The Gemara (Sanhedrin 105b) teaches that from the blessings of Bilam we know the curses he wished to inflict upon the Jewish people. One of his aims was that the Shuls, places of Jewish prayer, should be destroyed. Instead, he gave the blessing: “How goodly are your tents, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5). It is thus fitting that upon arriving in Shul each morning, we begin our prayers with the same statement: “How goodly are your tents, Israel.”

Bilam was aware of the potency of prayer, and especially that of the Jewish people, and he wished to neutralize it. Indeed, the power of prayer is great. But prayer in which language? Is the power of prayer reserved for the Hebrew language of the Torah, or can prayer be offered to Hashem in any language?

In the present article we will discuss these questions. When is it permitted to pray in a language other than Hebrew? Is it preferable to pray in Hebrew without understanding the words, or to pray in a language one understands? Is a language acceptable even where it is not spoken? We will seek to clarify these (and other) issues, below.

Reciting Keriyas Shema in Other Languages

The Gemara (Berachos 13a) cites the teaching of a baraisa: “Keriyas Shema must be recited as it is written. This is the opinion of Rebbi. The Chachamim say: [It can be recited] in any language.”

The Gemara explains that this dispute depends on how the verses of Keriyas Shema are interpreted. According to Rebbi, the word vehayu is interpreted to mean that the words of Shema must be recited verbatim. Chachamim, however, base their opinion on the word shema, deriving that Shema can be recited in any language that one ‘hears’ (meaning ‘understands’).

The Rambam (Keriyas Shema 2:10) rules in accordance with Chachamim, adding an important detail: “A person may recite the Shema in any language he understands. Somebody reading in any language must ensure that his words are free of mistakes in that tongue, and must use the language with the same precision as in lashon ha-kodesh.” According to the Rambam, one must be careful to use all languages with precision, just as one is precise in the words of the Holy Language.

The Raabad, however, differs in this point: “This is not acceptable, for all languages are interpretation, and who can be precise in interpretation?”

The Ruling of the Mishnah Berurah

The Mishnah Berurah (62:3) rules that one should avoid the use of other languages for Keriyas Shema, and mentions (citing acharonim) that in our day even the strict halachah opposes the use of languages other than Hebrew.

The reason for this is that there are several words whose precise meaning is not known, such as the word veshinantam, which refers to teaching, but which Chazal explain to mean acquiring a sharp knowledge of the Torah. In addition, he mentions that there are words that do not translate well into other languages, such as the word es (as in es beneichem).

Foreign Tongues in Different Locations

The Biur Halachah (62:2) cites the ruling of the Ritva (Nedarim, Rif 1a), whereby a neder (vow) made in a foreign tongue only has halachic validity where that language is spoken. The Biur Halachah extends the argument to the recitation of Keriyas Shema: It is only permitted to use other languages in locales where that language is actually spoken.

The rationale behind this halachah is elucidated in the Ran (Nedarim 2a), who explains that there is a fundamental difference between Hebrew (lashon ha-kodesh) and other languages: Whereas Hebrew is an objective, non-contextual language, a language whose words derive from the Divine Torah, other languages are only used insofar as nations agree to use them. Where the languages are not used, those words are not a language.

Based on this rationale, there might have been be room to distinguish between (relatively) new languages spoken today in virtually all parts of the world (certainly in the Western world), and ancient languages. The original seventy languages of the world define seventy essential ways of thought, all of which have a place in Torah. Indeed, Tosafos (Berachos 13a) mentions that the Torah was given in all seventy languages. Ancient tongues, therefore, might be considered as essential languages, just as Hebrew. However, the poskim do not differentiate between ancient and modern languages and one cannot use any language other than loshon hakodesh in a place where it isn’t the spoken language.

English, which is derived from Latin, Greek and German, is certainly a new language. As the Chasam Sofer (Chiddushim to Gittin 80a) writes, Latin was only invented several hundred years into the fourth thousand of the world’s existence (academia dates it somewhat earlier)—a long time after the Generation of the Dispersion. English, of course, came into being much later.

