01 – Fundamentals of the Laws of Prayer

01 – Prayer

Prayer is one of the principal expressions of belief in Hashem. People are not perfect; they are flawed and long to improve themselves. They therefore turn to the Creator of the World in prayer.

Human imperfection is apparent on two levels. Most people only feel a need to pray to Hashem when their daily routines are disrupted. For example, when someone is ill or injured and his pain intensifies, when he understands that all the doctors in the world cannot guarantee his health and well-being, and only HaKadosh Baruch Hu, in Whose hands is the soul of every living thing, can cure him and grant him a long happy life – then he prays to Hashem from the depths of his heart to heal him. So it is, whenever a calamity befalls a person, his livelihood suffers, enemies rise against him, or his close friends turn their backs on him. He then understands how the good things in his life hang in a balance and he turns to Hashem to help and save him. However, when daily routines function in their usual proper manner, most people do not detect anything missing and generally do not feel a need to pray to Hashem.

Those who delve more deeply understand that even their everyday lives are not perfect. Even when they are healthy and earning a steady income, their family life is good, their friends are loyal and the situation in their country is stable, even then, perceptive people sense their existential inadequacy. They know that their lives are limited and even if all goes well, there will come a day when they die of old age. Now, too, when they are young and strong, they are unable to comprehend everything in their lives, and not everything turns out the way they intended. They cannot achieve all of their aspirations or fully attain even one goal. Out of this sense of inadequacy, they turn to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, the God of the heavens and the earth, the only One Who can redeem them from their imperfection. By connecting with God in prayer, people begin the process of fulfillment and redemption.

02 – The Prayers of Our Ancestors and Prophets

We learn in the Tanach that whenever our ancestors and the prophets needed help, they turned to Hashem in prayer.

Avraham Avinu stood in prayer and begged that Sodom not be destroyed. Hashem answered him that if there were ten righteous people in Sodom the city would be saved. But ten righteous people were not to be found there, and Sodom was demolished (Genesis 18). Childless for many years, Yitzchak Avinu and Rivkah Imeinu, pleaded to Hashem in prayer and were answered with the birth of Yaakov and Eisav (Genesis 25). Yaakov Avinu prayed for Hashem to save him from his brother, Eisav, who set out against him with four hundred warriors, and he was answered and saved (Genesis 32). Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Hashem’s wrath rose up against the nation of Israel, and Moshe Rabbeinu prayed intensely until Hashem canceled the decree of disaster that He had threatened to bring on His people (Exodus 32). When Miriam, Moshe’s sister, fell ill with leprosy, Moshe stood and prayed, “Kel na refa na lah” (“O God, please heal her!”) and she was healed (Numbers 12). To turn back a Heaven-sent plague, Aharon used the incense to pray, and the plague ceased (Numbers 17). After the army of Israel was defeated by Ai, Hashem heard Yehoshua’s prayers and guided him to correct the sin of Achan, after which they won their next battles (Joshua 7). When the Philistines waged war against Israel, Shmuel cried out to Hashem for help on behalf of the nation. In answer, Hashem led him and Israel to defeat and conquer the Philistines (I Samuel 7). David, the king of Israel, would often pray to Hashem; his prayers eventually became the Book of Psalms. After Shlomoh finished building the Temple, he prayed that the Shechinah dwell therein, and that all people who pray there would be answered, and Hashem accepted his prayer (I Kings 8-9). When Eliyahu the Prophet fought against the false prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel, he prayed that fire would descend from the sky and so it transpired (I Kings 18). Likewise, Elisha the Prophet prayed to Hashem that He revive the son of the Shunamite woman, and the boy came back to life (II Kings 4). When Chizkiyah faced death from his disease, he too prayed to Hashem and was cured (II Kings 20).

One of the prayers that left a lasting impression on all generations is the prayer of Chanah. Barren for years, she would often pray at the Tabernacle in Shiloh and was the first to refer to Hashem in her prayer by the holy name “Tzevakot.” Eventually, she merited a son, none other than Shmuel the Prophet (I Samuel 2). Shmuel the Prophet is said to have been equal to Moshe and Aharon. Through Moshe and Aharon, the word of Hashem was revealed in the transcendental miraculous life of the Jews in the desert and through Shmuel, the word of Hashem was revealed in the tangible reality of the nation of Israel living in Eretz Yisrael. Shmuel unified the nation, founded the kingdom of David, reared a generation of prophets in Israel, and through his inspiration the Temple was built. Shmuel’s great and lofty soul was difficult to bring it down to earth and Chanah needed to pray intensely until she was worthy of giving birth to him. Her prayer is so important that Chazal learn numerous laws from it (Berachot 31a).

