Did this ever happen to you as a kid? It happened to me more than once. The Rebbi of the class begins to tell us a funny story, or an old classic joke from “Poiland.” Then—right before the punchline—he stops abruptly and offers the following disclaimer:
“I have to say the punchline in Yiddish; it just sounds much funnier in Yiddish. In fact, if you don’t understand the original Yiddish, you’re really missing the flavor of the whole joke.”
He then delivers the Yiddish punchline. (Which to me sounds something like: “Gehalten medochen m’daf klappen zayn.”) One or two kids in the class who understand Yiddish give a hearty laugh along with the Rebbi, who then repeats the punchline to the rest of us in English.
When I think of this story as an adult I wonder out loud: does the Rebbi’s logic not also apply just as equally to the Hebrew of the siddur? Each language has its own internal flavor that gets lost in translation, just like Yiddish for those old jokes. The siddur is written in Hebrew. Therefore, if a child does not understand Hebrew, perhaps the whole message is going right over his head? (Or worse, maybe he will hate praying.)
For example: הָרֹפֵא לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב וּמְחַבֵּשׁ לְעַצְּבוֹתָם (Does your son know what this means?)
How about: הוֹדוּ לַה’ קִרְאוּ בִשְׁמוֹ, הוֹדִיעוּ בָעַמִּים עֲלִילֹתָיו (Ask your child to translate that.)
My newly released book, “The Frum Revolution,” identifies the key pitfalls inherent in Yeshiva education which may turn children off Judaism. One of these pitfalls is teaching children to “pray” without understanding the words. The solution is simple: give children independent access to the text by teaching them the essential Hebrew root-words and prefixes/suffixes.
The bottom-line: surely we should treat prayer just as seriously as we do our Yiddish jokes.