English can therefore be used for Keriyas Shema only in places where English is spoken. Yet, it is possible that the common knowledge of English in most Western countries today is sufficient to meet this criterion.

Hebrew Speakers

An additional halachah in connection with using foreign languages for Keriyas Shema is the question of Hebrew speakers. Rishonim (see Ramban and Rashba, Megillah 17a) cite a ruling from the Yerushalmi (Megillah 2:1) according to which only somebody who does not know ashuris (Hebrew script) can fulfill his obligation in other languages. Somebody who can recite Keriyas Shema in Hebrew does not have the option of using other languages.

However, the opinion of the Rambam (Megillah 2:4), as cited by the rishonim, is that any person, even a Hebrew speaker, can choose which language to use. Both opinions are mentioned by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 690:10). The Vilna Gaon explains that this question is a dispute between the Bavli and the Yerushalmi.

An interesting question arises concerning the reading of Kerias Shema with alternative Hebrew words, which expand the original text: Is a Hebrew interpretation worse than a non-Hebrew translation?

According to the above Yerushalmi, there is little doubt that a recitation of a Hebrew expansion of Keriyas Shema does not qualify to fulfill the mitzvah. Just as one who speaks Hebrew cannot use a foreign tongue, so it stands to reason that somebody who can read the original text cannot use an alternative.

However, it may be that even according to the Rambam one will not fulfill the mitzvah with such a reading. As noted above, the Rambam writes that one must choose the words (of the other language) with precision. A deviation from the actual text might render the reading imprecise, and therefore disqualify it from fulfilling the mitzvah. Yet, this argument can be refuted, for although deviating from the Torah text, the rendition might still be good Hebrew, and this is perhaps sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah. Obviously the Mishna Berurah would be against a Hebrew expansion.

Reading without Understanding

Commenting on the Mishnah that lists a number of recitations that can be said in any language and some that must be recited specifically in Hebrew, Tosafos (Sotah 32a) question why Hallel, Kiddush of Shabbos, and Berachos, are not listed. Tosafos reply that the Mishnah only lists those recitations whose language must be understood by the reader. For Hallel, Kiddush, and Berachos, there is no condition of understanding the language, and they are therefore not listed by the Mishnah.

It thus emerges from Tosafos that with regard to Keriyas Shema and to prayer (both of which are listed in the Mishnah) one does not fulfill one’s obligation without understanding the language. This halachah is cited by the Magen Avraham (62:3), and by the Peri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 62:1). With regard to Hallel, Kiddush and Berachos, the Biur Halachah writes that authorities dispute the ruling of Tosafos, and require understanding of the language even for these mitzvos.

The Peri Megadim questions whether the principle requiring understanding applies even to somebody reciting the Shema in Hebrew, and does not give a decision on the matter. However, the Biur Halachah cites the Levush (193), who writes explicitly that understanding is not required for recitation in Hebrew except for the first Pasuk of Keriyas Shema and the first berachah of Shemona Esrei.

Although the Peri Chadash (end of 101) argues that understanding is always necessary, the general consensus of poskim is that when using lashon ha-kodesh one fulfills the mitzvah even without understanding. Indeed, according to the Mishnah Berurah (62:3) recitation in Hebrew without understanding is preferable to recitation in other languages even if they are understood (see summary).

Prayer in Other Languages

As noted, prayer, together with Keriyas Shema, is mentioned by the Mishnah in Sotah (32a) as a recitation for which any language is valid. In his opening to the laws of prayer, the Rambam notes that initially, a person would pray to Hashem in words of his own choice. Only in the time of Ezra, after Israel had been exiled from its land and as a result the people were no longer able to express themselves with eloquence, did the Men of the Great Assembly compose the fixed prayer we use.

According to the ruling of the Mishnah, although the wording is now fixed, one can still say the words in any language. The principles detailed above concerning Keriyas Shema, such as the question of a local language, the matter of understanding, and the need to be precise, also apply to prayer.

