"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"I have tried saying the prayers in the prayerbook, but I do not relate to them. Why can't I pray in my own words and in my own language?"


Who says you can't pray in your own words? G-d is always ready to listen to the prayers of a Jew, regardless of his choice of words or language. It is well-known that many of the early Chassidic masters supplemented the daily services with personal prayers in Yiddish. According to Maimonides [Laws of Prayer 1:5], we fulfill our Torah-obligation to pray by simply asking G-d for our needs once a day. Nevertheless, you miss out on something special if you do not say the prayers in the siddur.

Jewish prayer today is based on the offerings that were offered in the Holy Temple. While the spontaneous prayers of an individual correspond to the large variety of offerings which anyone could bring at any time, the fixed prayers in the siddur, which are for all Jews to say, are in place of the obligatory communal offerings. Tefillah [prayer] literally denotes "connecting," and reporting in on a regular basis is an important component of this.

The Jewish sages of the Second Temple period, paragons of spiritual sensitivity, understood well the "language of the soul." Divinely inspired, they standardized the daily prayers, using precise, powerful, mystically attuned combinations of letters and words. Saying these prayers is always beneficial, even though we may not be able to perceive it.

Of course, it is even better to understand the words and, even more important, to be sincere. This is why many people who don't know Hebrew choose to pray in the language which they are most fluent. Even in such a situation, however, it is preferable to say at least the first two lines of the Sh'ma and the first paragraph of the Amidah in Hebrew, since they are so important. A word of caution: those that pray in English should avoid those siddurs that do not print G-d's name in English but instead use the substitution, "Hashem."

The sages also provided guidelines for adding personal prayers to the fixed prayers. There are specific places for inserting prayers on specific subjects, but any prayer can be added just before taking the three steps backwards at the conclusion of the Amidah.

To sum up, both types of tefillah are recommended: the fixed-prayer offerings (e.g., Sh'ma and the Amidah) to enable one to connect with G-d as part of the Jewish community, and spontaneous prayer in whatever language, to develop a more personal relationship with G-d. Try it!

Yrachmiel Tilles

[Part of this question-answer is from ASCENT QUARTERLY #1 (Fall 1983), and part from ASCENT QUARTERLY #18 (Spring 1990).]

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