The Language of Jewish Prayer

Sunday, April 19, 2009

In what language do Jews pray? Until the 19th century, the universal language of prayer in Judaism was Hebrew. The rabbis of the first centuries permitted prayer in other languages if Hebrew was unknown. For instance, we hear that Jews in the Greek city of Caesarea, actually said the Shema in Greek. The rabbis, however, always preferred Hebrew. This was the common language of Jewish as well as religious literature. In many ways, it was one of the most important unifying factors. Jews might not speak the same language on a daily basis, but they would pray in the same language.

When we arrived to the 19th century, this became an issue. In particular, among the reform movement in Germany, Jews raised the question of language. The issue was not only regarding prayer in Hebrew, but the sermon. In fact, this was even more important.

While most of traditional jury maintained Hebrew as primary language of prayer, other groups began to introduce some more portions of prayer in other languages. What is interesting is that in the 20th century, the revival of the Hebrew language as part of the Jewish national movement led to an enhanced use of Hebrew even among non-orthodox groups. In other words, Hebrew received some sort of renaissance in prayer.

Poetry and Prayer

Liturgy in Judaism has a basic structure to it. It was, however, constantly enhanced. In different periods of Jewish history, additions found their way into the liturgy. For instance, in the byzantine period, in Palestine and later in Muslim Spain, poets would write prayers. They would bring them into the synagogue and they would not just offer these to be read, they would actually recite them. I can almost say that they performed them.

Quite frankly, the community did not always understand these compositions. They required a very precise knowledge of Hebrew, what even more familiarity with the corpus of biblical and rabbinic literature. They are full of allusions to them. These are, however, some of the most beautiful prayers that we have today. Moreover, certain calamities throughout Jewish history, such as the destruction of European communities during the Crusades period, also encouraged the composition of poems that were recited on certain days of mourning.