No Hebrew? No Problem!

a basket of fruits

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

One of the most universal dreams–perhaps nightmares is a better word–are the ones where you show up in class totally unprepared, assuming you can even find the classroom! Of course, everyone else knows exactly what’s going on. I have those dreams, and I’m always thankful when I wake up and realize “it was only a dream.” Being unprepared and embarrassed as a result, is one of the worst feelings I can imagine.

This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, begins with what could be a nightmare; the requirement that when one brings his offering of bikkurim, “first fruits,” he has to recite a prayer from memory. I imagine that struck fear into many hearts back in the day.

In Ki Tavo, Moses tells the people that when they are settled in the land, and the land yields its bounty, they need to acknowledge God’s role in making the harvest happen, and this is done with this ritual:

“…you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish the Divine name.” (Dev. 26:2) The basket of first fruits is then given to the priest, who will set it down in front of the altar. Then, the prayer/acknowledgement is recited. By heart. From memory. 

What would happen if someone didn’t speak Hebrew, or didn’t know the recitation? It was as much a concern thousands of years ago as it is today! How often I people say, “I can’t read Hebrew, and I don’t understand the prayers, so I don’t come to synagogue”? While there’s something to be said for reciting prayers in the original, I was always taught that God understands us in whatever language we speak, and the Talmud even has a discussion about whether or not the Shema must be recited in Hebrew, or in the language a person speaks/understands.

Jewish practice and worship were never meant to exclude anyone, and in this week’s Torah Sparks from USCJ, Andy Weisfeld, a rabbinical student, explains. Quoting the Mishna in Bikkurim (3:7), he writes: “Originally all who knew how to recite would recite, while those who did not know how to recite, others would read it for them [and they would repeat the words].”

Great solution, but still problematic. Imagine standing behind someone reciting fluently and wanting the earth to swallow you up, because you know you’re going to need to “repeat after me.” I’m cringing just thinking about it!

Further on in that Mishna, we learn that “every bringer of first fruits, regardless of their Hebrew ability, repeated the passage after having had someone read it to them.” Not only does this help to avoid public embarrassment by singling out certain individuals, it levels the playing field and makes it clear that everyone is equal in God’s eyes.

As we move closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we prepare to engage in teshuva, “turning” towards God and our authentic selves, may we look for ways to be inclusive, to see the face of the Divine in each person we meet, and perhaps more importantly, to not diminish ourselves by not participating in life–Jewish or otherwise–because we “don’t understand.” We won’t be the only ones.


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