian]. But "in any language" implies whether he understands it or he doesn't understand it.

The Tosafot appear to be explaining the Mishna according to the following reading: "The following may be recited in their own language" [eilu ne'emarim bileshonam], i.e., in the speaker's language. Thus, the Tosafot assert that a person may only pray in a language that he understands. They note that if the correct reading were "in any language," the implication would be that one may pray in any language, even a language that one does not understand. They conclude with the following:

The Gemara does not appear to imply this.

It seems that the difference between the two positions does not stem solely from the variant readings, but rather it touches upon a fundamental problem regarding prayer in a language other than Hebrew. The Mishna may be understood in one of two ways:

1. The Mishna comes to deny the need and obligation to pray only in Hebrew.

2. The Mishna teaches us that certain mitzvot focus on the formal dimension of recitation, whereas other mitzvot focus on the content. The texts that must be recited in Hebrew belong to the first group, whereas those that may be recited in any language belong to the second group. If we take as an example the Sota passage (which may be recited in any language), it is difficult to imagine that the priest need not understanding what he is saying to the woman, for his whole objective is to persuade the woman to confess her sin. Hence, the focus of reading that passage is not the formal-technical act of reading the Scriptural text, but rather understanding and appreciating its content. Similarly, what is the reason to recite Keri'at Shema without understanding what is being said? How can one accept the yoke of heaven without understanding the words?

The Tosafot's problem may be understood against the two understandings that we have presented. According to the second understanding, the Mishna distinguishes between mitzvot that require recitation and mitzvot that require understanding, and so one may pray only in a language that one understands. On the other hand, according to the first understanding - the distinction in the Mishna is a technical one, between texts which may be recited only in Hebrew and texts which may be recited in any language, from which it follows that one may pray even in a language that one does not understand.


If we argue that prayer requires understanding, we must then clarify the following: Does this requirement apply only when one is praying in a foreign language, or perhaps even when one is praying in Hebrew? Must a person praying in Hebrew understand what he is saying?

This question may depend upon a dispute regarding a talmudic passage dealing with Birkat ha-Mazon in tractate Berakhot (45a). The passage there deals with zimmun - where one person recites Birkat ha-Mazon for all the diners. The Gemara says:

Abaye said: We have a tradition that if two persons have eaten together, it is their duty to separate.

As opposed to three who have eaten together, who may not break up and recite Birkat ha-Mazon separately, when two people eat together, it is the duty of each person to recite Birkat ha-Mazon on his own. The Gemara continues:

It has been taught similarly: If two persons have eaten together, it is their duty to separate.

The Baraita, however, records a certain limitation:

When is this case? When they are both educated men. But if one is educated and the other illiterate, the educated one recites the benedictions and this exempts the illiterate one.

When must the two diners break up and recite Birkat ha-Mazon separately? Only when the two diners are educated - that is, when they are both fluent in reciting the benedictions. But if one of them is educated and the other illiterate, it is preferable that the educated one recite Birkat ha-Mazon and allow the illiterate one to discharge his obligation with his blessings. The Tosafot (s.v. shani hatam) comment:

As for women, clarification is required whether they exempt themselves with the zimmun of men, since they do not understand [the benedictions]. There are those who adduce proof that they do [indeed] discharge their obligation, from the fact that it says below: "The educated one recites the benedictions and this exempts the illiterate one." This implies that women also discharge their obligation with our Birkat ha-Mazon.

The Tosafot are dealing with a situation in which women do not understand Hebrew. They consider the question whether in such a case a woman can discharge her obligation with her husband's benedictions (recited in Hebrew), even though she does not understand them. They try to prove from the law pertaining to an educated person and an illiterate one that a woman discharges her obligation in similar fashion, but they reject this proof:

However, this proof must be rejected, for an illiterate person is different in that he understands Hebrew, and he knows a little what [the educated person] is saying, though he does not know how to recite the benediction. But women, who do not understand [the benedictions] whatsoever - it may be argued that they do not discharge their obligation.

An illiterate person, as opposed to the woman, understands Hebrew; he is merely unable to recite the benedictions on his own. The woman has no understanding whatsoever of what the man is saying, and therefore she should not discharge her obligation with his blessings.

