Prayer in Any Language: Prayer - General Response on Ask the Rabbi
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Prayer in Any Language

Is there a wrong way to pray if I don't know the Hebrew text? Do I just pray with whatever is in my heart? I consider myself a spiritual person. However, I tried praying a lot from a prayer book and it felt like something artificial. I try talking directly to the supreme being, God. That works better, but I still feel that I am missing something. I feel that one's relationship with God should be personal. Could you add some words of wisdom and help me understand prayer and spirituality better?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

There is a famous story about a young shepherd boy. (Jewish stories are often about shepherds, probably because all the Jewish patriarchs, matriarchs and early kings were shepherds.)

One day, this boy was passing by a synagogue and heard people inside praying. He came inside to join them. The only problem was they were all praying from prayer books. The shepherd boy was essentially illiterate, though he did know how to say the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Not knowing what else to do, he stood in the back of the synagogue and yelled out "Aleph! Bet! Gimmel!" until he finished the entire alphabet.

Two of the worshippers were so offended that they went over to the shepherd boy and were about to escort him outside, when the rabbi told them: "Stop! That boy's shouting was more precious than any other prayers said here today! His prayer went straight up to Heaven!"

The point of the story is that prayer counts when it comes from the heart. Any relationship is built on communication, and communication has to come from the heart. As King David said (Psalms 145:18), "God is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call sincerely." God yearns to give us the pleasure of connection. Indeed, the Talmud says that God made Sarah, Rivka and Rachel barren, so that they would turn to Him in prayer.

That is the "spirit" behind prayer. But what about Jewish law?

All of the prayers and blessings can be said in any language that a person understands, with one stipulation: If they are said in any language other than Hebrew, they must be understood. (OC 62, Biur Halacha). Implied is that if you pray in Hebrew, you don't need to understand what is being said. That is because Hebrew has a special strength, since each Hebrew word and letter contains deep mystical meaning, which is otherwise lost in translation.

The Great Assembly (4th century BCE, Land of Israel), were prophets who captured specific mystical secrets when choosing the language for the formalized prayers we have today. If we could truly understand the words of the "Amidah" ("Shmonei Esrei"), we would see that everything is encapsulated in those words. This particular combination allows the supplicant to receive the goodness and direction that God is waiting to give him. (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto - Way of God 4:5:1)

Nevertheless, there is still personal prayer, which can be said at any time, in any place (except for a bathrooms or other unclean area), and in any language. Even if you were plunged in the depths of depression, lying in bed, not wanting to see a person in the world, even if you only mumbled three words, "God send help," God listens to you.

If you want something to help get you started, here's an opening line that's sure to work:

Dear God, Give me the courage to let go and let you in. I know you love me. And with your help, I will find all the purpose, joy, and happiness You want me to have.

My suggestion to you is to make an effort to not only say the words of the prayers written in the Siddur, but to study the meaning behind them as well. There are some excellent books available here: http://www.artscroll.com/Categories/pco.html

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