As the High Holidays approach, one may ask if it is better to pray in Hebrew or in a language that we understand.
The Talmud, Sotah 32a states which prayers must be in Hebrew and which ones can be said in any language.
These may be said in any language: Parshat Sotah, Vidui Maaser (Confession of the tithes), Shma, Tefilla (Shmoneh Esrei), Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals), Shvuat HaEidut (Oath of Testimony), Shvuat HaPikadon (Oath of Deposit).
These must be said in Hebrew: The Bikurim Recitation (recited when bringing of the first fruits to the Kohen), Chalitza Declarations (the statement that a woman makes if she does not wish to marry her brother in law), The Blessings and the Curses, Birkat Kohanim (The Priestly Blessing), Birkat Kohen Gadol (The Blessing of the High Priest), Parshat HaMelech (The blessing of the king during Hakhel, the assembly ceremony), Parshat Egla Arufa (Passage of the Decapitated Calf) and the address of the Kohen anointed for war when he speaks to the people.
Bikurim and The Blessings and the Curses are found in Parshat Ki Tavo. Most of the other prayers which must be recited in Hebrew are also found in the Book of Devarim, either in the past few Parshiot, Shoftim and Ki Tetze or in Parshat Vayelech which we will be reading in two weeks.
The Talmud explains why the Bikurim passage must be recited in Hebrew:
The Torah states regarding Bikurim (Dvarim 26:5): “You shall speak up and say before HaShem, your God” and it states later (Dvarim 27:14) regarding the blessings and the curses recited at Mt. Grizim and Mt. Eval, “The Leviim shall speak up and say” since both verses use similar wording, it is considered a gzeirah shavah and we derive from there that just as the blessings and the curses must be recited in Hebrew, so too, the Bikurim must be recited in Hebrew.
If we go back to what does not have to be recited in Hebrew, we find many of our daily prayers including Shma, Shmoneh Esrei and Birkat HaMazon.
The Shma, “Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is One” begins with the word “Hear.” The rabbis taught that the word “Hear” teaches that we can say the Shma in any language as we must hear, understand what we are saying (in this case we are affirming that there is one God).
In the Shmoneh Esrei, we request Divine mercy. It is important for us to know what we are saying.
The Birkat HaMazon is derived from one sentence in the Torah “And you will eat and be satisfied and bless HaShem, your God.” Rashi points out that the Torah does not record a specific text so there is no problem reciting it in a language other than Hebrew.
What we learn from here is that aside from certain prayers, many of which are only observed at very specific times, most of our regular prayers do not have to be recited in Hebrew if the person who is praying will not understand what they are saying. Prayer is a conversation with God. We must understand our side of the conversation.
The ideal would be to make an effort to learn enough Hebrew in order to understand the prayers in the original or the use a Hebrew/English Siddur where one can glance at the English before reciting the Hebrew. Israelis have the advantage of already being familiar with the language even if the prayers are written in a more poetic form.
As the High Holidays approach, this is a good time to take out your Machzors (High Holiday prayer books) and start to review the prayers so that you will already be familiar with them before you get to the synagogue. This will maximize your kavana (intent) and your prayer experience in general.