Judaism: Day 1 – My First Minyan and the Value of Language

Yesterday, I attended my first Minyan. I arrived at the Synagogue at 6:55 AM. By the time it was 7:15 AM, I realized that Minyan didn’t actually start until 7:30.

Other people started rolling in a few minutes later and of course, they were curious about why I was there.

I have a few guesses as to why they were so curious:

  1. The morning Minyan group stays pretty consistent. There aren’t too many new people that show up.
  2. They were wondering what an Asian guy was doing at a synagogue.

I told them about my project and they seemed to think it was an interesting idea, though a few expressed doubts that I’d really be able to understand Judaism in 30 days. Fair enough.

Overall, everyone was very welcoming.

Once we had the requisite 10 people in the room (I didn’t count towards the 10), we began the prayer.

For the Minyan prayer, we read out of a Hebrew prayer book. There is a designated reader who reads the text in Hebrew, and the others in the Minyan follow along.

I was completely lost. My knowledge of Hebrew is non-existent, so I just listened to the blessings and tried to read the English translation of the Hebrew.

Luckily, one of the women in the Minyan was kind enough to tell me which page we were on.

There was a blessing recounted for mourners and people who have lost someone recently. There was also a blessing said for the seriously ill.

Again, I couldn’t really understand any of it as it was all in Hebrew, but my new Jewish friends explained everything to me as we went along.

Value of Language

Unlike Mass, which is conducted in the local vernacular, Jewish services are often conducted in Hebrew, or rather, the readings and prayers are conducted in Hebrew.

This is a bit alienating for those of us who can’t read Hebrew.

However, Jews are theoretically supposed to learn at least some Hebrew for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

As a result, conducting prayers and readings in Hebrew is a unifying factor, one that brings people into the community.

It’s something that Jews have to work hard to learn, and because we tend to value those things which we struggle to attain, they value it.

Knowing Hebrew says “I’m part of the club,” and the more fluent you are in the language, the more you can participate in the rituals of the club.

David Hazony, an Israeli writer and expert in Jewish studies, believes that American Jews are missing out on Jewish culture because they are not dedicated to learning to Hebrew.

I also have a hunch — I can’t really prove it — that by learning Hebrew en masse, American Jews just might find a great deal of what they’ve been looking for to help cure their own inner cultural malaise. We can’t be united by religion or geography or politics, but our common ancient language opens unlimited doors to deepening, enriching and ultimately creating new, exciting expressions of Jewish life. It will let you engage with your Bible, your Talmud, your medieval Jewish texts, without the hazy filter of translators and professional interpreters. It will let you read song lyrics and op-eds and plays at will, choose your own Israeli adventure. It will help you become, for a moment at least, an eternal Jew.

This is a powerful idea.

We’re so used to the idea that language is primarily for communicating. We learn French so we can talk to French people. We read book translations as if they are the original text.

But rarely do we think of language as a way to bring people closer together, to draw people into a community.

If you have ever traveled abroad in a foreign country where you don’t know the language, you’ll realize how alienating it is to be unable to understand what’s going on around you.

Then think about the time during your travels you finally met someone who spoke your language.

You immediately become best friends! Even if you would never be friends with that person back home.

Or, if you never traveled abroad, think about the way you speak with your co-workers. You use industry and company-specific buzzwords that wouldn’t make sense to others outside of your company. The company vernacular helps you bond with your collegagues.

However, your industry and company buzzwords are relatively trivial. They are not linked to thousands of years of religious and cultural development.

Learning Hebrew, however, allows you to connect with a timeless culture and history.

I’m still developing my ideas on language and community formation, but I suspect that that in order to develop a strong community, it is very helpful to

a)    Incorporate language that is exclusive to the group

b)   Link the language to significant texts and incorporate it in rituals

c)    Ensure members put in significant effort to learn the language

Perhaps its time to brush up on my Hebrew.