Mendy Kaminker

Don’t read Hebrew? Don’t feel like a second-class Jew

As a Chabad Rabbi, I am often in awe of those who come to services.

Why? You might ask.

Is it because the sermons are long and boring? Well, I try to make them short and interesting (if I may say so).

Is it because the Kiddush is not good? On the contrary, the Kiddush is quite good. According to a recent review (given to me in Shul), “you should become a chef because the cholent is so good” 🙂

So why am I in awe?

Because the majority of the services are held in Hebrew.

And many of our congregants do not understand Hebrew.

Yes, we have beautiful Hebrew-English Siddurim, and we announce page numbers throughout the service. Yet, I am sure it’s not so easy to sit through the entire prayer without understanding Hebrew.

This is why I am in awe of them. Despite that challenge, they come, they show up and participate as much as they can.

Often I find that some Jews who don’t read Hebrew feel second-class citizens. As if not being able to pray and study Torah in its original language, means that they are somehow lesser of a Jew.

For those who might feel this way, here is a beautiful fact.

Exactly 3,294 years ago, on Rosh Chodesh Shevat, Moses stood in front of the Jewish people in the desert and translated the Torah to… 70 languages! Those 70 languages included all of the languages spoken at that point in history.

If I were to guess, I’d say that not many of those present at the desert were multilingual.

In other words, the entire Jewish people was just standing there, listening to Moses speaking in a language they didn’t understand, and then doing it again in another language, and again… for a total of 70 times!

What was the purpose of this?

The Rebbe explains that Moses wanted to imbue the translations with holiness.

If he taught the Torah exclusively in Hebrew, the translations might have been considered a foreign element, something that is not holy.

By being the first to offer a translation, Moses was sending a clear message: even if you don’t read Hebrew, the Torah you learn is holy. It is the same Torah, whichever language you can understand it.

No doubt, learning Hebrew has its benefits. Being able to read the Torah in the language given by G-d is of great value. Still, one should never feel demoralized by their lack of Hebrew knowledge.

This coming Monday is Rosh Chodesh Shevat. It was on that day, 3,294 years ago, that Moses translated the Torah. This day will forever be remembered in history as the day when the message was loud and clear: regardless of your language, the Torah is yours, forever.

About the Author
Rabbi Mendy Kaminker is the Chabad Rabbi of Hackensack, and an editorial member of
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