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Yes, but…

Rabbi Stern raises some very legitimate points about how disenfranchising it can be when prayers are in Hebrew if you don’t understand the language. That being said, I don’t agree with his solution of abandoning the siddur (the Hebrew prayer book) altogether. A couple of other possibilities:

  • find a better siddur – Rabbi Stern’s point about the dry, uninspiring English translations and readings is well taken. This is especially the case for the old-style siddurs many of us grew up with: “We thank Thee for the tasks we shared together, and for the hours we communed with Thee”! Fortunately, there are some fabulous, modern prayer books out there. “Kol Haneshamah,” the prayer book of the Reconstructionist movement, used a Hebrew scholar and poet to translate the prayers into English that maintains much of the imagery and power of the original. It also contains many additional moving and thought-provoking supplemental readings, as do a variety of other more recent prayer books.
  • supplement, don’t remove – enrich services with elements besides the Hebrew prayers. Guided meditation, additional readings, chanting, movement–all of these are ways to get at the power behind the words, even if we can’t understand them.
  • praying is about more than just understanding the words – at times we tend to get very intellectual about prayer which is, after all, not fundamentally an intellectual enterprise. Understanding is good, but the ancient (and modern!) words have a power that goes beyond just comprehension. Whether it’s knowing that these words have been spoken by countless generations, or trigger a childhood memory, or simply keep our minds busy so our souls may truly pray, there is a value to using the Hebrew even if we don’t understand every word.

Bottom line: the Hebrew of the prayer book is poetry. More to the point, it’s our people’s poetry. We should add to it, adapt it, update imagery for modern sensibilities, certainly skip sections, and use plenty of English as well–but we ignore it at our peril. As poetry, the prayers contain much more than we understand on first–or second, or hundredth–reading, and there is much that gets lost in the translation.

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posted September 7, 2006 at 4:16 am

Well-said. I’m also a big fan of Kol Haneshamah, actually; I use it often for weekday shacharit. (I’ll be curious to see how usable the new Reform siddur will be, but that’s another matter.) But I really like your point that the siddur has merit beyond our intellectual response to the words. As a poet and an aspiring liturgist I care a lot about the words we use when we pray — but I have to acknowledge that on the deepest level, davvening goes far beyond language…

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Claire Mueller

posted September 7, 2006 at 10:28 pm

Please don’t take anymore away. Just relax and listen. We are all being prayed for.

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Carolyn Gold

posted September 8, 2006 at 1:12 am

From the little I have seen of the new Reform prayer book, it will require a several weeks’ course of instruction to learn to use it properly. More to the point, it will require an imaginative rabbi who can lead the prayers without falling into the rut of using the same old prayer week after week, which is what I have seen, even with the variety offered in the Gates of Prayer. Any suggestions?

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posted September 8, 2006 at 6:03 am

I’m a big fan of the Artscroll Hebrew with interlinear English series. It makes it easy to learn the meaning of the words you say every day or every week, in a way that a translation on a facing page cannot. Don’t give up on Hebrew prayers. And, more importantly, don’t give up on LEARNING Hebrew!

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posted September 8, 2006 at 8:57 am

“an imaginative rabbi who can lead the prayers without falling into the rut of using the same old prayer week after week” But part of the point of traditional prayer is to have that repetition. I want my service leader to facilitate my entry into prayer, but too often new and different is distracting. My rabbi uses one service from Gates of Prayer; when I lead I use another–but each of us uses one service consistently. My congregation is in the process of adopting Mishkan T’fillah, the new Reform prayerbook, precisely because it eliminates many of Gates of Prayer services and consolidates the English for each Hebrew prayer where the prayer is. It includes transliteration (though it puts it near enough to the Hebrew to be distracting) and both faithful and imaginative English translations. And the sections are tabbed. As to Hebrew, I very much agree with Rabbi Waxman. The more I study it, the more convinced I am that there is no substitute for the original–from the use of alliteration to grammatical structure which can make clear or opaque a particular sentence, translation is no substitute. But that uniqueness can only be communicated by making Hebrew accessible.

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John W Bowman

posted September 8, 2006 at 5:41 pm

I am not a Jew. Please leave the Hebrew alone and if people were not so lazy today they would learn the language.