The Tosafot continue with another proof from tractate Megilla:


That which we say in tractate Megilla (17a), "A non-Hebrew-speaker who heard [the Megilla] in Hebrew has discharged his obligation" - mere publicizing of a miracle is different, as we say there (18a): "Ha-achashteranim benei ha-ramakhim" - do we know what they are?

A non-Hebrew speaker discharges his obligation when he hears the Megilla read in Hebrew, even though he doesn't understand the language. This would seem to be proof that a person discharges his obligation even if he doesn't understand the benediction that he is reciting. The Tosafot reject this proof, arguing that the purpose of reading the Megilla is to "publicize the miracle," and the reading itself is an act of "publicizing the miracle." Even if a person does not understand the particulars of the reading, if he understands that the text speaks of a miracle - he has discharged his obligation.

Thus far we have been working on the assumption that Tosafot's discussion is relevant to our issue. It is possible, however, to distinguish between the two: The Tosafot deal with a person who fulfills his obligation with another person's blessing even though he doesn't understand that blessing. We, however, are dealing with a person who recites the blessing himself in a language that he does not understand. Even if a person can discharge his obligation with his own blessing without understanding it, if he wishes to discharge his obligation with someone else's blessing by way of the principle that "one who hears is like one who says," he may indeed have to understand the blessing recited by the other person.

Talmid Rabbenu Yona on our passage cite a discussion similar to that of Tosafot, but they add a very significant line:

So too, since a woman is obligated in Birkat ha-Mazon, but does not understand Hebrew, she does not exempt herself with the blessing recited by men. Rather, she is required to recite Birkat ha-Mazon in a language that she understands.


Talmid Rabbenu Yona mentions only one possible way of discharging one's obligation: reciting the blessing in a language that one understands. It is clear from what he says that the second possibility - that the woman should repeat the blessing after her husband in Hebrew without understanding what she is saying - does not exist, and in that way she would not fulfill her obligation. In other words: Talmid Rabbenu Yona maintains that a person cannot discharge his obligation without understanding the blessing, even if he himself is reciting the blessing, and in Hebrew.


The generally accepted ruling is that when a person prays in a language other than Hebrew, he must understand the words issuing from his mouth. As for prayer in Hebrew, some of the posekim require understanding even in such a case, but there are those who disagree (e.g., the Levush, no. 193). Both the Taz and the Magen Avraham write that when there is no other choice, it is preferable that a woman recite her blessings in Hebrew even if she does not understand what she is saying, rather than recite no blessings at all.

Regarding this point, an additional question arises: Assuming that we rely on the position that a person discharges his obligation with Hebrew prayer, even without understanding the words, is it preferable to recite the blessings in Hebrew and not understand them, or in another language and understand them? Both Rishonim and Acharonim addressed this issue, mentioning four considerations:

1. The importance of a person understanding the blessings that he is reciting.

2. The level of holiness in the very recitation of a blessing in Hebrew.

3. One of the innovations instituted by the Reform movement was prayer in the vernacular. This caused some of the halakhic authorities to forbid the practice.

4. A factor related also to the question of the unity of the people. Is it important that when a person prays, he should recite the very same words recited by other Jews across the world? This factor may provide prayer with a dimension of unity and partnership among all the members of the Jewish people.


The Magen Avraham (sec. 101, no. 5) writes:

It is written in Sefer Yod Ma'amarot that it is preferable to pray in a language that a person understands, if he does not understand Hebrew. And so too is it written in Sefer Chasidim nos. 588 and 788.

The Magen Avraham brings in the name of Sefer Chasidim that understanding is the most important factor - a person must pray in a language that he understands. In Sefer Chasidim (no. 588), it is stated:

If you are approached by a person who does not understand Hebrew, and he fears Heaven, and wishes to have the proper thoughts, or if you are approached by a woman - tell them that they should learn the prayers in a language that they understand, because prayer is nothing but understanding of the heart, and if the heart does not understand what his mouth is saying - how will it help him? Therefore, it is preferable that he pray in a language that he understands.

The author of Sefer Chasidim voices a similar position in no. 788.

