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The Elements of Jewish Living

Articulation - The Language of Prayer

By Rabbi Sender Haber

One of the most difficult aspects of Tefillah is language. Why do we always say the same words? Why do they need to be in Hebrew?

The truth is that both of these questions have simple answers. We can pray with any words we want and in every language we want. In fact, the philosophy of Breslov encourages Histapchus hanefesh at any time and in any form. It is just that we are also obligated to cover certain pre-set prayers and procedures.

This answer is not sufficient, because the end result is still that there is no denying the emphasis in Jewish prayer on Language and liturgy.

In “To Pray as a Jew”, Rabbi Donin gives several reasons for using Hebrew in our liturgy:
1. Unity
2. Familiarity with classical sources
3. Perpetuation of Hebrew Language
4. To fight assimilation

There are also strategic values in praying in the ways of forefathers. What worked before may work again and perhaps with more holiness and nostalgia applied. Reb Aharon Kotler, the Alei Shur and Rav Hircsh also speak of molding our minds through the words of our prayers.

All of these reasons are good but I would humbly submit that none of them really scratch the surface.

The Hebrew word Tefila cames from the word ‘pilul’. Pilul means judgment but it is more accurately an articulation of judgment. The Torah uses the word Hafla’ah when referring to vows and indeed the Rambam’s book on vows is called ‘Sefer Haflaah’.

A vow is a way of articulating a thought that is within us. It may not be something we do or even something that we will do, but it is – ideally – something that we really want to do. Words are the quill of the soul.

With words we are able to articulate our innermost feelings. People who do not have words do not have articulated feelings. Roget writes in his introduction to the thesaurus:

“The use of language is not confined to its being the medium through which we communicate our ideas to one another; it fulfills a no less important function as an instrument of thought; not being merely its vehicle, but giving it wings for flight. Metaphysicians are agreed that scarcely any of our intellectual operations could be carried on to any considerable extent, without the agency of words… Into every process of reasoning, language enters as an essential element. Words are the instruments by which we form all our abstractions, by which we fashion and embody our ideas…”

Our cultures are shaped in many ways by language and our language is shaped by our culture. Some cultures have many words for snow; others have many words for pasta. Language forms a large part of who we are. Ester refers to “every nation and their language”, in describing diverse cultures. Rabbi Tzadok Hacohen (Kometz Mincha 20) writes that the tongue or the language is the quill of the heart. Just as the Quill is able to take thoughts and transcribe them onto paper, there is a step before this where the emotions of the heart are transcribed into words. Language is to the heart what a pen is to the mind. The Chovos Halevavos (Bechina 5) writes:

“Now think about the good which has been given to man through the power of speech and articulation. For with them he can present that which is in his soul and inner recesses, and with them he can understand the feelings of others. The tongue is the quill of the heart and the agent of his hidden thoughts. If man would not be capable of speech, we would be entirely unintelligent and animalistic. Speech is what separates Man from all other species; with it we make pacts among ourselves and with G-d, with speech we beg forgiveness, which is the highest indicator of our intelligence.”

In 1984, a large part of Orwell’s “utopian” society is based on the introduction of a new language:

“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees … but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc—should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever… words such as honor, justice, morality, internationalism, democracy, science, and religion had simply ceased to exist.”

In much the same way, the entire story of the Tower of Babylon centers on speech. When people spoke one language they were united. When G-d wanted to divide them, he had them speak different languages.

The Jerusalem Talmud records an argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan, one said that they actually spoke seventy languages, while the other understood that they spoke only Hebrew.

Both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yochanan had difficulties with the idea of everyone speaking the same language. One resolves it by saying that perhaps they spoke the same language, but it was only a “Safah” from the lips outwards, inside they all had completely different emotions, which just hadn’t been articulated in to individual languages. Rabbi Eliezer preferred to take the verse at face value; at one point everyone was truly unified, it was only after this unity was used for the wrong purpose that we were split.

In linguistics there are two schools of thought, one believes that all men are created equal and it is only the culture and nuances of society that cause us to be different than each other. The other, more realistic view is that we were all created different and it for that reason that many different languages and slang has evolved. Even if theoretically we could all speak one language and thus all think in the same way, there would be peace on earth but it last for only a short time because ultimately the uniqueness within us would awaken and new languages would emerge.

Another way to look at this is as a form of prophecy. The Piasetzner writes in Shalosh Maamaros (2:5) that there are three levels of prophecy. The highest is Ruach Hakodesh, below that is Shirah, and below that is Prayer. The idea is that our souls are full of lofty G-dly ideas. We contain a ‘piece’ of G-d inside of us. “Our hearts run after G-d like a gazelle runs after a water hole”. We don’t always feel holy because articulating those ideas is tricky. We have so many other thoughts inside of us.

Holy people like King David knew the language of the soul. They knew how to articulate the emotions that all of us feel and they were able to put all of our thoughts into words. Perhaps more effectively than we could ourselves.

In halacha we find that one may daven in any language that he or she understands, or in Hebrew. The Mishna Berurah explains that there is a fundamental difference between Hebrew and all other languages. Hebrew is a Lashon B’etzem – an Objective language. Light is not just called Ohr – it is the word G-d used to create it. We can make Gematria’s and find deeper meaning in the word “ohr”. The word ‘light’ is simply a function of an agreement among men.

The Nefesh Hachaim writes (2:13) that no two Shemona Esrei’s wil ever be the same. The words have so much wisdom that they are able to encompass the thoughts and emotions of all people and all generations. He recommends (2:14) that we concentrate on each word and make it meaningful to us by pouring meaning into it from the depths of our own souls. The Yesod V’shoresh Ha’avodah (Shir, ch. 3) writes that the Psalms of David were written for all Jews in all generations. It sounds unbelievable, but it is worth a try.

We emerge from our discussion with a nusach of Tefila that cannot be duplicated and that is second to none in a language that is able to articulate the deepest of our emotions and the holiest parts of our souls. On the other hand, we have here a prayer that we don’t understand. “A prayer without Kavana is like a body without a soul”.

Kabbalistcally, there is no better way to pray than by expressing our innermost feelings in verbal form. The prayers that we have been given in our siddurim are simply a rendering of the thoughts in our souls. We may not be in touch with those thoughts or even aware of them, but they are part of the fiber of our being. As a community, we shy from losing the richness of the original Tefillah.

As individuals we are free to express thoughts in our own ways. We want to understand what we are saying. This choice is given to us.

In conclusion, I share a thought that is not found in any sefarim but made a profound difference to my prayer. I heard it from a neighbor of mine many years ago who had become a Baal teshuva and was very connected to the spirituality of tefillah. He couldn’t help but notice that most of the people around him were not quite as into tefilla as he was. At first he was bothered, but then he said this:

“That sixteen year old boy has no idea what he is doing. He knows the words and the language and the tune better than I do, yet he has been saying Shemona esrei three times a day all is life without having kavana. His prayer may be meaningless, but – one day he will be in trouble. One day he will need to pour out his heart and talk to G-d. He will know how to do it.”

We have explored prayer as a baring of our souls, a chance to stand before G-d and a chance to articulate our thoughts. Too often, we do none of the above, but it is a tool in our arsenal. One day we will need to pray, and we will know how.

This is the Third in a series on prayer. The second essay is available at

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