3 – The Effect of Prayer

HaKadosh Baruch Hu established a law in Creation, that when we awaken in the world below to approach the Almighty and request a blessing from Him, He, in turn, is aroused from above to bring upon us an abundance of good, according to our needs and the requirements of the world. This is mentioned in the Zohar HaKadosh in many places.

In other words, even when people are worthy that Hashem shower them with goodness, sometimes the giving is delayed until they feel the weight of their hardships and pray to Hashem from the depths of their hearts.

There are two types of prayer.

The first is for the continual existence of the world; without prayer, the world would cease to exist. This kind of prayer parallels the Tamid sacrifice, the merit of which sustains the heavens and the earth (see Ta’anit 27b).

The second type of prayer concerns specific circumstances, such as when disaster strikes and people pray for salvation, or when people pray for something they desire.

Every prayer has an influential effect, as Rabbi Chanina says, “Whoever lengthens his prayer, his prayers do not return unanswered” (Berachot 32b). Sometimes the effect is immediate, and other times in the distant future; sometimes the prayer is answered completely, other times partially. As Chazal say (Devarim Rabbah 8:1), “Great is prayer before HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Rabbi Elazar says, If you want to know the power of prayer – if it does not accomplish everything, it achieves half.” HaKadosh Baruch Hu is the One Who knows how to help and support a person. Sometimes, for various reasons, a person’s misfortune is for his own good, and therefore Hashem does not accept his prayer. Nevertheless, his prayer benefits him, and its blessing will be revealed in one way or another.

Even the most righteous people, whose prayers were generally accepted, sometimes went unanswered. For instance, even though Hashem accepted Moshe Rabbeinu’s prayers to forgive the Nation and annul His decree of destruction when Israel sinned by creating the Golden Calf and sending out spies who returned with a negative report about the Land of Israel, (Exodus 32 and Numbers 14) when Moshe came to beg on behalf of himself to merit entering the Land, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said to him, “Enough! Do not talk to me further about this matter” (Deuteronomy 3:26).

Therefore, a person must exert himself greatly in prayer, and not assume that since he is praying, HaKadosh Baruch Hu must fulfill his request. Rather, he should continue praying, knowing that HaKadosh Baruch Hu hears his prayers and that his prayers are most certainly doing some good, although how much, and in what way, are unknown.

04 – Is Prayer a Biblical Obligation?

The Rishonim disagree as to whether there is a biblical commandment (mitzvah m’d’oraita) to pray every day. According to the Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvot, mitzvah 5), there is a biblical commandment to pray daily, as it says (Exodus 23:25), “Serve God your Lord,” and (Deuteronomy 6:13) “Remain in awe of God, serve Him.” Although these verses contain a general commandment to serve Hashem, they also include a specific commandment to pray. The Chachamim interpreted ‘service’ (avodah) to mean prayer, as it is written (Deuteronomy 11:13), “Love God your Lord and serve Him with all your heart,” and they explained (Ta’anit 2a), “What is serving with the heart? You must say, [it means] prayer.” By praying once a day, a person fulfills his biblical obligation to pray. To fulfill one’s obligation, one must commence his prayer with praise to Hashem; after that ask for what he needs; and conclude by thanking Hashem for the good He has bestowed upon him. The Torah does not specify how long one’s prayers must be. Therefore, some shorten their prayers and others lengthen them, yet they all fulfill their biblical obligation (Rambam Tefillah 1:2-3).

However, according to the Ramban (Hasagot on Sefer HaMitzvot), there is no biblical obligation to pray every day, because, in his opinion, the extrapolation from the verses that the Rambam mentions is not complete, but rather only an asmachta (reference). Anshei Knesset HaGedolah instituted the daily prayers. Only during times of trouble is there a biblical commandment to pray to Hashem, as we learn from the mitzvah of the trumpets (chatzotzrot), where it says (Numbers 10:9), “When you go to war against an enemy that attacks you in your land, you shall sound a teruah (short blasts) on the trumpets. You will then be remembered before God your Lord, and will be delivered from your enemies.”