In contrast, many halakhic authorities have argued that understanding prayer is not of critical importance. The Yad Efrayim raises the question whether it is at all possible to render prayer in a correct and faithful translation. Other Acharonim, e.g., the Chafetz Chayyim, write that the words of the Sefer Chasidim applied only in his time, when people had very elevated thoughts when they offered their prayers. Today, when only a small minority of people pray with the proper thoughts and concentration, what the Sefer Chasidim says is irrelevant. It should be noted that this argument is a little weak, because the Sefer Chasidim does not seem to be dealing with particularly lofty thoughts, but rather with simple connection to the material resulting from a plain understanding of the words.


The second argument mentioned by the posekim is that even if we assume that it is of great importance that a person understand his prayers - the advantages of praying in Hebrew overcome this consideration. Rabbi Ovadya Yosef discusses this issue at length in his Yabi'a Omer (Orach Chayyim, no. 12, sec. 5), citing many authorities who mention this argument: the Chatam Sofer, the Penei Yehoshua, Rabbi Chayyim Volozhiner, and others. One of the important arguments (which we have already mentioned above) is that prayer was instituted in Hebrew, and it contains thoughts and ideas that do not lend themselves to translation into another language. The Chatam Sofer, despite his opposition, opens the door to prayer in the vernacular. He writes that one should not pray in another language on a regular basis, but one may do so in an incidental manner.

A more fundamental position, that rules out non-Hebrew prayer at all times, may be found in the Arukh ha-Shulchan, no. 101:

One who examines the Gemara there will see that it is not referring to the fixed prayer established by the men of the Kenesset Gedola, for who would dare to change the words that stand at the height of the world into another language? Whoever does so performs an act of wickedness…

The Arukh ha-Shulchan absolutely forbids non-Hebrew prayer, with the exception of a few extreme cases where he allows it.

Private prayer and Congregational prayer

Even if we assume that prayers may be recited in the vernacular, in what framework may this be done?

This question arises in the talmudic passage in tractate Sota that we already cited at the beginning of this lecture. The Gemara there seeks a biblical source for each of the laws mentioned in the Mishna. Regarding prayer, it writes as follows (33a):

Prayer - [may be recited in any language because] it is only supplication, and one may pray in any language he wishes.

The Gemara continues its discussion of prayer in other languages:

But may prayer be recited in any language? But surely Rav Yehuda said: A man should never pray for his needs in Aramaic. For Rabbi Yochanan said: 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.

The Gemara distinguishes between an individual and a congregation, and asserts that an individual is forbidden to pray in Aramaic. Rashi (ibid., s.v., yachid) writes:

An individual requires the assistance of the ministering angels, [whereas] a congregation does not require the same, as it is written: "Behold, God is mighty, and despises not any" (Iyyov 36:5) - He does not despise the prayers of the multitude.

Congregational prayer reaches God directly, without the mediation of the angels, and therefore there is no problem for communal prayer to be conducted in another language.

Two questions may be raised regarding the Gemara's conclusion:

1) What are the definitions of "individual" and "congregation"?

2) The Gemara's discussion relates to Aramaic. Is Aramaic merely an example of a non-Hebrew language, or is the aforementioned law restricted to Aramaic?


The Rif, at the beginning of the second chapter of tractate Berakhot, rules according to the Gemara in tractate Sota:

That which is taught "Prayer in any language" - this applies to a congregation, but not to an individual. For Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: A man should never pray for his needs in Aramaic. And Rabbi Yochanan said: If anyone prays for his needs in Aramaic, the ministering angels do not pay attention to him, because they do not understand that language.

Rabbenu Yona raises an objection to this ruling:

There is a question regarding the custom observed throughout the world that women pray in other languages. Since they are obligated in prayer, should they not pray only in Hebrew?

In the wake of this difficulty, Rabbenu Yona cites the position of the French Sages:

The French Rabbis, of blessed memory, wish to offer an explanation for the custom, saying that when an individual recites the very prayer that the community is reciting, it is treated like the prayer of the community, so that [even] an individual can recite it in another language.

The simple and generally accepted understanding of the position of the French Sages is that an individual can recite the formulation used by the community in its prayers, even if that formulation is in another language.

