Contemporary American Reform Responsa
135. English Torah
QUESTION: It has been a minhag in the
congregation to recite the Torah blessing in Hebrew, although a major segment of the
rest of the service is in English. Recently the Torah blessings were recited in English, to
the dismay of a number of congregants. Should the congregation insist that they be recited in
Hebrew by all who are called to the Torah? (I. A., Pittsburgh, PA)
Two separates issues are involved here. One is the use of the vernacular in prayer, and
these prayers in particular, and second, what weight is to be given to congregational minhag
(custom). Let us begin with the matter of prayers in the vernacular.
It is clear that
a large proportion of our people were no longer familiar with Hebrew, even in the time of Ezra
and Nehemiah (Neh. 8:8), so the Scriptural reading had to be translated for them. By the time of
the Mishnah, the common people no longer used Hebrew, therefore, the shema,
tefilah and the birkhat hamazon were permitted in the vernacular (M.
Sotah 7.1). This, then, also was the later decision of the Talmud (Sotah 32b ff); it enabled
individuals who recited petitions to pray sincerely and with full knowledge of what they were
saying. A parallel stand was taken by later authorities, so the Sefer Hassidim of the
eleventh century (#588 and #785) stated that those who did not understand Hebrew should pray
in the vernacular. Maimonides provided a similar statement (Yad Hil. Ber. 1.6), while the
Tur and Shulhan Arukh made a distinction between private and public prayers.
Private prayers were preferably said in Hebrew, while those in the congregation might be recited
in the vernacular. They expressed a preference but did not exclude the vernacular in either
instance (Tur Orah Hayim 101; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 101.4). Aaron Cho~in,
Eliezer Lieberman and others, who defended the changes made by the Reform Movement in the
last century, and its use of the vernacular, however, insisted that a number of prayers should
continue to be recited in Hebrew (Qinat Ha-emet; Or Nogah, Part I). Of course,
they felt that nothing stood in the way of using the vernacular.
Although there is no
discussion about the Torah blessing particularly, it is clear that they may be recited in any
language, according to the traditional view, and certainly according to our Reform
Custom (minhag) has had an honored status in Jewish life for a very long
time. Both the Mishnah and Talmud discuss the customs (minhagim) of the
people and suggest that a variety of rites be guided by them (Ber. 45b; Pes. 66a; Sof. 14.18).
Naturally, customs which were accepted had to lie within the general framework of Jewish life
and be followed by respected individuals. In subsequent centuries, the minhag has played
an ever increasing role in Jewish life, so that Isserles was able to state: “No custom should be
abolished,” (Isserles to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayim 690.17; Yoreh Deah 376.4). Isserles,
of course, listed hundreds of customs in his notes to Caro’s work.
Generally the mood
of modern Judaism has been very much in keeping with this tradition, and we have felt that
customs are binding and should be followed whenever possible.
If it is the custom of
the congregation to recite the Torah blessings in Hebrew, then every effort should be
made to continue this practice. This should, however, not totally exclude those who can not
recite the Hebrew blessings. If they are sufficiently young, they should be encouraged to study
Hebrew in preparation for the next occasion when they may be asked to participate. If they are
older, then perhaps an English recitation should be permitted despite the minhag.
Another solution would be for the rabbi to recite the berakhah in Hebrew for
individuals unable to do so, while they read the English translation.
If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.