Hence, according to all opinions, there is a biblical obligation to pray in times of trouble. Therefore, anyone who finds himself, or his friend, in a state of crisis is required to add a special request for assistance in his prayer, since it is a biblical commandment to pray to Hashem that He save him from that trouble. All the more so when the public or the nation is in danger; it is a mitzvah for the tzibur (public) to pray a communal prayer; Chazal even instituted fast days for that reason.

05 – The Institution of Prayer by Anshei Knesset HaGedolah

Anshei Knesset HaGedolah instituted the prayers and the blessings (Berachot 33a). They established the wording of the Shemoneh Esrei and decided on the phrasing of all the berachot, including Birkot Keriat Shema and Birkot HaNehenin (blessings recited upon deriving pleasure from something). They also instituted the recital of the three daily prayers, Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’arivShacharit and Minchah as obligatory and Ma’ariv as optional.[1]

The members of the court of Ezra HaSofer, which was established in the beginning of the time of the Second Temple, are called Anshei Knesset HaGedolah. This was the biggest court ever founded in Israel. It was comprised of 120 elders, among them prophets and sages, such as, Chagai, Zechariah, Malachi, Daniel, Chananyah, Misha’el, Azariah, Nechemiah the son of Chachaliah, Mordechai, Bilshan, and Zerubavel, as well as many other sages, the last one being Shimon HaTzaddik (Rambam’s introduction to Mishneh Torah).

During the time of the First Temple, Am Yisrael merited supreme spiritual accomplishments; the Shechinah dwelled in the Temple and the devoutly pious of Israel merited prophecy. Despite this, throughout most of the nation, grave sins including idol worship, forbidden relations and murder, were widespread and eventually caused the Temple to be destroyed and the nation of Israel to be exiled. Hence, when they were able to build the Second Temple, Anshei Knesset HaGedolah formed a supreme court, set boundaries to guard the laws of the Torah, instituted religious guidelines, and worded and arranged the prayers and berachot. They created a full framework for Jewish life which gave expression to the values of the Torah in an organized and established manner within everyday living, thereby distancing the nation from sin and bringing them closer to serving Hashem.

Even in the time of the First Temple the nation of Israel prayed to Hashem and thanked Him for all the good and blessing they received. However, that prayer did not have an organized wording. Since there was no exact text, the righteous and devout people would pray and recite berachot with great kavanah (intent), but the masses of the nation would exempt themselves with superficial prayers. Indeed, passionate prayer from the heart in one’s own words is the ideal method of prayer. Yet, in actuality, the routine concerns of everyday life wear us out, and without regular organized prayers, the public gradually drifts away from prayer services and eventually from Hashem. Following the establishment of the prayers and their fixed wording, all of Israel started to pray, and as a result, faith in Hashem intensified. This is what preserved the nation’s devotion, which remained a burning flame in the darkness of exile for two thousand years

Moreover, during the time of the First Temple, many people mistakenly thought that by offering sacrifices, their sins would be forgiven and they would merit Hashem’s blessing, even if they did not purify their hearts and correct their transgressions. The truth is that faith in Hashem, purification of the heart, and correcting one’s actions are of principal importance, as it says (Deuteronomy 10:12), “What does Hashem want of you? Only that you remain in awe of Hashem your God, so that you will follow all His paths and love Him, serving Hashem your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” The prophets severely condemned those who believed that the essence was to bring sacrifices without possessing and demonstrating true devotion to Hashem. As it is written (Isaiah 1:11-13), “‘Why do I need all your sacrifices?’ God asks. ‘I am sated with your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts [brought without repentance or sincerity], and I have no desire for the blood of cattle, sheep, and goats. When you appear before Me, who asked you to do this, trampling My courts? Do not bring any more vain offerings; the incense of abomination they are to Me….’” By instituting the prayers, Anshei Knesset HaGedolah restored the proper order to serving Hashem, reminding us that faith, intent, and devotion are the basis of our lives, and they are expressed most appropriately via prayer, just as Rabbi Elazar said, “Prayer is greater than sacrifices” (Berachot 32b). With that in mind, we pray that we should be worthy of expressing our devotion to Hashem completely, both in prayer and in sacrifice.


