Shema and Tefillah in Any Language

Sotah (7:1) | Yisrael Bankier | 15 years ago

The seventh perek deals primarily with the various declarations that must only be said in lashon hakodesh (Hebrew). The first Mishnah however, lists those things that may be said in any language, including the recitation of sh’ma and tefillah.

In practice however, can we really recite sh’ma and prayer in any language? Is there any difference between praying in Hebrew, English or Japanese?

The Mishnah Berurah (O”C 62:3) makes two important points when it comes to reciting the sh’ma in another language. Firstly, there is a qualitative difference between lashon ha’kodesh and other languages. Quoting the Bach he writes that it is indeed a mitzvah min ha’muvchar to recite the sh’ma in lashon ha’kodesh. A distinction is also found in that one can fulfil the mitzvah of sh’ma if recited in lashon hakodesh even if he does not understand Hebrew, which is not the case when it comes to other languages.

Interestingly the qualitative difference is to be found at the core of Hebrew and other languages. In the Bei’ur Halacha he explains that the ability to recite sh’ma or tefillah in another language depends on whether the people of that locality, in general, speak that language. The reason is that unlike lashon hakodesh, that by its essence is a language, other languages are only considered languages by common agreement. Therefore if it is not commonly spoken in that area, it is not a language!

The second point is that nowadays there is an technical hurdle preventing one from reading the sh’ma in another language. It is practically impossible to provide a suitable translation of the sh’ma. There are some words which we do not know how to adequately translate (e.g., totafot). Alternatively, there are some words that have two meanings, both of which essential to the sh’ma. The example he brings is ve’shinantem which can both imply learning/teaching and “having the words [of Torah] sharp” so that you can immediately respond to a question. The Orach HaShulchan adds unless the translation is accurate word for word, it will no longer be considered sh’ma. Consequently, he writes, as today we are unable to translate the sh’ma it is forbidden to recite the sh’ma in any other language.

But what about tefillah? Granted that it may be considered a mitzvah min ha’muvchar to recite it in Hebrew, are other languages acceptable?

The Mishnah Berurah (O”C 101:13) writes that the ability to pray in another language was granted infrequently. Modifying the prayers on a permanent basis is a completely different matter. On the one hand, the Hebrew format as penned by the Anshei Knesset Ha’Gedolah has far reaching effects beyond our comprehension (see Bei’ur Halacha there). Secondly, historically, when people digressed from the original format, the content deteriorated leading to the omission of fundamental components of prayer (see Mishnah Berurah there). The Tiferet Yisrael (Sotah 7:1) writes that such initiatives may even border on “b’chukoteihem lo te’lechu”.

We find that while the Mishnah writes that one may be able to recite sh’ma and tefillah in other languages, today it does not seem practical. First and foremost, our inability to provide accurate translation is a technical barrier. Secondly, there are inherent dangers when we attempt to change the tefillot in a fixed manner. Finally we must appreciate that there is a qualitative difference between lashon ha’kodesh and all other languages.


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