Praying in Hebrew, Speaking in Tongues

The other day I was meeting with a friend and local Pentecostal minister (let’s call him “Diego”) when someone we mutually knew (let’s call him “Sam”) dropped by to say hello. After a few short pleasantries it was clear that our friend was struggling. He was looking for some spiritual guidance and when Diego asked if we could pray with him, Sam enthusiastically agreed.

God must work in funny ways because the conversation I was having with Diego when Sam dropped by was about Diego’s worship in his church. In particular he shared with me that there are times during his worship service when they speak in tongues, a practice I had never witnessed. Now, after Sam had asked for us to pray with him, I thought perhaps here’s my opportunity to witness some prayer being offered in tongues. Instead, Diego asked me to offer a prayer for Sam and as I was preparing to find the right words to offer both of them turned to me and said “and we would love it if you can do it in Hebrew.”

I paused, suddenly taken aback. I had become accustomed in the religious cultural setting of Perth Amboy to be a part of, and take an active role in, offering extemporaneous prayers. However, I always offer them in English instead of Hebrew. Outside of simply wanting the people listening to understand what I am saying, I have two reasons why I pray in English as opposed to Hebrew.

The first is very practical — my Hebrew isn’t good enough. Despite many years of studying Hebrew, countless experiences praying in Hebrew and even living in Israel for over two years, I never got to the point where I could speak Hebrew fluently so that I would not need to translate any of my thoughts from English to Hebrew.

This leads to the second reason why I pray extemporaneously in English as opposed to Hebrew — English, as opposed to Hebrew or Yiddish, is my mamaloshen (Yiddish for “mother tongue”). English is the language I use when I think, speak, yell, whisper or simply wonder about life, and because of that it is particularly appropriate for me when I feel the need to “pour out my soul” in prayer. Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1811) shared a similar sentiment in his great little book השתפכות הנפש (Hishtapkhut Hanefesh, translated as “Pouring Out of the Soul”) which seems to be addressing German Jews:

אמר כי עקר התפלה הוא דבקות לה’ יתברך. והיה טוב יותר להתפלל בלשון אשכנז שמדברים בו. כי כשמתפללים בלשון שמדברים בו, אזי הלב סמוך ודבוק מאד בדבורי התפלה (שיחותיו הקדושות, הכתובות בסוף הספר לקוטה-מוהר”ן, יג

He said that the essence of prayer is cleaving to God May He Be Blessed. And it is better to pray in ashkenaz (i.e. German), [the language] you speak in. Because when you pray in the language you speak, your heart connects and cleaves more to the words of prayer (Chapter 2 (Holy Teachings, Written in the end of the Collections of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav), 13).

I sincerely identify with Rabbi Nahman’s statement as I feel that some of my most powerful moments of prayer, especially when done extemporaneously, are crafted in my “ashkenaz,” my mamaloshen of English.

That doesn’t mean though that English is my natural language for Jewish prayer. Whether in shul (“synagogue”) or in the home, the language I speak most confidently in prayer is Hebrew because the mamaloshen of Jewish prayer is Hebrew. To engage in a Jewish prayer experience that lacks a substantial amount of Hebrew seems to be lacking in authenticity. Yet, despite the fact that training and experience has helped me understand many of the prayers, there are still a vast number of prayers I say on a regular basis which I don’t fully understand when I’m saying them. Kal vahomer (“all the more so”) is this the case for Jews who have received less religious education than I have, which invariably leads to a contradiction that has plagued the diasporic Jewish community for ages — Jewish prayer needs to include Hebrew but no matter how hard we try, we find it difficult to connect to Jewish prayer because we don’t understand the Hebrew!

Is there a way to answer this contradiction in a way that affirms the necessity of Hebrew for Jewish prayer, the recognition that Jewish education will only go so far to explain Hebrew prayers, and the need to pray which, as Rabbi Nahman points out, comes forth most naturally in our mother tongue? To answer this question, let me share with you how I answered Diego and Sam’s request to pray in Hebrew.

