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Who Needs Hebrew?

I agree with Rabbi Stern that Hebrew is often an impediment to getting the most of the High Holy Days. But I disagree that Luther was right about the vernacular. There is a place for English in the service but seldom as a substitute for Hebrew? Why? Because there is a power behind the Hebrew words that have been recited for hundreds if not, in some cases, thousands of years.

Even for someone who understands Hebrew fluently, High Holiday Hebrew can be incomprehensible, written in a medieval style with allusions and depth that require preparation to understand.

That’s why it is hard to walk into services three times a year and still get something meaningful out of it. Which is a shame, since the holiday liturgy and music is so rich in significance, wisdom, and beauty.


If translating the service into English is not the solution, then what is?

There are ways to make the experience more meaningful.

Studying Hebrew would help, of course, as would reading up before hand on the meaning of the prayers.

But if one doesn’t understand Hebrew, forget the words. Let the music transport you. It is said that the haunting melody of the Yom Kippur eve service of Kol Nidre awakened in Franz Rosensweig the desire to return to Judaism. (He was planning to convert to Christianity.) Someone once said that a prayer book is less important than a box of tissues on the holidays for real prayer, because God weighs the tears of our hearts much more than the words of our lips.

There is also something to be said for sitting through the whole service, whether or not you understand the Hebrew. (Rabbi Stern’s idea of bringing a good book is helpful. I would add Reuven Hammer’s “Entering the High Holidays” or anything by Harold Kushner, such as “When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough” or “Who Needs God?” You may also want to bring a pillow if you have a bad back or feet.) Studies show that something happens to our brains when we engage in prayer long enough.


The High Holidays are a marathon, and it’s hard to run a marathon without training. But the good news is like a marathon, one way to win is making it to the end. (If you don’t think you can last, come in the middle for the rabbi’s sermon and then stay till the end. Most Jews in the know know that coming late is preferable to leaving early.) This marathon can also be won with a contrite spirit and a willingness to feel remorse over our failures and to commit to changing ourselves for the better, which, I agree, is what the holidays are about.

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posted September 7, 2006 at 4:19 am

High Holiday services are definitely a marathon. If one isn’t “in shape” — davvening regularly, at least on Shabbat — they can feel like too much to handle. I like your suggestions for navigating them.

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Roienell Dringle

posted September 8, 2006 at 11:42 pm

I am a christain sorry. But I would like to say the Hebrew language spoken is the most beautiful sound my ears have ever been blessed to hear. I can’t imagine not being engulfed in it when ever I hear it let alone prayers or songs of praise to GOD. I yearn to hear it Why? I just knows it goes thru to the very heart of me all the time. Thank you RVID.

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Howard Katz

posted September 14, 2006 at 9:49 pm

The point of the High Holiday davenning isn’t to be “meaningful” – it is to connect one to the divine. That is why the prayers should be said in Hebrew. Even the best translations miss the point – that the davenning isn’t primarily about what they “mean” – since, even the best translations reveal that most of the prayers are either obscure, irrelevant, or, in some cases, actively offensive. What connects one to the divine in the davenning is the energy and enrgetic vibrations of the prayers – primarily when they are either sung or chanted responsively. This has the effect of connecting one to all of the energy that has been previously generated and has a truly elevating effect on one’s soul. That having been said, there remains the problem of lack of Hebrew knowledge. I have found that the best way around this is to reduce many of the prayers/chants to one line or a few words and to then repeat/chant them – much like a mantra. I think this works much better than even “good” translations.

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posted September 17, 2006 at 5:18 am

B”H Howard, your point about Hebrew prayer being a spiritual connection to G-d is partially correct. However the meaning of prayer is also important. The prayers in Hebrew do enhance the flow of spiritual energy, but anyone can pray to G-d in any language he/she understands and if it’s sincere, then G-d accepts and treasures it. There are many stories of Jews of old, “conversing” with G-d in the vernacular since in Eastern and Central Europe Hebrew wasn’t often used by Jews in conversation (they were exremely poor and not very knowledgeable about Torah) but their words were not only inspiring, but in some cases, opened the gates of mercy in Heaven for the entire world. Many of these are Chassidic stories and the language used by the people was Yiddish. A prayer recited in English with sincerity is worth more than one recited by rote in Hebrew. A prayer recited with sincerity in Hebrew is pure gold (or platinum, maybe)? That’s why it’s important to review the meaning of the Hebrew prayers so when we go to shul, we can daven in Hebrew with sincerity. This will hopefully answer Roienell’s response. According to Torah, G-d speaks in Hebrew, created the world by uttering the Word in Hebrew, gave the Torah at Mount Sinai in Hebrew. Adam, Noah, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov and Moshe all spoke Hebrew. So Hebrew is known by Jews as “Loshon Kodesh,” the Holy Tongue. Yes, it has special spiritual powers that no other language has! Best wishes for a K’Tiva V’Chatima Tova (may you be inscribed and sealed for a Good Year)…Yossel

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