Share a Prayer: The Tradition of The Siddur–the Jewish Prayer Book

Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or Holyday Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.

A wise teacher once quipped: “In the days when all the Jews went to the Synagogue, everyone used the same Siddur [Prayer Book], now, when hardly anyone attends services, there are many different types of Siddurim from which to choose. ”

Indeed, a trip to a Jewish bookstore or library will reveal an array of Prayer Books published by different groups with a variety of agendas. In fact, by examining a Siddur, one can learn a great deal about its editor and publisher in terms of their philosophy of prayer. Thus, while choosing a Siddur for yourself may be a difficult task, by understanding the History of Siddurim as well as some of the underlying concepts that are involved in compiling a Siddur, one may not only make the choice much simpler, but also come to terms with ones own philosophy of prayer.

In ancient times, when the writing down of sacred texts was frowned upon, there was no such thing as a prayer book. Prayers were recited by memory or improvised by those who could do so and the rest of the congregation responded with “Amen”. The Talmud contains only outlines for the structure of the liturgy, especially regarding the Matbayah or essential core of the prayer service. Not until the ninth century do we find any thing resembling a prayer book. Compiled at the request of the Jews of Spain, the Seder Rav Amram, is a listing of the order of prayers for the year. A similar work including Arabic explanations of the laws pertaining to worship, is the Siddur of the great sage Rav Sa’adia Gaon produced in the Tenth Century. Sa’adia’s Siddur reflects Babylonian as well as Egyptian traditions. One of the first prayer books to be produced in a format similar to the Siddurim we are familiar with is the Machzor Vitry assembled by Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry, a follower of the great biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi. Machzor Vitry, not only contains the order of prayers for the entire year, but also the text of the Hagadah for Pesach and much legal material regarding the liturgy.

Printed prayer books as we know them can be found dating back as far as the Fifteenth Century with editions reflecting a variety of regional rites and traditions. Today, volumes of prayers reflecting traditions from Reform to Conservative to Reconstructionist to Hasidic, including various Mizrachi (Eastern) and Sephardi rites, can be found. Added to the mix are interpretive or creative Prayer Books that are independent of any particular group or formal denomination.

The first Conservative prayer book was a Siddur for the Pilgrimage festivals published in 1927. This was followed by the  Silverman Shabbat and Festival Siddur which was first published in 1946 with a revision in 1973. The Siddur Sim Shalom, first published in 1985 in compete form followed by separate versions for Shabbat and weekday in 1998 and 2002 respectively, is widely used in Conservative synagogues today.

There are many Orthodox Prayer Books available but perhaps the most popular is the Art Scroll Siddur –  first published in 1984 as a complete Siddur with an extensive commentary and now available in a variety of styles and Orthodox traditions. Other Orthodox Siddurim include the Siddur Tehillat Ha Shem published in 1945 by the Chabad Hassidic movement. This Siddur follows the Nusach Ari tradition based on the teachings of the great Kabbalist Rabbi Issac Luria. Also popular is Rinat Yisrael, an all Hebrew Siddur first appearing in Israel in 1970.

Kol Haneshama is the title of a popular series of  Prayer Books published by the Reconstructionist moment. These include weekday as well as Shabbat and Festival books. This Siddur features gender neutral English translation and a variety of transliterated prayers designed to make the service more widely accessible.

The Reform Movement is in the interesting process of introducing a new Siddur entitled Mishkan Tephila.  Currently, the Gates of Prayer published in 1975 is widely used in Reform Congregations. Unlike traditional Siddurim, the Gates of Prayer offers a variety of alternative services for each occasion.

Philosophical issues that define a prayer book include: attitude to the sacrificial cult, universalism vs. particularism and the role of women in the Synagogue. Before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, (70 C. E. ) Hebrew worship mainly involved the sacrificing of animals. While these sacrifices were replaced by prayers, many Orthodox Siddurim not only list exhaustive descriptions of the various sacrifices, but also express a longing for a return to the sacrificial cult. On the other hand, while some prayer books ignore it altogether, others speak of the practice of sacrificing animals in historical terms. Many Siddurim seek to foster the notion that prayers such as that for peace, are meant to refer not only to Israel, but to the human community at large. Such Siddurim also tend to substitute the prayer thanking the lord for making one an Israelite for a negative version found in other editions. Similarly, the prayer thanking God for not having been a woman is replaced in most non-Orthodox Siddurim with a blessing thanking the Lord for making us in God’s image.

Consideration of the role of women in the service is seen in some Siddurim which include such prayers as that to be said for a woman who is called to the Torah. Furthermore, some Liberal Siddurim adjust the Hebrew and English text of traditional prayers to include the names of our matriarchs along with those of the patriarchs. Similarly, the style and content of the translation and any commentary also reflects philosophical considerations vis–a–vis the Siddur.

Besides the above information, the format of the Prayer book is an important factor in selection of a Siddur. A Machzor (cycle), is a prayer book specifically for the Holy Days–Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah or the Pilgrimage Festivals. At one time “Machzor”referred specifically to a more complete edition of a prayer book meant for the Prayer Leader.

A prayer book which contains prayers for the entire year is referred to as a “Siddur Shalem”, or complete prayer book. Finally there are Siddurim specifically for week days, or solely for Shabbat and Festivals; Siddurim with or with out commentaries; Siddurim with or with out the weekday Torah readings; Siddurim with prayers regarding “modern” events such as the creation of Israel or the Holocaust and Siddurim specifically for Israel or the Diaspora.

Perhaps it was a trip to the bookstore to purchase a Siddur that motivated my teacher’s lament for simpler times. Certainly the multiplicity of Siddurim reflects the wonderful diversity among the Jewish People and shows that prayer is a vitally important issue to which much care, reflection and consideration must be paid by each of us. Whatever Siddur you choose, the goal of the prayers contained therein is to serve as a vehicle to help the worshipper feel the presence of God in his/her daily life.

Take care,

Hazzan Michael Krausman

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