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As I learn more Hebrew, I still daven and read things like Tehillim in English for the most part.

Many sources casually say that English is as good as Hebrew when you daven/read alone.

However, what freaks me out is the big, semantic differences one sometimes sees in different translations of the same thing.

For example, Psalm 9 (upon the death of Labben vs to brighten the youth).

Brushing into such things when I read from different books sometimes makes me wonder what I'm actually reading.

How is it not a problem?

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    If you mean that the problem is not understanding what you're saying, then the same problem exists when using the original Hebrew, precisely because it has multiple meanings (and people don't always think about the meaning when they say it, either). If you mean that you're not sure whether it's a valid translation, then I'm not sure there's much that can be done about that - there's no translation that's more "official" than any other (unlike, say, the KJV for Anglicans); all you can do is look up the commentaries and see where and why the various translators are getting their renditions. – Meir Jan 31 at 17:48
  • Even if you knew Hebrew, the term "muth laben" could mean a number of things and would really be up to you to decide what its translation was for you. So you're not missing out on much in that department. – ezra Jan 31 at 18:24
  • Differences in translation often reflect differences between the traditional Commentators. The bottom line is that our prayers and other holy texts bear multiple levels of meaning. There is often no one "right" way to render them. – shmu Jan 31 at 18:56
  • @ezra has mentioned an important point regarding Hebrew definition. I vaguely recall something in Shulchan Aruch (and, no, it does NOT mean "long table" :-) that defines what type of kavana one needs during prayer and one of them is understanding the meaning of the words. However, I think he does delve into whether that's accomplished by using languages other than Hebrew. I'll see if I can locate this. – DanF Jan 31 at 19:18
  • @DanF is that the quote from Shulchan Aruch that Maurice mentions in his answer below? – Yosef M Jan 31 at 19:19
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Maurice has listed a wealth of sources that seem to collude on the idea that for the most part, one may pray in whatever language one understands.

So, your question raises a good point. If your more comfortable with English, how do you know that your getting an accurate translation of the Hebrew? There's no 100% guarantee, but, I think you need to implicitly trust a reliable source. How does that work?

A hint based on something I tried a while ago. I had to recommend a siddur for a Rosh Hashanna congregation that I was officiating, about 15 years ago. I wanted the congregation to use something that had fairly simple / "modern" English. (I don't care for the Siddurim that use unnecessary "poetry" and arcane terms like "thee" / "doeth". etc.) I narrowed the choices down to Phillips, Adler and Birnbaum. I chose Birnbaum because one of the factors I discovered is that it tended to be the closest accurate Hebrew translation. (There were other factors in that decision, incidentally, which I don't want to elaborate on.) One way I tested this was to look up some words and terms in a Hebrew / English dictionary as well as ask an Israeli. My Hebrew is fairly good, so I could vouch for much of it, myself, but, I wanted a second and third "impartial" opinion.

There are loads of English / Hebrew siddurim around now, so the choices are a bit more challenging now than about 20 years ago. I can't tell you which siddur / Tehillim translation is accurate or the most accurate. But, perhaps, a test is to ask a knowledgeable Hebrew speaker or try a good dictionary and see how closely that translation matches your siddur.

I do caution you to bear in mind that much of what you see in the Siddur is metaphoric and poetic. So, don't always accept an exact literal translation for everything.

  • Thank you for the answer @DanF. I am waiting for Maurice to clarify why he makes the conclusion that he makes based on the sources he cites, as his conclusion is different from yours. As for my original question, I think your answer covers it. – Yosef M Jan 31 at 21:16
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The consensus is that public prayer can be in any language, but private prayer must be in Hebrew. Below is a compendium of what various commentators said:

Mishnah Sotah 7:1 These are said in any language: The portion of the Sotah, the confession over tithes, the reading of the Shema, tefillah [Amida], the grace after meals, the oath relating to testimony and the oath relating to a bailiment. And these are said in the holy language [Hebrew]: The reading over first-fruits, the release from levirate marriage, the blessings and curses [recited by Israel upon entering the land], the priestly blessing, the blessing of the high priest, the portion of the king, the portion of the broken heifer, and the speech of the priest anointed for battle to the people.

