The Pope and Praying in Hebrew

The London Times reports that the Catholic Church is discussing reintroducing the Latin Mass largely abandoned in the aftermath of Vatican II. See here for details. Apparently, the Pope is writing to every seminary urging them to ensure that priests are trained to conduct the Tridentine Mass, which was replaced in the 1960s by the vernacular liturgy said in most churches today. While before Vatican II, every Catholic Church in the world conducted Mass in Latin, today it is recited in the local language.

Readers may wonder why I’m interested in the Latin Mass, something one can safely assume to be of marginal concern to most Cross-Currents readers! The answer is brief and simple. It helped me to realise how blessed we are to have a Hebrew liturgy, which (with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over. Indeed, among the supportive ultra-conservative remarks appended to the article, are a few thoughtful ones that welcome the return of a universal liturgy, allowing people of every nationality and tongue to celebrate Mass together.

The early 19th-century German-Jewish and later reformers genuinely meant well when they replaced certain Hebrew prayers with vernacular equivalents: they hoped to make them more accessible and comprehensible to their worshippers; presumably, this was successful. However (and this is apart from the theological and halachic issues raised by their versions of the prayers), a great deal more was lost than gained. They underestimated the universal value of Hebrew prayers: the capacity of a Jewish national language, the language of God and the Bible, to unite and inspire people; to erase boundaries between those of different cultures and unify them in devotion.

To be fair, this has now been recognised by some non-Orthodox groups, who have re-introduced greater Hebrew content into their services: I’m sure that they have been greatly enhanced by so doing.

But many Westernised Jews have little or no knowledge of Hebrew – not much has changed since 19th-century Germany (where the vernacular was introduced) in that regard. This is a problem that has a solution – learn Hebrew! It’s easier said than done, but the opportunities available (courses, CDs and internet sites, etc.) have never been greater and the rewards (especially the chance to communicate with the natives on a visit our own Hebrew-speaking country) more evident. Anyway, there are excellent translations of the Siddur available, each serving a different need, which one can consult throughout the prayer service.

I think that the Pope has this one right: the vernacular alternatives to their (and our) prayers are, in the words of one comment to the article in The Times, ‘improvised’ and ‘fabricated’. Do you agree?

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11 Responses

  1. Lawrence M. Reisman says:

    Allow a comment the statement that the Hebrew liturgy is “(with a few minor differences here and there) is the same the world-over.” Unfortunately, some of our observant bretheren do not think those differences minor. I remember more than once showing an Ashkenazi friend the Sephardi birchat hamazon, and said friend getting all indignant that sefardim weren’t bentching the way Moshe Rabbenu set down the nusach. I remember one chasidic man telling me that Conservative Jews were inherently nonbelievers because the Conservative prayer book began the morning blessings with “Asher nosson lasechvi” rather than “hanosain lasechfi” thereby denying that Hashem’s gifts are ever-present. He obviously never looked in a Nusach Ashkenaz siddur.

    If we are don’t educate ourselves to our diversity, those differences could be considered something more than “minor.”

  2. YM says:

    Nusach Sefard also says “Asher nosson lesechvi”. Whose siddur says “hanosain lesechfi”?

  3. Dr. E says:

    Interesting coincidence, considering that the Mishna in yesterday’s Daf Yomi discusses what ceremonies need to be receited in Hebrew.

  4. Zach Leiner says:

    Perhaps both the Pope and heterodox leaders realized that watering down their respective “articles of faith” with pseudo-cosmopolitanism and political correctness wasn’t working in attracting adherents and needed to make a move to bolster their movements with something substantial.

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    If the Catholics perform Mass in every local language, is there a Hebrew Mass in Israel? RYA should probably field this question, as the site expert on Catholics.

  6. S. says:

    I agree with you. It is truly wonderful that we have a common litrugy and literary heritage worldwide.

    Latin and Hebrew are not analogous, however, especially not in terms of the role the latter has played in uniting world Jewry, which is not all similar to the role of Latin in Catholicism.

  7. Raymond says:

    I definitely agree with Harvey Belovski about the special, inherent sacredness of Hebrew. Just think if, G-d forbid, all of the Torahs in the world written in Hebrew, were destroyed. It would become impossible to interpret the Torah! I am only proficient in English, yet I recognize that it is a fleeting, ephemeral language subject to changing with the times, while the original Hebrew in the Torah has never changed nor will it ever change. It cannot, because we need to study its nuances to truly understand the deeper layers of meaning in the Torah.

    Even when I pray, I prefer to do it in Hebrew. To give a secular analogy from the works of Shakespeare, I may need Cliffs notes to understand late 16th century British English, yet I would never think of substituting the Cliffs Notes for the original Shakespeare plays. The goal would be to use those Cliffs Notes and other commentaries to the point where one can read Shakespeare in the original and have a really good understanding of it. Same with the Torah, or praying.

  8. Roman Catholic says:

    Yehoshua Friedman, Rabbi Adlerstein has punted over to me. The answer is Yes!

    Don’t quote me on this, but I think a precedent for the Mass being in the vernacular is found in the Christian ScripturesJews who were there for the feast, Jews who were visiting for Shavuos from the all parts of the Roman Empire and beyond, “were confounded, because … every man heard [Jesus’ followers who were Galileans] speak in his own language.”

    Yet, I have felt that if my parish were to add a Mass in Latin (are you listening, Cardinal Mahony?) it would go far in uniting our English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners. Otherwise, these are segregated by language.

  9. Ori says:

    Yehoshua Friedman: f the Catholics perform Mass in every local language, is there a Hebrew Mass in Israel?

    Ori: Probably not. As far as I know, there are three common groups of Christians in Israel:

    1. Christian Arabs. Some of them are Catholic, but their native language is Arabic.

    2. Religious immigrants from other countries, such as those who populate the monasteries in Jerusalem. They probably saw mass either in Latin or in another language that unites them.

    3. Messianic Jews (since some of them as Jewish converts, they truly are Jews according to Halacha). Messianic Judaism is a Protestant enterprise, so the Catholic Mass is irrelevant.

    I’m sure that if enough Hebrew speaking Israelis were to become Catholic they’d translate the liturgy, but I can’t see that happening any time soon. Religious Jews of course won’t do it, and Chiloni Jews are most likely to select something that is either nearer (= Judaism) or further away (= Buddhism).

  10. dan says:

    Just look at the Aramaic prayers that have been introduced into the liturgy in Aramaic, so that the masses would understand! E.g. Kaddish, Yekum Purkan, ha lachma anya.
    Nowadays comprehension of these prayers are generally limited to those with extensive Talmudic education.

  11. Todd says:

    Ori – the poster called Roman Catholic is correct. There is a very small Hebrew speaking Catholic community already in Israel. There is a Hebrew Mass. See Link.

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