[1]. In Megillah 17b, it is told that Shimon Hapakuli arranged the eighteen berachot before Rabban Gamliel in the proper order, and a beraita is brought which clarifies the order of the berachot according to scriptural verses. A question is raised there, 18a: After Anshei Knesset HaGedolah instituted them, what was left for Shimon Hapakuli to arrange? The Gemara answers that they were forgotten and Shimon Hapakuli went back and rearranged them. One may ask, how can it be that the wording of the prayer that they were obligated to recite every day had been forgotten? The Shitah Mekubetzet resolves this question in Berachot 28b saying that they merely forgot the order of the berachot, which is what Shimon Hapakuli then restored. In the Rach’s and Me’iri’s version there is no mention in the Gemara that Shimon Hapakuli arranged anything in the Shemoneh Esrei, and hence there is no question or answer about that.

See further in this book 18:10, concerning the addition of the LaMalshinimberachah. Likewise, see further in this book chapter 2, note 1, in the words of the Mabit, the reason for the institution of the minyan by Anshei Knesset HaGedolah is that it replaced the Shechinah which was revealed through the sacrifices.

06 – The Standardized Wording (Nusach)

Establishing a uniform wording, which repeats itself throughout the three daily prayers, created a certain disadvantage. As a result, prayer is liable to become routine and a person is apt to lose the kavanah that is aroused within him when he prays before Hashem in his own words. On the other hand, had Chazal not established a fixed wording, though the righteous would pray beautiful and sincere prayers from the depths of their hearts, most people would pray brief and inadequate prayers.

The Rambam explains (Hilchot Tefillah 1:4) that especially after the destruction of the First Temple and the exile of Israel among the nations, the problem worsened. Many Jews lost their proficiency in Hebrew, the language of prayer.  At the same time, in other languages, no appropriate wording for prayer existed. Therefore, Anshei Knesset HaGedolah established the wording for all the berachot and prayers so that they would be fluent in every mouth, and so that the subject of every berachah would be clear to all.

Another advantage to a fixed wording of prayer is that it includes all the general and specific requests for which it is proper to pray. Without an organized wording, every person would pray about a particular topic of personal importance. Doctors would pray for the health of their patients, farmers would pray for rain, and with time, every Jew would likely pray only for the matters close to his or her heart, while distancing oneself from the collective aspirations of the nation. Therefore, the Chachamim instituted eighteen berachot, which incorporate all of Am Yisrael’s goals, both material and spiritual. In so doing, every person praying three times each day balances his personal ambitions and unites them with the overall desires of the nation.

In addition to the actual meaning of the content of our supplications, the wordings of the prayers possess innumerable profound meanings, a few of which are clarified in the wisdom of the Kabbalah. As Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin writes (Nefesh HaChaim 2:10), “And the wise person will understand on his own why 120 sages, among them prophets, were needed to institute a small plea or short prayer. Through Divine inspiration and supreme prophecy, they grasped the order of creation and the deep mysteries of the ‘pirkei merkavah.’ This is why they established and instituted a formula for the berachot and the prayers using these specific words – for they observed and understood in which way the light of each individual word would illuminate the powers of creations, and how each formula was absolutely necessary to properly rectify transcendental spiritual worlds, supreme forces, and the ‘siddur merkavah.’”

Further, he writes (ibid., 2:13) that all the explanations which have been revealed to us by the Arizal and other holy figures are only a drop in the sea compared to the depth of the inner intentions of Anshei Knesset HaGedolah, who instituted the prayers. Through the prophecy and Divine inspiration that appeared to them when they established the wording of the prayers and berachot, they successfully included in concise form the rectification of all the worlds (tikun ha’olamot) in such a way that every day new repairs (tikunim) are amended.

07 – Establishing Three Prayers

In addition to the special prayers that our forefathers prayed during times of trouble, they also fixed set times when they prayed to Hashem (Berachot 26b). Avraham Avinu initiated the Shacharit morning prayer. He was the one who originally illuminated the world with his belief, and accordingly set the time of his prayer when the sun starts to rise. Yitzchak Avinu founded the Minchah afternoon prayer. Yitzchak had the unique ability to continue in the way of Avraham his father. Sometimes it is easier to break away onto a new path rather than carry on in the same one. Yitzchak’s strength was that he remained in the path of faith, corresponding to the Minchah prayer, which expresses continuity, for the whole day is sustained by the power of faith. Yaakov Avinu formulated the Ma’ariv evening prayer because Yaakov dealt with many hardships and complications, yet from each of them he emerged stronger. He therefore established the nighttime prayer, since, even in the dark when reality is clouded, it is possible to connect to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, thereby revealing the supreme eternal light.