Talmud Yerushalmi Sotah 7:1, 21b The reading of the Shema [can be done in any language]. Because it is written: “And you shall speak them.” Rabi says: “I say that the Shema can only be read in Hebrew.” Why? “And these words [that I command you today shall be in your mind]. R. Levi bar Ḥaita went to Caesarea. He heard voices reading the Shema in Greek. He wanted to stop them. R. Yose heard this and got angry. He said: “Here is what I am saying, should a person who doesn’t know Hebrew not say the Shema at all? No, one’s obligation is fulfilled in whatever language one knows… Prayer [can be said in any language]. So that a person will know how to ask for his/her needs. The Grace after Meals [can be said in any language]. So that one will know whom one is blessing.

Talmud Bavli Sotah 33a Tefillah. It is a request for mercy; one prays however one needs to. And can tefillah indeed be in any language? Did not R. Yehudah say: One should never ask for one’s needs in Aramaic, for R. Yoḥanan said: Anyone who asks for his needs in Aramaic is not attended to by the ministering angels, because the ministering angels do not understand Aramaic! There is no contradiction [between the Mishnah and R. Yehudah’s statement]; [R. Yehudah’s ruling applies in] private, [the Mishnah’s applies in] public

Rif Berakhot 7a That which it says, “tefillah may be recited in any language,” only applies in public, but in private, it is not applicable, for R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav: One should never ask for one’s needs in Aramaic, and R. Yoḥanan said: Anyone who asks for his needs in Aramaic is not attended to by the ministering angels, because the ministering angels do not understand Aramaic.

Rabbeinu Yonah on the Rif vs Gemara Since we have concluded that private tefillah can only be said in Hebrew, I am deeply puzzled by the universal custom of women to pray in other language, since by virtue of their obligation in prayer, they should have to pray in Hebrew [like everyone else]. The rabbis of France try to justify this practice by saying that when an individual prays the same tefillah that is recited in public, [that private prayer] is considered “public”, and one can say it in another language. And that which R. Yehudah said, “One should never ask for one’s needs in Aramaic, applies when one asks for one’s private needs, such as praying for a sick person or regarding any other problem in one’s home, but tefillah, which is known by the whole community, even when one prays it in one’s own home, it is as if it is being prayed in public, and if one does not know Hebrew, one may fulfill one’s obligation in any language. And the reason that public requests are made in any language but private needs are not is because the community [when praying as a whole] does not need an intermediary with God, but an individual does…and the ministering angels only attend to [requests made in] Hebrew.

Rosh Berakhot 2:2 It seems to me that [the practice cited by R. Yonah] poses no difficulty, because it was specifically in [Aramaic] that R. Yehudah forbade making requests.

Shulḥan Arukh Orah Ḥayyim 101:4 1. One may recite tefillah in any language one chooses. This, however, is true only in public, but in private, one may only recite tefillah in Hebrew. (Rif) 2. Some say that [the ban on other languages] applies only to asking for one’s [personal] needs, such as praying for a sick person or regarding any other problem in one’s home, but the fixed tefillah recited in public may even be recited privately in any language. (Rabbis of France) 3. Some say that even an individual making private requests may do so in any language he chooses, except for Aramaic. (A lenient reading of Rosh)

Sefer Ḥasidim 588, R. Yehudah HeḤasid et al, Germany, 12th- 13th c. If you come across a man who does not understand Hebrew, and he is God-fearing and wshes to have proper intent, or a woman, tell them that they should learn the prayers in the language they understand, because prayer is only effective with an understanding mind, and if the mind does not understand, what possible effect could the words have when they come out of one’s mouth? Therefore, it is better to pray in the language that one understands.

Synopsis of Ḥatam Sofer 6:84, R. Moshe Sofer, Hungary, 19th c. Ruling: The permission to pray in a language other than Hebrew only applies on an ad hoc basis; one may not permanently have prayers in other languages. Reasons Given: The Men of the Great Assembly fixed the prayers in Hebrew, even though many people at the time did not speak Hebrew. Prayer was meant, in part, to address the absence of the Temple, and the Men of the Great Assembly chose the Hebrew words carefully in order to achieve these goals. Hebrew captures nuances and allusions that other languages do not. If the concern is that people do not understand, it is best to leave the prayers in Hebrew and to educate people, rather than to change the language of prayer. Hebrew is God’s language, used to address the prophets and to create the world. Anyone who deviates from established custom has the burden of proof.

  • Thanks Maurice - the opinions listed above vary, though. It kinda sounds, from some of them, that it's OK to daven in a different language as long as it's not Aramaic (which I can guarantee in my case :-)). How do we know what the consensus is? Is it necessarily the most recent opinion? – Yosef M Jan 31 at 18:45
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    I would lean towards a crash program to teach the angels new languages. :-) – Maurice Mizrahi Jan 31 at 22:15

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