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posted September 8, 2006 at 6:20 pm

Have you ever noticed that when we spend time with God in prayer that He inspires our soul to write poetry or look at the world around us in a brighter way?

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posted September 8, 2006 at 7:24 pm

Sorry but I disagree. People these days are looking for authenticity in all religions and everything else. When a Catholic church decides to have services in Latin it becomes packed-and not because everyone suddenly learns Latin. The Muslims have their services in Arabic and they don’t lack for numbers. Nobody in their heart of hearts believes that a service in English is more authentic than one in Hebrew (with some Aramaic), regardless of the level of their Hebrew comprehension.

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Rick Abrams

posted September 9, 2006 at 6:09 pm

I prefer the Hebrew because I can ignore the meaning. The religion is so anthropomorphic that the less I am reminded of its anchronistic features, the more comfortable I am. I prefer the niguns of my childhood. Since all the shuls in my area are also homophobic, it does not matter what language they use. In any language they have made clear that Gays are unwelcome. “It’s to protect the children.” Ah yes, the children, the universal excuse for bigotry. Bigots who say their prayers in Hebrew are just as prejudiced as bigots who use English. It’s the ideas that count.

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Shmuel Ariel

posted September 9, 2006 at 8:59 pm

We Messianic Jews have come up with a solution, we have our Siddur written in Ivrit,Ivrit transliterated into English letters, and English. We have services and songs in both Hebrew and English.

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T.C. McCloud

posted September 10, 2006 at 8:01 pm

There are times when non jews can comment, like on “universal themes”, like sex, drugs, and rock and roll; and others where i think they need to mind their own business….this happens to be the latter. I agree though that not being familiar with the hebrew can cause people to be bored, and not ‘attuned’ to the messages of the Holidays…. I agree and would suggest the novel:”As a Driven Leaf” by Rabbi D. Stein, or even “The Sabbath” by A.J. Heschel

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posted September 13, 2006 at 10:52 pm

B”H I would suggest checking out the Annotated Tehillat Hashem Siddur from Kehot Publications. This Nusach Ari (Lubavtich/Chabad) siddur not only has a meaningful English translation alongside the complete original Hebrew text, but also has EXPLANATIONS and details about customs and laws pertaining to the services, as well as Shabbat, New Moon, etc. There is also philosophical explanations of the importance of prayer in Judiasm and lots of other inspirational material that one can peruse when not actually in prayer, but when one wishes to be inspired to pray better. For the upcoming High Holy Days, the Otzar Sifre Lubavitch Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Machzor is even better, packed with explanations, inspirations, and even when to sit and stand during the prayers. Kativa V’Kassima Tova, best wishes for a sweet and happy New Year.

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posted September 13, 2006 at 11:01 pm

B”H Rick Abrams: You sound disillusioned with traditional Jewish attitudes toward gays. While you may feel uncomfortable with this, keep in mind that the Torah does forbid this type of lifestyle and is very emphatic about this. Since Jews have survived for thousands of years, many if not all major powers trying to destroy completely, this tiny minority of humanity, is proof enough for me that G-d does indeed exist and that the Torah is 100% Truth. While it may not be easy to live a Torah life, (personally it’s not as easy as I’d like), it is a GOAL to which all Jews must strive for to the best of their ability. The gay lifestyle is not a way to live, and there are groups that help people to overcome this tendency. I know this may sound harsh in today’s liberal world, but the Torah never “beat around the bush.” G-d said exactly what He wants from His creation, and our job is to fulfull His will. This is the ultimate freedom and happiness for mankind…Yossel

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posted September 20, 2006 at 7:14 pm

Both the conservative and reform have prayer books with hebrew on one side and english on the other. I know because I had the pleasure of reading the english for years as back up to the prayers I have memorized. When my niece cmplained about not understanding I told her to read the english and also told her I would ask questions on what she read after the service. She is dyslexic and adhd, but she stayed and read it all and even had questions of her own as we sat and had lundch that day.

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posted September 20, 2006 at 9:17 pm


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posted September 23, 2006 at 7:57 pm

I haven’t been able to learn Hebrew yet, but I would hate to have it removed from service. I love to hear it, even if I don’t understand it. I think it is beautiful.

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