If I were to sit down with my prayer book, I could translate it. I know what the words mean, and I know what they are saying conceptually. However, when I'm praying, if I try to translate in my head I find that I have to go at a snail's pace - much slower than if I was just sitting there translating it - and I can't keep any kind of concentration besides. What's the way to bridge the gulf between translating and actually understanding?

Is it important to know what one is saying word for word throughout, or is it enough to be mindful of general concepts? What are some traditional methods for achieving the former?

  • Can you word this to ask for a more objective answer?
    – avi
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 6:18
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    @avi, The first part looks objective enough. It's asking for techniques. The second part should probably be asking for traditional rather than experiential responses.
    – Isaac Moses
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 14:15
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    I don't know how to make the first part more objective - I realize that it doesn't necessarily have one right answer and "encourages discussion", contrary to, say, stackoverflow, but I guess I had the impression that that wasn't so bad here. As for the second part, I think I can give it an edit.
    – yoel
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 17:28
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    Yes, sorry, I was mostly asking about the second part :) I hadn't realized there was an actual question in the first part, but I see it now.
    – avi
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 18:09
  • Dear editors: This question may be unclear. For example, the second sentence may be too long to be clear. Also, in that sentence, what do the terms "translate" and "translating" really mean? Please help clarify this question by editing it. Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 3:58

1 Answer 1


The question I believe can be broken rephrased into the following 2 questions.

  1. How does one understand the prayers rather than just know what they mean?
  2. How much understanding is needed when saying the prayers?

The answer to the first question is really very simple. One has to study the tefilot outside of shul and prayer. Learn the history of the tefilot, the changes in tefila from the time of the Mishna till today. Go into the sources of each bracha. One recent book which does this (reportedly well) is "The how and why of Jewish prayer" Reviewed here There are other books on the subject, but this is one I just read about recently which seems very good. Personally, I enjoy going back to mesechet berachot and looking at things there.

The second question is interesting. In mesechet berachot (50a) there is a discussion about Birchat Hamazon. It discussing various nusachot for the zimun, and mentions that people who say the wrong words are boors. It seems here to imply that if you don't say the exact right word, you will have the wrong conceptions of Gd and prayer and will be doing more harm than good. At first glance, both the boor and the correct nusach are saying the same thing, with slightly different grammatical forms, or synonyms. From this discussion it seems clear that the correct general concept is the most important, and the individual meaning of each word is not so important. Meaning, what is a correct nusach and an incorrect nusach is created by the meaning of the words as a whole, rather than the individual meanings of each word. (Both the boor and the talmud chacham say the same indivdual words, but the order they are in and the grammer makes the difference). Since you are reading from a siddur, there is no risk of making a mistake with the words, only with individual translations. So ensuring that you have the correct general concept is more important.

Certainly in chasidic circles, the story of the little boy who could not read hebrew, but could only read the alephbet during Yom kippur services, suggests that the exact words are the least important and the kavnah makes all the difference. (Even if you don't know any words at all to say) Note, this story is not meant to teach halacha, just rather the importance of kavana.

  • Re "Certainly in chasidic circles, the stories suggest that the exact words are the least important and the kavnah makes all the difference. (Even if you don't know any words at all to say)": Curious. As far as I know, there's a specific obligation to recite sh'ma, sh'mone esre, and various other prayers. While halachic works discuss what parts of these one must think about the meaning of while saying them (l'chat'chila or b'diavad), I seem to recall that no part of them can be said only in thought. If you concur, then perhaps you can clarify the intent of your answer.
    – msh210
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 19:33
  • Sure. I can see how that can be missleading.
    – avi
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 19:51
  • :-) Thanks. +1 for your answer to #1. Re #2, though, you infer from B'rachos that a change in wording that effects a change in meaning matters. But a small change in wording (as described there, "חיים" instead of "חיינו") effects just a small change in meaning ("they" instead of "we live by his goodness"), leaving the general concept of the t'fila as a whole intact. So this g'mara doesn't really address the question of whether general or detailed concentration on meaning is needed, only saying that detailed attention to wording is needed. That's how I see it, anyway.
    – msh210
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 20:10
  • The advice I have received is to work on infusing meaning into a small part of the davenning at a time. Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 20:35
  • "they" vs "we" is a huge conceptual difference. In pesach, one gets his teeth blunted, and the other gets given the afikomen :) The general concept of the tefilah is destroyed by saying 'they' (it is no longer a communal bracha said together at a meal, but a personal bracha said about others) Atleast, that is how I see the point of the gemorah there. Otherwise, why so harsh to call him a boor?
    – avi
    Commented Sep 13, 2011 at 21:21

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