Here’s a little quiz: if one is going to use an oil lamp for Shabbos candles, may he make the wick for it out of seaweed? How about from a piece of cloth three-fingerbreadths square that was twisted but not singed, so that its actual area has not been reduced, even though it’s taking up less space? And if I have a bottle of cod liver oil in the house, can I use that as fuel in the oil lamp?
Many readers no doubt know the answer to these questions. Others might not be expected to know. But I assure you that there are plenty of people reading this who should know but don’t.
Why should they know, you ask? Because the answers to these questions are found in the second chapter of the Mishna tractate Shabbos. We read this Friday nights as “Bameh Madlikin” (which is the name of the chapter). There are people who have ostensibly “learned” these mishnayos hundreds of times yet they still have no idea what they are saying.
There are other examples we could cite. What is the lifespan an average person might expect? How about a particularly robust person? (70 and 80, respectively, as per Psalm 90, recited as part of pesukei d’zimra on Shabbos.) What type of animal, how many of them, and how old, constituted the Shabbos offering in the Temple? (Two male sheep in their first year as per Numbers chapter 28, recited in the Shabbos musaf service.)
This isn’t only the case with the Shabbos service. A man named Asaf composed over a dozen Psalms for a variety of instruments. Name one of those instruments. (The gittis as per Psalm 81, which is the Psalm of the day for Thursday.) Which other daily Psalm did Asaf write? (Psalm 82, which we recite on Tuesdays.) Other than David and Asaf, who composed one of our daily Psalms? (The sons of Korach composed Psalm 48, recited on Mondays.) All this information is given in the opening line of the relevant Psalms.
Our final quiz question: what’s the rule when a general statement in the Torah is followed by a limiting specification and then by another general statement? (The rule only applies to things that are similar to the specified case – we recite this as part of the 13 Rules of Rabbi Yishmael in the preliminary morning service every day of the week.)
By way of contrast, how long was the tour given by the S.S. Minnow intended to last? What color hair did the Brady girls have? Where did the Fresh Prince grow up before he moved to Bel-Air? I’d venture that far more people were able to answer “a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour,” “all of them had hair of gold, like their mother – the youngest one in curls,” and “in west Philadelphia born and raised, on the playground is where I spent most of my days” than were able to answer any of the previous questions. Why do we have more room in our brains for old TV sitcom theme songs than we do for our liturgy?
I don’t mean to suggest that one’s prayers are not efficacious if one doesn’t memorize them of if he doesn’t understand every word; such is certainly not the case. But wouldn’t our prayers be more meaningful to us if we knew what we were saying?
I had a rebbe in yeshiva who once chided a student (not me, thankfully!) for not knowing that the word “kashot” in Aramaic means “true.” “How do you not know what ‘kashot’ means? You say it in Brich Shmei (which is recited when we remove the Torah from the ark): Elaha kashot, v’Oraisei kashot, u’nviohi kashot… (G-d is true, His Torah is true, His prophets are true…) How can you say that if you don’t even know what it means?”
If you like, you can chalk it up to yeridas hadoros (the idea that later generations are not as great as earlier ones), but I’m not as demanding as my rebbe. I can’t claim to have the translation of every word in the liturgy at my fingertips but I still think it’s a good idea, when reciting a prayer, to have an idea what the general idea is. Whether it’s Aleinu three times a day, Tashlich once a year, or Birkas HaChama once every 28 years, if we expect our prayers to connect us with our Creator, they’ll work so much better if we have the first idea what it is we’re talking about!
There are many ways one can go about trying to improve in this area. There are many siddurim with translations and commentaries, as well as linear and even “translinear” translations. If, like me, you prefer a simple Hebrew siddur, one can simply read a paragraph or two of translation a day outside of actual prayer. It really does have a cumulative effect.
We may not achieve perfect word-for-word recall but better familiarizing ourselves with the siddur will invariably improve the quality of our connection with G-d. At the very least, not knowing what Brich Shmei means should bother us at least as much as forgetting the words to the theme from Cheers.