After the forefathers paved the way with these prayers, there were devout and righteous people who followed in their path and prayed Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv. As King David said (Psalms 55:17-18), “As for me, I call out to the Lord, and God saves me. Evening, morning, and noon, I express my grief and moan aloud, and He hears my voice.”

Following in the custom of our forefathers, Anshei Knesset HaGedolah established the three prayers, Shacharit and Minchah as obligatory, and Ma’ariv as optional. They were set up to correspond to the communal offerings, since the prayers came to express the inner significance of the sacrifices. Since the prayers were established to correspond to the sacrifices, the times of the prayers were set according to the times of the offerings (as explained further in this book 11:4, 11:11, 24:3-4, and 25:2).

Because the Tamid sacrifices of the morning and of the afternoon were obligatory, Shacharit and Minchah are obligatory prayers. Ma’ariv was established to represent the burning of the fat and organs, which were put on the altar at night. If one did not bring them, it did not prevent him from fulfilling the mitzvah of the offering. Therefore Ma’ariv was also deemed optional. However, as time passed, the nation of Israel took upon itself to recite Ma’ariv as an obligatory prayer (see further in this book 25:2). On Shabbat, festivals, and Rosh Chodesh, we were commanded to bring a Musaf sacrifice; hence, the Chachamim established the recital of the Musaf prayer to represent it.

08 – Kavanah and Those Who Find It Difficult to Concentrate

Prayer is considered avodah shebalev (service of the heart); therefore its essence is dependent upon kavanah (intent). There are two kinds of kavanah in prayer: one, a general kavanah, that the person praying is standing before the King of Kings and is filled with fear and love; and the second is a personal kavanah, that he concentrates in his heart on the words he is saying.

People are innately different from one another. Some can concentrate effortlessly, and though they repeat the same words every day, it is easy for them to recite all the words and mean them. Others, by nature, find it difficult to concentrate, and the more familiar a subject is to them, the harder it is for them to concentrate on it. Try as they might to have kavanah, their thoughts wander from one matter to the next. Despite great effort to have kavanah in Birkat Avot, their reveries take over, and to their surprise they are already saying Birkat Selach Lanu. Again, they attempt to concentrate for another berachah, but their minds fly off on another journey, and suddenly they find themselves bowing at Modim.

Even in the time of the Talmud there were Amora’im who complained about the difficulty of having kavanah while praying. The Yerushalmi (Berachot, chapter 2, halachah 4), teaches that Rabbi Chiya said of himself that he was never able to have kavanah throughout his entire prayer. Once, when he tried to concentrate during his prayer, he began to ponder who is more important before the king, this minister or that one. Shmuel said, “I counted newly hatched chicks while I was praying.” Rabbi Bon Bar Chiya said: “While I was praying I counted the rows of the building.” Rabbi Matanyah said, “I am grateful for my head, for even when I am not paying attention to what I am saying, it knows by itself to bow at Modim.” The commentary Pnei Moshe explains that these rabbis were busy learning Torah and therefore had trouble concentrating. In any case, we learn that it is difficult to have kavanah from the beginning of the prayer service until the end. Even though we must try as hard as we can to concentrate, one should not feel dispirited when he does not have the proper kavanah. Even a person who dreamt throughout most of his prayer should not despair; rather he should strive to have kavanah while reciting the remaining berachot.

A person should not say, “If I do not have kavanah, perhaps it is better not to pray.” The very fact that he came to pray before Hashem expresses something very profound – his sincere desire to connect to Hashem and to pray before Him. Every person is measured according to his nature, and at times, someone who finds it difficult to concentrate, yet struggles and succeeds in having kavanah for a number of blessings, is more praiseworthy than someone who easily succeeds in concentrating throughout the entire prayer service. Additionally, people who find it easy to concentrate on the routine prayers generally pray without any particular passion, even on special occasions, or when a tragedy befalls them. However, those individuals who find it difficult to concentrate on the routine words usually succeed in attaining higher levels of kavanah in exceptional circumstances.

It is said in the name of the Ari HaKadosh that kavanah is like wings upon which prayer soars heavenward and is accepted. When a person prays without kavanah, his prayer lacks the wings with which to fly upwards and it waits until the person prays with kavanah. When he succeeds in doing so, all the prayers that he recited without kavanah ascend to Hashem together with the prayer that achieved kavanah. The reason for this is clear: the very fact that the person initially came to pray demonstrates that he wants to connect to Hashem, praise Him, and asks Him for his needs. He simply failed to have kavanah. However, the moment he succeeds in having kavanah, he opens the gate for all his prayers to ascend.

