Praying in your mother-tongue

I was just thinking about the difference between Israelis and the rest of the Jewish world when it comes to religion. What an unbelievable blessing, being brought up speaking the language in which almost all our texts are written! Just amazing. I think of my little sister who was born in Israel and is growing up there. She learned how to pray in Hebrew the same time she was learning Hebrew as her 2nd yet very used language.

And when an Israeli decides he/she would like to connect more to Judaism, they never have the language barrier (of course besides the difficulties of old Hebrew and Aramaic and… OK, anyway). If they would like to start learning Parshat HaShavua (the weekly Torah portion), they can open up the Torah and start.

On the other hand, outside of Israel, I know so many people who barely know how to read Hebrew, let alone understand it. And when they decide to connect more to their Judaism, the language definitely affects the journey very much. So many things, if not all the main texts, have been translated into English (and other languages) but still, it’s not the original. Thank God it exists but of course it’s not the same as studying something in the original language.

I grew up in Toronto until I was 11. That means that I first started out studying Judaism when I barely knew any Hebrew. I learned to read and write Hebrew from a very young age but my comprehension was minimal and I remember everything was translated into English for us, at least verbally.

I really wonder how it would have felt to have learned how to pray in my mother tongue. Would it have been more or less meaningful? The words of our prayers are sometimes touching, often strange and definitely the translations into English usually include words like “thou”. People whose mother tongue is Hebrew, was learning how to daven (pray) in Hebrew just like learning how to read a book? How did it feel reading something in your conversation language but being told that this is a conversation with God?

Till this day when I read the prayers I feel like I’m reading a foreign language. Even though I lived in Israel for 16 years, when I read the prayers, I barely even hear the words. I practically know all the words off by heart but it would probably be more accurate to say that I know the sounds off by heart. If anyone ever asks me what a prayer means, I need to stop, think and concentrate in order to answer the question. And, of course, I can’t always, depending on what type of Hebrew it is.

This is from a supposedly fluent Hebrew speaker.

Does the same exist for people whose mother tongue is Hebrew? For you does prayer also just become sounds you verbalize automatically?

Either way, I think it’s beautiful to be brought up speaking the language that opens the door to a large majority of our religious texts. I guess it’s all about keeping your options open. : )

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2 thoughts on “Praying in your mother-tongue

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  1. I have this problem too. Sometimes I’ll even switch to English when this happens if the siddur I am using has a translation. I find I want to really connect to what I am saying, so it’s worse being able to daven in the “proper” language and not understand what I am saying. Even though I went to midrasha, I still struggle with it too and sometimes I study on my own to try to be able to daven more fully.

  2. Although Hebrew is not my mother tongue, it used to be my main language as I spent most of my childhood in Israel. During Torah class I still had problems understanding what the text meant, since it’s not at all similar to modern Hebrew. Therefore I think it is difficult even for those who were born into a Hebrew-speaking environment. I don’t think it makes davening more or less meaningful.

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