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Sotah 7:1 gives a list of things that are said in any language, including the Sh'ma and the t'filah. Several commentaries I've seen explain that these texts are so important that you need to understand what you're saying. Yet I know many people who are not fully fluent in Hebrew who, nonetheless, say these in Hebrew, either in deference to tradition or because they are trying to learn the Hebrew and expect to one day understand it. (This latter group includes baalei t'shuva, converts, and children.)

Are we required to 100% understand the words we're saying in these cases, and some should pray in their local languages rather than Hebrew? Or is it enough if we understand the gist of what we're saying -- this paragraph is about X, this paragraph is about Y, and so on, even if we don't understand the words exactly?

  • Perhaps most/all people don't understand 100% any language? – kouty Apr 29 at 1:25
  • @kouty true, though I meant understanding all of the words (and grammar) in the fixed passages discussed here. One can understand all the words in the Sh'ma and still be unable to hold a conversation in Tel Aviv, for example. :-) – Monica Cellio Apr 29 at 1:29
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The Mishna Brura Orach Chaim 62,2 3 addresses these concerns:

ועיין בספרי האחרונים דבימינו אף מצד הדין יש ליזהר שלא לקרותה בלשון אחר כ"א בלשון הקודש כי יש כמה וכמה תיבות שאין אנו יודעים איך להעתיקם היטב כגון תיבת ושננתם יש בו כמה ביאורים אחד לשון לימוד ואחד לשון חידוד כמו שאמרו חז"ל שיהו ד"ת מחודדין בפיך שאם ישאלך אדם דבר אל תגמגם ותאמר לו. וכן כמה וכמה תיבות שבק"ש שאין אנו יודעין היטב ביאורו על לשון אחר כגון תיבת את ותיבת לטוטפות וכדומה אבל כשאנו קוראין שמע בלשה"ק וכן בתפלה וברכת המזון וקידוש ושארי ברכות אפילו אם אינו מבין הלשון יצא דזה אינו מצוי שבן ישראל לא ידע ביאור הפסוק ראשון שבק"ש שהכונה בו לעיכובא
The Acharonim (later Poskim) write that nowadays one should be careful to say the Shema in Hebrew rather than in another language (even though the Mishna in Sotah 32a says one can say Shema in a different familiar language), since there are many words which we cannot translate properly e.g veshinantam which has many meanings including -learning, -sharpening ones mouth that the concepts of the Torah should be on the tip of ones tongue so that if someone should ask you shouldn't hesitate to answer etc. and there are words which are difficult to translate e.g es and Totafos and other such words.
But when we read the Shema in Hebrew, also the Amida, grace, Kiddush and other Brachot, we can fulfill our obligation without understanding, and the only Passuk that is mandatory to understand is the first verse of the Shema that nearly everyone knows the meaning of (Hear Israel we accept Hashem as our G-d Hashem is one)

So of course there should be Tefila classes in English even for FFB's (I for one do not understand everything i read) as there is no doubt that it is ideal and extremely important to understand what we read, but those who can read Hebrew should do so in-order not to stumble on debatable translations of certain prayers/verses. There are transliterated versions of prayer books for those who are novices in the Hebrew language.

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