According to halachah, anyone who has kavanah in his heart while saying the first verse of Shema and the first berachah of the Shemoneh Esrei fulfills his obligation, even if he does not have kavanah while saying the rest of his prayers (Shulchan Aruch, 63:4, 101:1; further in this book 15:6 and 17:9).

09 – Hearing the Words One Utters and the Law of Hirhur

Some mitzvot are fulfilled through dibur (speech), such as prayer, the recital of Shema, and Birkat HaMazon. The Amora’im are divided on the question of whether one can fulfill these mitzvot b’dieved (after the fact), via hirhur (thought). According to Ravina, hirhur k’dibur (thought is like speech) and one who thinks the words of the prayer or berachah in his mind has fulfilled his obligation. In contrast to him, Rav Chisda asserts that thought is not equivalent to speech (Berachot 20b). Although some poskim maintain that hirhur k’dibur, (Rambam, Smag, Riaz), in practice, most Rishonim hold that the halachah follows Rav Chisda’s opinion that thought is not like speech (Rach, Talmidei Rabbi Yonah, Or Zarua, Rosh, Raavad, and more). This is also how the Shulchan Aruch rules regarding the recital of Shema (62:3) and berachot (185:2 and 206:3).[2]

If a person mouthed the words, even though he did not hear the words he said, he fulfilled his obligation b’dieved because he moved his lips. However, l’chatchilah (from the outset), concerning every mitzvah that is fulfilled by speech, the person speaking must hear what he is saying.

There are parts of prayer which are said by the whole congregation, such as the answering of Amen and the Kedushah, in which the congregation responds to the chazan. These sections of prayer are, l’chatchilah, said aloud. We must be especially careful to answer to the Kaddish out loud because when everyone says Amen in unison, kevod Shamayim (the respect of Heaven) is magnified (Shulchan Aruch 56:1). The Chachamim tell us that by answering “Amen, yehei Shemei rabba…” out loud, harsh decrees are erased. Similarly, it is customary to recite the first verse of Shema out loud, in order to arouse kavanah (Shulchan Aruch 61:4).

We say the rest of the prayers, such as Pesukei d’Zimrah, the recital of Shema, Birkot Keriat Shema, and the remaining mizmorim (songs), in a regular voice, or at least in a volume that we are able to hear. However, even if a person only mouthed the words, and he did not hear what he was saying, he still fulfilled his obligation.

The Amidah prayer, which is private and intense, is recited silently. According to most poskim, even the silent Amidah, l’chatchilah, must be heard by one’s ears, but one must be careful that the person praying next to him does not hear him (Shulchan Aruch 101:2; Mishnah Berurah 5-6). However, the custom of most Kabbalists is that l’chatchilah, a silent prayer must be recited only by mouthing the words and not by hearing them even with one’s own ears (Kaf HaChaim 101:8).

It is possible to learn from this law a general concept: that thought alone is not sufficient, that good intention without action is not enough. For the soul, deep within the heart, is pure, and the challenge is to project its goodness outwards in order to mend the world. Therefore, it is necessary to say the prayers out loud, or at least to mouth the words (Maharal, Netiv HaAvodah, chapter 2).


[2]. The poskim are divided regarding whether or not the Rambam and the Smag hold that hirhur k’dibur (thought is like speech) also concerning the recital of Shema or just regarding other mitzvot. (See Bei’ur Halachah 62:4, s.v. “Yatza.”)
The Shulchan Aruch 62:4 states, “If, because of sickness or circumstances beyond his control, a person thought the Shema in his heart, he has fulfilled his obligation.” The Acharonim disagree as to what he means. According to the Pri Chadash and many other poskim, one who merely thinks the words does not truly fulfill his obligation, and this is what is written in Bei’ur Halachah, s.v. “Yatza.” Therefore, if the circumstances beyond his control have passed and the time to recite Shema has not yet passed, he must go back and verbally recite the Shema. However, the Birkei Yosef and the Pri Megadim are of the opinion that one who finds himself in circumstances beyond his control (annus) does fulfill his obligation by just thinking the words of Shema, and, even if the circumstances pass, he is not required to repeat them (the Hashlamah and Michtam hold this way as well). The Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim, part 5, 4, explains that the Shulchan Aruch means to say that we rely on the minority opinion which states that hirhur is k’dibur, only in extenuating circumstances, but if the person is no longer in circumstances beyond his control, the situation is no longer extenuating and one must repeat the Shema (Yabia Omer, part 4, 3:19 agrees).
Concerning the recital of Shema, which is a biblical commandment, one who mistakenly thought the words in his heart, is most certainly required to go back and verbally recite them. Regarding blessings, the Bei’ur Halachah writes that those who rely on the majority of the Rishonim and repeat them do not lose out. The Yalkut Yosef, part 3, 106:11, writes, safek berachot l’hakel (if there is doubt regarding the recital of blessings, we are lenient) and if, for example, he thought Birkot HaShachar, but did not say them, he need not go back and repeat them. However, regarding the blessing upon food, if he recited the words in his thoughts, he should think the words “Baruch Shem kevod malchuto l’olam va’ed” (“Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity,”) and then go back and say the berachah verbally.