After taking a moment to think about what prayer I would offer in Hebrew, I chose a prayer for healing, known as m’shebeirakh laholim, since it offers prayers for strength and sustenance in times of struggle. As is my wont, I tried to translate the Hebrew as I prayed it so that Diego and Sam could know what I was saying and so I could include some Rabbi Nahman-inspired prayer from my mamaloshen. But when I tried to return to the Hebrew after my translation I got confused. The Hebrew words were not on the lips of my soul but in the recesses of my memory that memorized them from years of repetition, and I couldn’t find them in that moment. I racked my brain trying to find the right words, and then all of a sudden, as if by inspiration some other words from a prayer for forgiveness in the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”) came to my lips. I didn’t know where those words came from, I didn’t understand what I was saying as I said it, but it just came out as if my personal soul that yearns to pray and my Jewish soul that speaks in Hebrew were fused together in that moment.

As I concluded my prayer both Diego and Sam said they found it to be particularly moving. Personally I was upset that I messed up the original prayer, combining two together. But afterwards, reflecting on this experience I came to a realization that helps me answer the contradiction asked above: Praying in Hebrew is like speaking in tongues.

As I learned from my conversation with Diego, speaking in tongues occurs when the Holy Spirit enters your soul and speaks in a language that is unintelligible to human ears yet resonates with God as God’s mamaloshen. While there is an element of speaking in tongues which calls for a translation into the local “ashkenaz” (not so dissimilar from the ancient idea of publicly translating the Torah reading as it’s being read during the Jewish ritual), the experience of hearing “God’s language” powerfully connects the hearer to his or her Creator. That’s what Diego and Sam were reflecting after my prayer, that though they did not understand the words being said they felt as if it flowed from God directly into their souls. Perhaps that’s what those of us in the Jewish community need to think about when considering the importance of prayer – that Hebrew is not just a language that connects us to Judaism but it has a spiritual link to God. After all, in the Torah, God speaks in Hebrew. Thus perhaps we don’t need to know what every word means to feel the power of Hebrew in our souls.

At the same time there are moments when we want to express the prayer that is deep in our souls, the prayer that according to Rabbi Nahman helps us cleave to God. Yes, we need to find more opportunities, as Rabbi Nahman implores us, to pray in our mother tongue. But my experience of confusing the Hebrew prayers in my memory banks taught me that in those moments when I want to fuse Judaism with my need to pray, there are plenty of prayers solidified in my memory after constant repetition that allow me to pull whatever words God’s spirit wants me to recite, even if they don’t make sense to my mortal mind in that moment.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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13 thoughts on “Praying in Hebrew, Speaking in Tongues

  1. Thank you for sharing this moment with us, Ari! As I read about your experience, I thought: all of our prayers are translations. All of them. Even the ones where we think we understand the words. I think of how we store memory at a cellular level, passing memory in the cells of our DNA on to our children and grandchildren. Language changes over time, but the experience of the connection to God-Love-Spirit in those words, in the cadence and movement of our body as it utters them, all of that continues through the generations. God’s spirit is mysterious and how awesome that you were open to be present and connected with your friends!

    1. Liz, thanks for your comment! Yes, all prayer is translation from a language that is too mysterious to authentically put into words. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated with the idea of “tongues,” because it speaks to the practice of verbalizing the unintelligible language of prayer. At the same time, the satisfaction of putting meaningful “human” language to our prayers gives me another layer of understanding the meaning behind my prayer. This is why I am starting to enjoy praying in English.

  2. Ari! I love the honesty of this post. I am inspired by your deep thinking about language, translation, and prayer. And I so appreciate all the work you are doing in the world to connect people across boundaries.

    1. Thanks, Sue. You know better than I do that the more we learn about each other the more we discover about ourselves.

  3. G-od is one in the 3 Abrahamic deligions.

    Hebrew & Arabic are the languages of

    Paradise. Let’s pray all for peace and

    good health for all human beings. Shalom.

