In the late 19th century the British chief rabbi responded to agitation for prayers in English by ruling that the whole of the synagogue service had to be in Hebrew, with no English allowed except for items such as the Prayer for the Royal Family, and, once a month, the Ten Commandments in place of a sermon.
Maybe he was not aware that some congregations read the Book of Jonah in English on Yom Kippur – a European minhag carried to far-off parts of the British empire such as Sydney, and expanded by reading other haftarot in English on some Sabbaths and festivals.
However, those who wanted more prayers in English still complained that they knew no Hebrew and could not identify with the Siddur and the service.
Actually there were a number of precedents for praying in the vernacular. The London Sephardim used Ladino for parts of the ritual; Kaddish as well as Kol Nidrei and some of the Haggadah were in Aramaic; and ancient times had a meturgeman who rendered the scriptural readings into Aramaic.
The Talmud reports that Rabbah b. Bar Chana said: “When we followed Rabbi Elazar to ask after an invalid, he would sometimes say in Hebrew, ‘May God visit you in peace’; at other times he said in Aramaic, ‘May God remember you in peace’. How could he act so? Did not Rabbi Yehudah say, ‘One should not ask for his needs in Aramaic’? Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘When one asks for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels do not heed him, for they do not know Aramaic!’ – An invalid it is different, because the Divine Presence is with him (and the angels’ help is not needed)” (Shab. 12b; cf. Sotah 33a).
Now Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yochanan were from Eretz Yisra’el. Rabbah b. Bar Chana came from Babylonia to study in Rabbi Yochanan’s academy. Rabbi Elazar was also a Babylonian who came to Eretz Yisra’el. All of them knew Aramaic, so how could they object to using that language for prayer and claim that the angels had a blind spot about it except for Gabriel, who was a linguist (Sotah 33a)?
The Talmudic passage seems to have issues with 1. angels, 2. Aramaic, and 3. communal prayer.
Though we have no doctrine of angelology and the Mishnah does not mention angels, the common folk believed in angelic powers and in time of illness they clutched at straws, though the more rational circles feared the emergence of an angel-cult. Eventually the liturgy admitted references to prayers being ushered in by angels (e.g. bammarom yelamm’du and machnisei rachamim).
Is it true, however, that the angels do not know Aramaic? Note that the text does not say yod’im, “know”, but makkirim, “have a high regard for”, as in Ruth 2:19, yehi makkirech baruch.
The second issue is Aramaic itself. It was not that the angels could not learn the language, but if it were allowed in heaven there were fears that it would displace Hebrew on earth (Neh. 13:24), so people were told to pray in the language of the Bible.
Major prayers like the Amidah, which in theory could be said in any language (Sotah 33a), were so well known that there was little temptation to say them in Aramaic, but life-cycle events like serious illness were less common, and those who prayed for sick people were anxious to use the most effective possible words.
Hence it was ruled that “a person may pray in any language he chooses when he prays with the congregation, but if he prays alone he should do so in Hebrew.” An individual needed the help of the angels, who preferred Hebrew: but the prayers of the congregation went direct to God and needed no angelic support.
Further, Aramaic was the language of the street. It was not elevated or pure enough for prayer though it could be used for study. The Bible itself had Aramaic sections (e.g. Gen. 31:47, Jer. 10:11, Daniel, and Ezra), and Biblical readings could be paraphrased in Aramaic provided they were read in Hebrew first. People were told, though, that if they prayed in Aramaic the angels could not help and the prayers might not work.
Later generations, schooled in Targum and Talmud, had a higher regard for Aramaic; popular prayers like Kaddish were offered in that tongue, and the halachah stated that the Haggadah could be read in any language one understood.
The conclusion has to be that languages other than Hebrew can only be substitutes. Some people find them user-friendly, but this risks splitting Jewish unity and losing touch with the phrases and feelings of the Hebrew original.
The codes strongly oppose using a vernacular for the statutory services, though personal prayers and complex non-statutory items like the piyyutim may be different (Aruch HaShulchan, Orach Chayyim 101:4, 185:2-3; 62:4).
People who make the effort to learn Hebrew find that even the best translation has considerable limitations. I know the problem well, and despite years of teaching and translating classical Hebrew, I am still never sure that I have found the right English word for a Hebrew phrase.
This article originally appeared in the magazine of the Bet Yosef Synagogue, Jerusalem, Pesach 5772 – 2012.