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Hebrew: The Big Hurt?

For far too many Jews, the High Holidays are marred by confusion and boredom. They come to synagogue and are lost. Everything is foreign except maybe their parents sitting next to them, who once again purchased tickets for the whole family.

Probably the biggest impediment for most Jews is the Hebrew in their prayer books. Simply put, Hebrew is hurting the High Holiday experience for hundreds of thousands of Jews every year.

There are but few instances when a rabbi should say anything good about Martin Luther (on why, see Medieval Sourcebook: Martin Luther (1483-1546): The Jews and Their Lies 1543). But Luther’s decision to translate the Bible into German and make it accessible to the world might have been one of the greatest moments in human history.

Perhaps the biggest difference (I hear about from converts ) between church and synagogue services is the ability to follow what is going on. The synagogue experience, especially in more Orthodox synagogues, can be a disaster for someone whose Hebrew is weak. Luther wasn’t the first to realize that a tradition must be understandable to be meaningful: In the Jewish tradition, already in the second century Onkelos translated the Bible into Aramaic.

Look, I am all for the importance of Hebrew. There is no doubt that in it the treasures of Jewish life and culture reside. If you don’t know Hebrew, there is a limit to how much Judaism will be able to offer your life. But by making Hebrew a prerequisite for what for many Jews is a once-a-year synagogue experience, we are ensuring that Judaism will not have any part in the lives of most of American Jewry.

So this year, if you don’t know Hebrew or you aren’t moved by the stiff English translation of some thousand-year-old hymn, do your soul a favor: Put down your prayer book and pick up a book that speaks to you, maybe Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s “The Jewish Way,” maybe S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe,” maybe Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “On Repentance,” or maybe some poetry that speaks to your conscience.

Whatever you decide, make sure that when you come to synagogue it is not wasted on staring into space. The purpose of the High Holidays is not to torture yourself but to examine yourself and reconnect with what is truly most important in your life.



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Steve

posted September 5, 2006 at 1:55 am


I’ve never been to a service, although I have been to a Temple. I know several Rabbis, but because thay don’t belong to an evangelical sect, I’ve never heard a Hebrew service. I am surprised to hear that even the Reform services have a good portion in Hebrew. Does that include the sermon, presuming that there is a sermon, or just the songs, or just the prayers?



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Scott

posted September 5, 2006 at 3:31 pm


I know several Rabbis, but because thay don’t belong to an evangelical sect, I’ve never heard a Hebrew service. Huh? Jews don’t have “evangelical sects”. “Evangelical” means gospel-based and we don’t have the gospels. Reform/Reconstructionist is 50-50 Hebrew/English. The D’var Torah is always in English. Conservative is almost entirely in Hebrew, with a few prayers and the D’var in English. Orthodox is entirely in Hebrew. Maybe some synagogues will have the sermon in English – many will have it in Hebrew or Yiddish, or Ladino if it’s European Sephardic.



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Rachel

posted September 5, 2006 at 5:16 pm


Thanks for this post, Rabbi Stern. When I was in college, a rabbi encouraged me to do precisely what you suggest here — to pick up a book that spoke to me, instead of feeling alienated and distanced by a liturgy I didn’t fully understand — and it was a deeply liberating experience.



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shelly

posted September 5, 2006 at 7:35 pm


unfortunately my hebrew is limited, BUT, even the orthodox shul that I grew up in had an english translation on the opposite page. The conservative and reforms shuls all have that. If you can read hebrew you can read the english and stay abreast of the service that way. If your synagogue is not a good fit, find one that is better. The non-denominational synagogue in our city is mostly english and very little hebrew. Your other choice is to take classes at the shul to learn hebrew. There are many adults – born jewish – who for many different reasons can’t read hebrew. you would find that you are not alone and would meet people that way too.



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Isidore Teitelbaum

posted September 6, 2006 at 6:36 pm


I think this article is putting emphasis on the wrong thing. The article says – “By making Hebrew a prerequisite for what for many Jews is a once-a-year synagogue experience. . . ” Shouldn’t we focus on making synagogue attendance and prayer more than just a “once-a-year” experience – obviously there is sonething lacking in the Jewish education process if this is what Judais is to the many people that the article speaks to.



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Lane Montgomery

posted September 6, 2006 at 7:55 pm


I have to agree with a previous poster that the focus should probably be more on encouraging regular attendance. If for nothing else than to help keep a community identity. But exercising both options simultaneously is probably the best path. I myself am an individual committed to converting to Judaism and will begin taking classes to that end this Sunday. It is my personal experience that Judaism isn’t advertised as a “conversion religion”. That is for many reasons I’m know, but it leaves much to be desired from an outsider’s perspective. Maybe English doesn’t have to replace Hebrew in many parts of the service. I think it would be a good balance between preserving tradition and reaching out to “un-templed” Jews and curious gentiles if there were just more english aids. At the synagogue I am attending somebody made up an insert you can pick up that carries english translations for items not translated in the prayer book and also provides transliterations for the prayers that have none. It has helped me fit in and take more from the service than before I had it for an aid.



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Renate McWright

posted September 8, 2006 at 5:41 pm


I also appreciate Rabbi Stern’s article as I am a beginner at Hebrew. What I found most helpful is that Artscroll now has a number of books in a transliterated form. Why can’t Hebrew and English stand side-by-side in a synagogue service? One mustn’t forsake one for the other. I find immense beauty in the ancient prayers and once I gain understanding through translation, they affect that which prayer should…a closeness to HaShem – after all it is He my prayer is directed to.



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Chuck

posted September 11, 2006 at 2:11 am


For me, it wasn’t the case that the Hebrew was incomprehensible or the English uninspiring that was a turnoff. What I found, and find, difficult about the high holy days services is that it’s more an opportunity for the chazzan to perform than for us to pour out our own hearts to Hashem.



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senlin

posted September 11, 2006 at 7:20 pm


I agree with Isidore. There always seems to be a lot of hand-wringing going on about how to satisfy each generation of Jews, and while I agree that it’s crucial to consider people’s needs and desires, at some point you should also expect people to take some personal responsibility for their life and their Judaism. If people are not going to synagogue on a regular basis or otherwise attempting to live a meaningful Jewish life (outside of lighting Hanukkah candles, holding a seder or going to services twice a year), then that is definitely the crux of the problem. Yes, we should hear the critique and disillusionment people have, but we also shouldn’t be afraid to say something along the lines of, “Ask not what [Judaism/God/religion/etc.] can do for you, ask what you can do for [Judaism/God/religion/etc.]”



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