The Gemara (Sotah 33a) questions how it is possible that prayer is valid in all languages: Surely Rav Yehudah taught that a person must not beseech in Aramaic, because the ministering angels do not know this language (Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (Emes Le-Yaakov p. 477) explained that this is because Aramaic is a distortion of lashon ha-kodesh, and the angels do not understand distortions), and will not aid his prayer?

The Gemara replies that concerning Aramaic in particular there is a distinction between an individual and a congregation: A congregation (whose prayers are received directly by Hashem) can pray even in Aramaic but an individual must pray in a language known to the angels. The Rif (Berachos 7a) understands that this principle is not limited to Aramaic, but applies even to every language (other than the original Hebrew).

Women’s Davening

Rishonim note that this principle raises a difficulty concerning women, who generally pray in the local vernacular, and not in Hebrew, even though they pray alone. Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah answer, citing the rabbis of France, that the restriction on foreign languages applies only to somebody praying with his own words; somebody praying the fixed Shemoneh Esrei prayer can do so in any language, even in private. The Rosh (Berachos 2:2), however, suggests that the original Talmudic restriction is limited to Aramaic, and there is no problem for an individual to pray in languages other than Aramaic.

The Shulchan Aruch (101:4) rules that it is permitted to pray in any language, adding that individuals should pray in Hebrew. He mentions both the opinion of Rabbeinu Yonah, and the opinion of the Rosh (both as yesh omrim).

The Magen Avraham (5), citing the Sefer Chasidim, rules that it is preferable to pray in a language one understands than to pray in Hebrew (for somebody who does not understand Hebrew). Although the Mishnah Berurah (Biur Halachah) writes that this is true for a sincere yerei shamayim for whom it is important to understand the words, he writes (13) that in general it is best to daven in Hebrew, because the prayer includes many secrets that Chazal hid in the words.

Summary: Keriyas Shema and Prayer in Foreign Tongues

We have mentioned a number of halachos pertaining to Keriyas Shema and Prayer in languages other than Hebrew:

  • A person can only use another language only if he understands it.
  • A language other than Hebrew may only be used where it is spoken locally.
  • According to the Mishnah Berurah, one should generally prefer Hebrew even when one does not understand it, though another language may be used if understanding is important for the individual (for a yerei shamayim). In addition, the Mishnah Berurah writes that nowadays, the entire practice of using foreign languages is questionable.
  • It is noteworthy that Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim 4:70, sec. 4) instructed somebody to daven the Shemoneh Esrei prayer in English, stipulating that the translation should be done by benei Torah. His main objection in the teshuvah is to the idea of somebody davening in his own words; Rav Moshe explains that this is wrong, and one should always fulfill the obligation of prayer with the words of Chazal, even in other languages.
  • The general custom is that wherever possible a person should pray in Hebrew. A translation may be used to understand the meaning of the words.

It is noteworthy that in previous generations, and in particular when the Haskalah movement gained momentum, many of the leading halachic authorities expressed strong objections to prayer in other languages. The Chasam Sofer (Vol. 6, no. 94) rules that it is forbidden to pray in other languages on a regular basis, and Sefer Eleh Divrei Ha-Bris cites the harsh words of several luminaries in objecting to those who change the prayer service from Hebrew to other languages.

This is also the background for the strong words of the Mishnah Berurah (101:13). The Aruch Hashulchan (62:5; see also siman 101 and 185) likewise rules unequivocally that one should not pray or recite Keriyas Shema in any language but lashon ha-kodesh, being particularly stringent concerning somebody who knows Hebrew.

By contrast with the negative winds of change that blew during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, today there is a broad teshuvah movement, and the result is that many people who wish to be Torah observant, do not know Hebrew.

For such people, who wish to daven but find it hard or even impossible to do so in Hebrew, it is important to know the principles of reciting Keriyas Shema or prayer in other languages.

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