While many hold the belief that praying in Hebrew, despite knowing the meaning of the words, is beneficial to the soul, this strikes me as problematic if prayer is meant to be self-reflexive. How can the prayers truly benefit the soul, unless the meaning of the prayers is known to the person who is praying? The belief that praying in Hebrew, regardless of knowledge of the Hebrew language is nothing short of a mystical claim. And, while it may be the case that the soul benefits, this could be at the expense of the individual’s actual understanding of the words.
Yet, it is well known that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of Breslov chasidism advocated the need to pray in one’s own language. I find this approach refreshing, inasmuch that he understood the importance of kavanah (intention) at the level of praying in a meaningful way. More importantly, I would mention, is to not only pray in one’s own language, at least for some of the prayers, but to be able to comprehend the meaning of the words one prays.
Permit me to explain what I mean, if you will. Words have meaning in and of themselves; a dictionary is a handy guide to those meanings when unsure of what a word conveys, or how it is used in a sentence. However, the words of kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) have meaning above and beyond the words themselves, and must be understood within the greater context of the themes of the biblical narratives they portray, as well as their theological significance.
This is why the siddur (prayer book) has been described as an overall composite of what is most significant in Judaism. The prayers are an active means for inculcating the values, traditions, and beliefs of Judaism into our lives. As such, the siddur should garner our greatest attention, and praying should not end up being a rote experience, performed without true intention or understanding. If our prayer experience is dry, then we need to somehow make amends.
One way to do so is to increase a sense of kavanah (attention; intentional reading) through specific techniques designed for this purpose. For example, if praying too fast, one way to slow down is to pause, every time the name YHVH is written, otherwise denoted by the words H’Shem or L-RD. This serves to develop a pace whereby reflection becomes possible, by paying more attention to the words that are being prayed. This is davening with kavanah, when the words have a direct and immediate impact on the soul of the individual praying.
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Additionally, I would like to add that personally, I pray in both Hebrew and English, despite the fact that I only know how to pronounce Hebrew, without understanding the meaning. Yet, I seek to understand the meaning and significance of the words that I pray in English; and, I hope to learn the meaning of the Hebrew in due time (im yirtzei H’Shem). I believe that it is up to each individual to decide for him or herself, what language to pray, and whether or not to find a healthy balance between Hebrew and one’s own language, if Hebrew is not understood.
By no means would I advocate abandoning the Hebrew prayers, for these prayers are established by chazal (the sages) and should not be changed. At least not to the extent that they are unrecognizable in an English translation, or seem to abandon the original intent. And, so, while I recognize the value of the prayers in a conservative or reform siddur (prayer book), I myself prefer a more traditional siddur, such as one published by Artscroll. To each his own, if the ultimate goal is to connect with H’Shem at the level of one’s own understanding and comfortability.