Praying in Hebrew or in English

This is both a question of Jewish law and of common sense. The sages have already made clear that one may pray in any language, as long as one understands that language. The exception to this rule is Hebrew, which has unique spiritual efficacy. One may pray in Hebrew even if they do not understand it. Hebrew is the language that the Torah is in, and which the sages composed the prayers. Everything else is a translation.

So Jewish law truly leaves it to the preference of the worshiper.

Enter common sense. A four hour prayer service spent being mystified by language that one does not understand can be a painful experience. Certainly one should preferably utter prayers in English that can be said with sincerity and clarity. On the other hand, to completely disconnect from the Hebrew prayers in progress is to be somewhat distanced from the community. There must be an appropriate formula for compromise.

I suggest the following: the recitation of the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith, should be read in Hebrew. All of the Congregational singing and responses should be done in Hebrew. One should join together with the congregation as much as possible.

The silent devotion can be done in English. It is, after all, the centerpiece of all prayer. I feel strongly that knowing what one is saying is the only way for a true religious experience. Similarly, some of the liturgical poems that the congregation recites silently should be said in English if one does not understand the Hebrew.

We must always keep the main goal in front of our eyes. That goal is to have an uplifting holiday, where the synagogue service is filled with beauty and meaning. Most synagogues will have a Cantor with a beautiful voice and a fine selection of melodies. People will be dressed well, the sanctuary will be decorated for the holiday. The congregation will be friendly and welcoming. All of the elements will be in place for a fantastic religious experience. Our goal must be to use that to transform ourselves for the better.

The best thing I can suggest beyond all this is preparation. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the holiday prayer book. Read through some of the prayers in advance. Learn their history, understand the structure of the synagogue service. Know what is happening in the silent devotion, in the Cantor's repetition, at the Torah reading, at the shofar service and in Musaf.

Saturday night we begin the high holiday season with the Selichot midnight service. It's a great opportunity to become accustomed to making prayer meaningful. I wish you all much success and happiness in the coming year.

How to Have a Successful Yom Kippur

  1. Preparation. Take some time to look over the Yom Kippur prayer book. Read the translation. Get to know the atmosphere of the prayers, and when you encounter them in synagogue they will be more meaningful.

  2. Define what you need to correct. Sins are one thing. They are an obvious target for repentance. What is more important are character traits. Things often come as a result of character traits. I remember learning that all sin in the trace to one of three character challenges: jealousy, lust, and pride. Working on one's character is the most important work of Yom Kippur. Being aware of where we get into trouble and why is the first step. Deciding on concrete steps to grow and improve is the next step.

  3. Apologize to God. This refers to all of the sins that relate between man and God. If someone wasn't careful about keeping kosher, they should admit their shortcoming in prayer and decide to improve in the coming year. If someone didn't pray as well as they could have, they should mention this and determined to improve their prayer in the future.

  4. Apologize to one's fellow. Yom Kippur atones for those sins that are directly between man and God. For sins that one has committed to another, one must first obtained the other's forgiveness. Jewish law states that a person should ask forgiveness a maximum of three times. If the other refuses to forgive, one need not ask a fourth time. Nonetheless, if someone asked for forgiveness, we should be forthcoming with it. Nobody should want someone else to be punished on their account. Only after properly asking forgiveness from the other can we then ask God for forgiveness.

An interesting problem is when one has spoken slanderously of another. If the other does not know about it, to tell them in order to apologize might cause more harm than good. In that case, it is best to give a general apology, and not hurt the other person's feelings by sharing what was said. One should, however, seek to undo whatever damage was done by ill considered speech.

  1. Dress appropriately. Create the atmosphere for spirituality. On Yom Kippur, we refrain from wearing leather shoes. It is also appropriate to wear white clothing, if possible. White is the color of purity, and creates an atmosphere of great spirituality.

  2. Eat a proper meal before the fast. Drink adequately, but do not overeat. I have had a Kol Nidre night challenged by a stomach that was unhappy with the way I ate before the fast.

  3. Prepare to be in a good mood. The Divine Presence comes where there is joy. For that reason, Yom Kippur, with all of its solemnity, carries inside a deep joy. Sing along with the Cantor, and let the beauty of the prayers fill your soul. I remember seeing someone so uncomfortable in synagogue that they laughed at every ritual. This is very sad. It may be an effort, but it is so important to open oneself to what is happening in synagogue. Even if you don't attend during the entire year, and don't really know what is going on, make a mental decision to be open to try to sing along, to reading the prayers in English, to saying them with as much sincerity as you can muster.

  4. Maintain the dignity of the day. What you do when you leave the synagogue? How about keeping the television off? Try creating an atmosphere of sanctity and quiet in your home throughout the day. Don't plan to travel or distract yourself with novels or music or anything else. Consider taking a quiet walk, meditating, or reading about self-improvement or the meaning of the day.

  5. Be in synagogue as much as possible. You will be surrounded by people deeply connecting to Yom Kippur. You'll be surrounded by strong Jewish feeling, melody, prayer, and inspiration. Stay after the memorial service for a little bit, if you can. Avoid meaningless conversation. Be present to Yom Kippur for as much of the day as you can, and Yom Kippur will be present in your life for a whole year!

I wish you all and easy fast and a healthy, happy, and successful year. May you be properly sealed in the Book of Life!

Shouldn't Yom Kippur Precede Rosh Hashana?

Well, yes and no. Certainly one should purify oneself before entering the Holy Temple, for example. In any quest, there must come a time of preparation. The High Priest had an elaborate preparatory period before the sublime Yom Kippur Temple service. Nonetheless, Rosh Hashana comes first, because it is the MOST important preparation. Praying for a fixed world is even more important that praying for forgiveness and repenting. How so?

Because without the ideal of Rosh Hashana, our ability to repent and be forgiven is hampered. Rosh Hashana teaches us what our mission in life is, both as a nation and as individuals. It is "To fix the world in God's dominion". Repentance has no power if it does not lead us towards advancing that goal. How can I ever create a painting if I have no idea what one looks like? How can we recreate ourselves through repentance when we have not yet glimpsed our true "selves?"

When we get excited about the world of Rosh Hashana, our repentence becomes focused and urgent. We ask ourselves how we can recreate ourselves to better the world we live in. It's no longer about getting rid of guilt for some mental health reason, but rather preparing ourselves for a holy mission. That's why Rosh Hashana is the ultimate preparation for Yom Kippur.

It is the task of each human being to fix his or her corner of the world. We should not be afraid to dream great dreams about what that world will look like, for only through those dreams will we have a chance of achieving it.

A Shana Tova to one and all!