The position of the French Sages can, however, be understood in a different way. The Gemara in tractate Berakhot 7b states:

Rabbi Yitzchak said to Rav Nachman: Why does the Master not come to the synagogue in order to pray? He said to him: I cannot. He asked him: Let the Master gather ten people and pray with them [in his house]? He answered: It is too much of a trouble for me. [He then said]: Let the Master ask the prayer leader to inform him of the time when the congregation prays? He answered: Why all this [trouble]? He said to him: For Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: What is the meaning of the verse: "But as for me, let my prayer be made unto You, O Lord, in an acceptable time?" When is the time acceptable? When the congregation prays.

The Rambam may possibly allude to this ruling. In Hilkhot Tefila 8:1, he writes:

Congregational prayer is always heard [by the Almighty]. Even if there are sinners among them, the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayer of a multitude. Hence, a person should associate himself with the congregation, and never recite his prayers in private when he is able to pray with the congregation. One should always attend synagogue, morning and evening; for only if recited in a synagogue, are one's prayers heard at all times. Whoever has a synagogue in his town and does not worship there is called a bad neighbor.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik has suggested that the superfluous sentence in the Rambam - "Hence, a person should associate himself with the congregation, and never recite his prayers in private when he is able to pray with the congregation" - refers to the prayer of an individual that is recited at the time that the congregation is engaged in prayer, which is also considered "association with the congregation." In any event, even if this Gemara is not codified in the Rambam, the Shulchan Arukh brings the ruling in explicit manner. It is possible that the French Sages maintain that if an individual prays at the same time that the congregation is engaged in prayer, he can recite his prayer in a language other than Hebrew.


We also raised the question whether this law was stated only with respect to Aramaic, or also with respect to other languages. The Rif and Rabbenu Yona imply that the law applies to all languages, but the Rosh (Sota, chap. 2, no. 2) disagrees and says:

It seems to me that there is no difficulty, because Rav Yehuda was precise when he said that a man should never pray for his needs [in Aramaic]. And similarly the Tosafot asked about that which was said that the ministering angels do not understand Aramaic - but surely they know and understand man's innermost thoughts! Rather, this language [i.e., Aramaic] is [too] debased in their eyes to use.

The Rosh reads the Gemara narrowly and understands that the ministering angels have a problem solely with Aramaic, but not with other languages. Some Acharonim have explained that Aramaic is problematic, because that language is nothing but distorted Hebrew, and if a person prays in Hebrew, he must pray in good Hebrew. According to this opinion, there is no problem praying in a different language which is not distorted Hebrew.


The Shulchan Arukh cites the view of the Rif, and then brings two other opinions introduced by the expression, "There are those who say." Some have argued that the Shulchan Arukh rules in accordance with the Rif, but leaves an opening to rely on the other opinions. Other authorities incline towards leniency in accordance with the Rosh and the French Sages.

Thus it follows that a fixed framework for prayer in other languages should not be established. With respect to a one-time occurrence, however, it seems that one may rely on those opinions that allow congregational prayer in other languages. This is particularly true when from an educational perspective it is important to conduct the prayers in the vernacular, e.g., when the congregation will not understand anything if the prayers are conducted in Hebrew. As for an individual, it seems that on a temporary basis, a person may pray in another language, when his objective is to quickly learn the language of prayer and move over to Hebrew prayer.

There are those who have suggested, as an intermediate stage, to divide the Shemoneh Esrei prayer into blessings that will be recited in Hebrew and blessings that will be recited in other languages, according to the understanding of the person praying. This solution appears problematic in light of the wording of the Rambam in Hilkhot Tefila 1:4:

When the people of Israel went into exile in the days of the wicked Nevuchadnetzar, they mingled with the Persians, Greeks and other nations. In those foreign countries, children were born to them, whose language was confused. Everyone's speech was a mixture of many tongues. No one was able, when he spoke, to express his thoughts adequately in any language, otherwise than incoherently, as it is said: "And their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod and they could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people" (Nechemya 13:24). Consequently, when anyone of them prayed in Hebrew, he was unable adequately to express his needs or recount the praises of God, without mixing Hebrew with other languages. When Ezra and his Council realized this condition, they ordained the Shemonei Esreh in its present order.

We see from here how important it is to recite one's prayers in a single language, from beginning to end.

(Translated by David Strauss)