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Is it okay to say prayers in Hebrew if you do not know what you are saying?

by Mark S. Railey
Aug. 19, 2021

The Tanakh/Bible forbids us to pray from dry/emotionless rote and also forbids us from pursuing the desire to attract attention to our proud righteousness. (Eccl. 5:2-3, 7; Matt. 6:5-8). This means we should not say prayers in Hebrew simply because we memorized them without knowing what the words mean - that would be like saying them by rote. Likewise, this means we should not become proud because we have learned how to say a prayer in Hebrew. Our prayers must never become like a magical incantation - if you say certain words, in a certain way, G-d will be forced to act on your behalf. Since G-d created the world out of nothing (Gen. 1), He is not dependent upon the world for His existence or activities. So, He is not obliged to do what you say. Remember, G-d knows what we need before we pray it (Matt. 6:8) and according to Acts 17, G-d does not live in Temples nor is He served by human hands as though He needed anything. That is to say, G-d does not need us so that He can be G-d (Acts 17:24-25). Indeed, the Shema tells us that G-d is Echad (One) even without us (Deut. 6:4).


The proper motive for prayer is through the humility captured by Daniel in Daniel 9:18-19, "O my God, incline Your ear and hear! Open Your eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Your name; for we are not presenting our supplications before You on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Your great compassion."


In fact, prayers do not need to follow a particular set of words! We can create prayers on our own. The Hasidim focus everything on love, joy, and humility. The Baal Shem Tov's great-grandson, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), taught that it was okay to speak to God in your own words. He called this Hitbodedut (self-seclusion) and advised setting aside an hour to do this every day (Likutei Moharan 2:25). Essentially, Nachman suggested getting alone with G-d in a garden.


The Christian tradition includes a Quiet Time, rooted in the "Morning Watch," with its emphasis on intercessory prayer. During the Quiet Time, the child of G-d approaches the Father with the intent to know Him more and to know His desires for the day.


One popular Christian hymn that captures this idea is titled "In the Garden." The lyrics include the words "Son of God." If you want you could change the words to "Lord, so near" and recall the Garden of Eden.


I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses, And the voice I hear falling on my ear The Son of God discloses.


Refrain: And He walks with me, and He talks with me, And He tells me I am His own; And the joy we share as we tarry there, None other has ever known.


He speaks, and the sound of His voice Is so sweet the birds hush their singing, And the melody that He gave to me Within my heart is ringing.


I’d stay in the garden with Him, Though the night around me be falling, But He bids me go; through the voice of woe His voice to me is calling.


If you desire a personal relationship with G-d as Father and to know His desires for the day, then it is okay to learn the meaning of Hebrew words and to make the prayer your own.


Here is a morning prayer (Modeh Ani) that you can adapt to say whenever you mean it:


Hebrew: .מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה; רבה אמונתך


Transliteration: Modeh Ani L’fanecha Melech Chai V’kayam Shehechezarta Bi Nishmati B'chemla Raba Emunatecha


Translation: I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.


A way to adapt this prayer might be to exclude the third line ("for You have mercifully restored my soul within me") so that the pray becomes:


"I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for Your faithfulness is great!"


Now feel free to say that prayer whenever you like. And, by all means, speak to G-d from your heart, saying whatever your heart desires.

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