10 – The Language of Prayer

The mitzvah of prayer is ideally performed in Hebrew, for that is the language in which Anshei Knesset HaGedolah composed the wording of prayer, and it is the Holy Tongue which was used to create the world. However, b’dieved, a person who does not understand Hebrew may fulfill his obligation in other languages (Sotah 32a; Shulchan Aruch 62:2).[3]

There is a fundamental difference between the person who prays in Hebrew and the person who prays in another language. The one who prays in a different language does not fulfill his obligation without understanding the meaning of the words he is reciting. However, one who prays in Hebrew fulfills his obligation even if he does not understand the meaning of the words. Still, even one who prays in Hebrew is obligated to understand the meaning of the first verse of Shema and the first blessing of the Amidah, because not having kavanah for those parts of prayer prevents him from fulfilling his obligation (Mishnah Berurah 101:14, 124:2; Bei’ur Halachah 62:2).

In contrast to other languages, Hebrew has intrinsic value, since the Torah was given to us in Hebrew and it was used to create the world. Even a person who does not understand Hebrew can fulfill the mitzvah by praying in the Holy Tongue because of its inherent significance. However, the value of every other language derives from the fact that it expresses the person’s thoughts and feelings. Hence, a person who does not understand the language that he is saying renders the words useless, and therefore cannot use it to recite Shema and the rest of the prayers.

In practice, a person who does not understand Hebrew is permitted to choose the language in which he wants to pray. Although the advantage of praying in a language that he understands is that he can concentrate on the words, on the other hand, one who prays in Hebrew has the benefit of praying in the Holy Tongue, for every Hebrew letter is directed towards the rectification of all the spiritual worlds (see Bei’ur Halachah 101:4; Kaf HaChaim 16).

Permission to pray in any language is granted as a temporary concession (k’hora’at sha’ah), specifically for people who do not understand Hebrew. However, it is prohibited to establish a minyan that will regularly pray in a different language. This was one of the sins of the Reform Movement which translated the prayers to German and established prayer services in a foreign tongue, causing generations after them to forget the Holy Tongue, thereby giving way to the abandonment of Judaism and assimilation (Chatam Sofer, Orach Chaim, 84 and 86; Mishnah Berurah 101:13; see further in this book 17:8).

The mitzvah of reciting Shema, in principle, may also be fulfilled with a translation. However, some doubt was raised regarding the accuracy of the translation of a number of words. Therefore, today, in the opinion of some eminent Acharonim (later Torah authorities), one cannot fulfill his obligation of reciting Shema by saying a translation of the words (Mishnah Berurah 62:3; further in this book 15:9).


[3]. Regarding the recital of Shema, there is disagreement. According to Rebbi, Shema may only be said in the Holy Tongue, whereas, according to the Chachamim, it may be recited in any language (Berachot 13a). Because in Sotah 32b there is a stam mishnah (a mishnah that does not specify who said it) in which it is written that the halachah is like the Chachamim who maintain that the recital of Shema, Birkat HaMazon, Birkat Kohanim, and other berachot may be said in any language, also here, the halachah is according to the Chachamim.
Regarding prayer, it is the opinion of the Rif that only a person who prays in a minyan may pray in a different language, since the Shechinah (Divine Presence) dwells there and his prayer will be accepted. However, a person who is praying individually must specifically pray in the Holy Tongue, for his prayer will not be accepted in another language. Nevertheless, most poskim agree with the Rosh who is of the opinion that even while praying individually, one may also pray in a different language, with the exception of Aramaic, and that is the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch 101:4, in the concluding statement, “Yesh omrim.”