Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
Every once in a while, one reads an article that is life-changing. There may be a halacha article that raises important points the reader was not aware of. Sometimes, there is a new pressing halachic question that has as of yet not been addressed. Suffice it to say, this is not such an article. This article will tackle this important issue: may one daven in Klingon? Klingon is an invented language for the Star-Trek universe. As one may guess, Klingon is spoken by Klingons. This language that registers as truly alien has sounds reminiscent of Arabic, Turkish, Yiddish, Japanese and Native American languages. Its defining characteristic is that it has many harsh guttural sounds. Apparently, Klingon has the distinction of being the world’s most popular fictitious language, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. There is even an institute dedicated to the study of Klingon. In the Harry Potter universe, Parseltongue is the language of snakes and other serpentine creatures. A person who has the ability to speak Parseltongue is called a Parselmouth. May a Parselmouth recite Shemoneh Esreh in his unique language? Alas, a Harry Potter fan stated that this question was ridiculous, as even Parselmouths do not communicate with one another using this language. Still, another boy said a more relevant question is may one daven in Elvish, a language invented by J. R. R. Tolkien (for Lord of the Rings). Yet another boy responded that the question was missing information. After all, there are multiple dialects of Elvish spoken by different races. This author is unfamiliar with the various dialects and will therefore concentrate on Klingon.
The Mishna says in Sotah that one may pray in any language. The Gemaa (33a) explains that Hashem wants one to daven from his heart and whatever language will facilitate that is acceptable. This is codified in the Shulchan Aruch as practical halacha (although praying in Hebrew is strongly encouraged if one understands Hebrew). There is an opinion that one may only pray in a foreign language if it is one of the 70 languages referred to throughout Torah literature. Klingon would then necessarily be excluded. (Unless during an archeological dig, ancient evidence of the Klingon language was somehow found.) However, this opinion does not seem to be followed. Moreover, the Chasam Sofer specifically rejected it. One may pray in any foreign language, not just the original 70. Klingon may still be relevant! However, the question is what exactly defines a language. The Ran (Nedarim 2a) says it is a manner of speaking that is used by convention by a group of people. Swahili is a language spoken in a number of countries. Swahili would certainly qualify as a spoken language. How many people must use a language to give it the status of a spoken language? Even assuming, for argument’s sake, that Klingon can be taken seriously as a language, are there enough Klingon speakers worldwide to give it the halachic status of a bona fide language? Perhaps, the elusive answer to that question may not be necessary. May someone who formerly lived in Kenya daven in Swahili in Bnei Brak? The Chofetz Chaim says that one may only daven in a foreign language if two conditions are met. The first is that the person praying understands that foreign language. The second is that there are more than a few people in the location of the davener who understand the foreign language.
Consequently, if there are only five people in Bnei Brak who speak Swahili, the Kenyan may not daven there in Swahili. The Chofetz Chaim does not cite a magic number for how many people have to speak a language in the davener’s locale. However, perhaps a number may be surmised. There are those who question the Chofetz Chaim’s premise. How can it be that for a foreign language to be used in prayer, there must be people locally who utilize that language? The Mishna lists Viduy Maaser together with prayer as things that may be recited in a foreign language. Viduy Maaser was recited during a visit to the Beis HaMikdash. There a person declared that he gave all the required tithes from his produce. How can the Mishna make a blanket statement that Viduy Maaser may be recited in any language at the Beis HaMikdash? Perhaps the locales in Yerushalayim don’t speak his language. According to the Chofetz Chaim, an Israeli farmer who speaks Swahili would not be allowed to recite Viduy Maaser in Swahili, unless he was sure that there were a significant number of Yerushalmis who spoke Swahilli. Some suggest that in Yerushalayim, foreign languages were not an issue. The Sanhedrin was seated there. They had seventy members who were fluent in the seventy languages. Therefore, a foreigner could always be assured there were a significant amount of people in Yerushalayim that spoke his language. Even though seventy is not a large number, it is still highly unlikely that in any given locale one can find that many Klingon speakers. Therefore, practically, one cannot daven in Klingon. Even if one finds seventy Klingon speakers, it is still not comparable to a foreign language since there is no locale that adopted it as their primary language. GhonglIj yIHmey mop ‘e’ DaSov. (That is supposed to be Klingon for “I hope you enjoyed this article.”)
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@ gmail.com.