  4. You’ve managed to find and articulate legitimate and important roles for Hebrew and English in the religious life of a Jewish person, which I appreciate. It’s credible because it comes from your personal experience. And this is an excellent instance of how interfaith encounter actually strengthens one’s own faith. All around a heart-felt, useful, and inspiring piece. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Josh. One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed interfaith work/encounters is because it helps me understand, appreciate, and apply my faith in ways I couldn’t do on my own. Prayer is so important to the health of a religious lifestyle and encountering the ways people of other faiths pray helps my prayer life in immeasurable ways.

      Thanks again for the positive feedback!

  5. Hi Ari,

    I absolutely love this blog post. Although I was raised in the Christian Mennonite tradition, I have been associating myself with the Charismatic movement for a number of years. Your blog is a great reminder that speaking in tongues is often not about speaking in a foreign language, but rather it can mean a variety of different things to different people. I particularly appreciate that you mention Hebrew being God’s mother tongue. I couldn’t agree more. As a student of theology, I’ve learned the ancient Green and Hebrew and really understand what you are saying 🙂

    Thanks for sharing and looking forward to reading more posts from you 🙂

    1. Hi Deborah,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I appreciate the positive feedback. I’d love to hear more about your involvement with the Charismatic movement and in particular how the experience of speaking in tongues is different to different people. I’d love for us to build bridges using experiences that on the surface seem so dissimilar yet at their heart share a great deal.

      When it comes to Hebrew as God’s mother tongue, I admit that it should be taken in a literal way. My understanding and experience of God in my personal life is one that doesn’t contain sentences or commands in discreet words and letters. The closest I’ve come to an experience of God which included a command in words was when I believe God told me to become a rabbi. But what I believe I felt in that moment was a sense of clarity, that God was commanding me through an unmistakable presence, but I didn’t hear a voice say go be a rabbi. Rather, I heard my voice say “go be a rabbi” as a response to that presence.

      So what do I mean when I say Hebrew is God’s mother tongue? I mean two things — First that the most ancient text teaching us about God that my tradition holds sacred is written in Hebrew and thus God’s voice is recorded in Hebrew. This is important because our tendency as thinkers is to consider older forms of literature/decision making as more reliable than newer writings because the older writings have withstood the test of time. Think about the importance of “legal precedent” in secular jurisprudence and in religious decision making (like the Jewish law code of “halakhah”). Thus, if I want the most reliable/original source for understanding God, I turn to the Hebrew in the Bible.

      The second reason that Hebrew is God’s mother tongue is because the Hebrew used in the Bible is just as mysterious as it is clear. There are many ideas that are “hidden” within the words of the text, and our job is to go after them and discover them. There is a great teaching about Rabbi Akiba, who believed that every “jot and tittle” in the Torah meant something special. Some of his contemporaries did not like the way he would hang an important life or death decision on the size or drawing of a particular letter in the Torah. But the very fact he DID make decisions on those interpretations is because the Hebrew allows for a great many kinds of interpretations. You can’t understand the Bible by just reading it, you have to delve deeper into it. You have to go into the mysteries hidden within the words because God is more real in mystery than in clarity.

  6. Hi Ari,

    Thanks for your clarification and for expounding upon the notion of Hebrew as God’s Mother Tongue.

    In terms of my own charismatic experience, I grew up in a faith tradition which not only did not believe in tongues, but also was against it. So for the majority of my life I did not believe it was possible to speak in this way. One day, I received the gift of tongues during a Pentecostal worship service and since that time my life has been changed dramatically. I do not speak in tongues that often, but when I do, it is the closest I ever feel to God. Thank you for your thoughts. I will enjoy reading more from you in other posts 🙂

    1. Deborah,

      Thank you for sharing your story about receiving the gift of tongues. It’s really powerful and I’m thrilled that it’s led you to feel closer to God. Looking forward to discussing this more at some point!

      Take care,

      ari

  7. Learning Hebrew is excellent. Because it is a major languge. Why? It is the language of yahuah. When he spoke to Moshe on mt. Sinai.

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