I’ve been davening 3 times a day for most of my adult life, but I’ve never really taken the time to understand the words of the prayers I’ve been saying. I know it’s important to focus and really understand everything in order for the tfillah to be valid, so I’ve recently started to focus on each prayer, reading it in English and Hebrew, reading the commentary, etc.
While it has really helped to make my davening more meaningful, it is also taking a long time to say each prayer – 45 minutes for Mincha and Maariv and over an hour and a half for Shacharit!
I’m currently home on Maternity leave with my baby, but will soon be returning to work, and I simply won’t have the time to spend that long on each davening. Even now, I’m finding it hard to balance making time for all my other responsibilities. That being said, I don’t want to just abandon taking the time to focus on my tfillah since, according to my understanding, that would make it invalid since I won’t understand or be focused on what I’m saying.
Is it true that the words don’t count if we don’t understand them? or is it more important to just understand the essence of what the brachot mean in general?
and if it is in fact the case, is it permissible to daven in English so the words would be understood the first time around?
Hoping you can help me find a balance here.
Thanks so much
Please let me clarify, that although it is very important to daven with concentration, and understanding, however a person’s tefilloh is valid even if one only concentrated on the first bracha of shemona esrei. (As long as the person remembered that he is standing in front of H-shem.) Growing spiritually is similar to the way we grow physically. Physical growth is a slow gradual process, and otherwise it wouldn’t be healthy for the body, so too with our spiritual growth, we have to take it gradually, step after step. I once heard R’ Volbe zt”l say, that a person that tries running up a ladder two steps at a time is likely to fall, and can really get hurt. Therefore, although it is true that the more we concentrate and the more devotion we give to our davening, the more fulfilling it is, and the more of a bond we will feel with H-shem. However, we have to be careful not to overdo it. Otherwise it will become a burden for us, and a pressure, and it will backfire. As soon as you feel that it is a pressure, that is a sign that you are overdoing it, and you should cut back.
Learn a little bit each day, and before you know it, you will know the translation of the whole tefiiloh, (start with shemona esrei). Halchically even if you don’t understand the meaning of the words, if you say it in Hebrew you are yotza, (except for the first bracha). Or course, if you will know the translation of the words, that is definitely better, or at least the translation of the ending (Boruch ato… of each bracha). If you need to daven in English at the beginning in order to understand what you are saying that it permitted. It is better though if you can say it in the Hebrew, and whatever words you don’t know, look at the English translation.
Keep up the good work, from your letter it sounds like you are doing great.
Shulchan Aruch O:CH 101-1,4, M:B ibid -2, 13, Piskei Teshvos 101-1, 7.