Commentary

How Should a Diverse Urban Congregation Select a Siddur?

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David Wolkenfeld

Introduction

The synagogue where I work, Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, is in the midst of deciding whether or not it wishes to purchase new siddurim. We currently have an aging fleet of Koren-Sacks and RCA-Artscroll siddurim. Many of the siddurim look worn and scuffed, and we no longer have a sufficient quantity to meet our needs when our numbers swell for bar or bat mitzvahs, aufrufs, or other special occasions. Additionally, there is the inherent and inescapable awkwardness of having large quantities of two different siddurim. When I announce pages for the benefit of those needing help to navigate our tefilot, I must do so for two siddurim. When first time visitors walk into our shul, they are confronted with a choice that they feel unequipped to make. Choosing one siddur to use as our congregation’s standard would eliminate these pitfalls. But which siddur to choose?

The following thoughts are based on a document that I shared with our congregation earlier this summer to help them evaluate their options and think about their priorities for selecting a siddur that will be used by veteran worshippers, first time visitors, children, and adults. I hope that others beyond our community will find my analysis helpful. 

Autobiography of a Siddur User

I learned how to use a siddur as a child with the “Shilo” children’s siddur, but became familiar with daily prayer using the Artscroll siddur. The pages of familiar tefilot (e.g. weekday mincha on page 232, bedtime shema on page 288) are ingrained in my memory. The Artscroll siddur was perfect for my needs as a teenager who could recite tefilot in Hebrew, but who needed Artcroll’s detailed descriptions of the choreography of public prayer in an Orthodox synagogue. 

In time, I had the opportunity to study in yeshiva and learn more about the content and meaning of tefilot. As an adult, I encountered siddurim with no English translations whatsoever that could be evaluated on their layout, typeface, and nusah (version) of the tefilot. I came to love the Rinat Yisrael siddur, whose clear layout and modern font could be read even in small sizes. It also seamlessly integrated a contemporary Religious Zionist ideology into the ancient text of the siddur. I came to love the Koren siddur, whose gorgeous font and careful layout turned the pages of the siddur into a work of art, highlighting the drama and poetry of ancient words. And I came to love the siddur Sefat Emet, the modern iteration of the Rodelheim siddur, which my German family used when they lived in Nuremberg and which I rediscovered when I lived in Washington Heights. Like many Hebrew-only siddurim, it fits easily in the palm of one hand, and its precise nusah replicates the way my family prayed before war and dislocation scattered us to three continents. 

How Should a Diverse Urban Congregation Select a Siddur?

A selection of a new siddur should be made by a collective judgement of which siddur will advance the congregation’s mission. No individual’s personal siddur preferences should be the basis for how a congregation selects a siddur. I believe it is wise to avoid guessing which siddur would be the first choice of a majority of worshippers; rather, select a siddur on behalf of those for whom the choice will be most decisive for their experience of shul.

Anyone who can start a sentence with the words “my favorite siddur to use…” is not the person we should be particularly worried about when selecting a siddur. Those of us already comfortable in shul will likely feel comfortable no matter which siddur the shul provides. If we prefer a different siddur, we can also bring our own from home, or we can select an alternative from a wider collection that a shul can maintain alongside its standard siddur. But a diverse urban congregation’s stakeholders and constituency includes first-time visitors, people who cannot read a word of Hebrew and who come from every possible religious background. They attend the shul as guests of members,  part of a religious journey, or because they are curious about Jews and how we pray. While the chance to see our community through their eyes is enriching and exciting, and it is a privilege to be a local Jewish resource to so many different people, this privilege comes with a concomitant responsibility. Our prayers – and our prayer books – should be accessible and appealing to the people who need it most. 

Artscroll (Old RCA Siddur)

One siddur option to choose as our congregation standard is the RCA Artscroll siddur, which is one of our current main siddurim. The Artscroll siddur was first published in 1984, and within a decade had sold more copies than there are Orthodox Jews in the United States. It has a clear and well edited Hebrew text with a modern, easy-to-read font. It also has detailed instructions in English that can allow a novice worshipper or newcomer to Orthodox Judaism to quickly figure out how to pass as an Orthodox Jew who knows when to sit, when to stand, and which prayer follows the next on weekdays, Shabbat, and holidays. 

Unfortunately, the English translation and commentary of the Artscroll siddur are printed entirely in italics, making it hard to read for anyone who wishes to use it for more than as a reference to understand a phrase or word. The English instructions and commentary contain numerous untranslated Hebrew words, some even printed in Hebrew letters (e.g. p. 118: “Some authorities maintain that since יהי לרצון closes the Shemoneh Esrei prayer, it should be recited before אלהי נצור, which is not an integral part of the Shemoneh Esrei”). The translation directs our prayer to “Hashem,” a designation for God that is obscure and unknown to those who have not been educated among Orthodox Jews. The commentary addresses none of the philosophical questions that modern people bring with us when we confront the siddur and will not help bridge the divide between the experiences and perspectives of newcomers to our shul and our ancient practices of prayer. While the Artscroll siddur is quite user-friendly for Hebrew-literate Jews already comfortable in an Orthodox synagogue, I would feel embarrassed to place it into the hands of someone who will be accessing our beautiful tefilot through the ungainly English of the Artscroll siddur.

In addition, the Artscroll Siddur is the product of a worldview which does not reflect the values of the Modern Orthodox community and therefore cannot truly meet the needs of our community. There is no indication that congregations like ours observe Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, for example, as a day of religious significance when Tahanun is omitted and Hallel might be recited. The siddur contains no liturgy for acknowledging any lifecycle events for girls or women such as a zeved ha-bat (naming ceremony for girls) or a bat mitzvah, and does not acknowledge the ways that Modern Orthodox understandings of Jewish law provide ritual options or obligations for women (e.g. a zimmun, prayer invitation, for three or more women who eat together). Female worshippers using Artscroll siddurim find no grammatical variants such as “she-lo asani shifha” (“who did not make a maidservant”) that are contained even in much older siddurim.

When the RCA undertook the process of updating and revising their siddur, the relationship between Artscroll and the RCA was severed. RCA-Artscroll siddurim are no longer being printed, but Artscroll has released a “synagogue edition” of their siddur which replicates the pagination of the now defunct RCA-Artscroll siddur. This new edition includes the prayers for Israel, the United States, and the IDF, which the RCA added to the original Artscroll Siddur (which are still published with a brown cover, in contrast to the synagogue edition’s black), but omits Rabbi Saul Berman’s introduction, which was itself a modern masterpiece and represented the first time that Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and Rabbi Avraham Kook were quoted in any Artscroll publication.

New Koren-Sacks (Shalem Edition)

Another possibility for our congregational standard, which is also one of the main siddurim our congregation now uses, is the Koren-Sacks Siddur. In 2009, the Orthodox Union published a remarkable new siddur that combined the eloquent and masterful English translation of Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks with the artistic layout of the decades-old Israeli Koren siddur. The English translation was written by perhaps the most articulate and effective presenter of Jewish concepts in the English language. He has a profound understanding of Judaism and full command of English rhetoric, style, and poetry. Rabbi Sacks’ introduction to the siddur is an overview of the meaning of formal prayer in Jewish life and an introduction to the history of the siddur. I routinely encourage individuals first encountering traditional tefilah (prayer) to read this introduction. Anyone following our tefilot using his English translation is able to appreciate some of the grandeur, beauty, and sophistication of the original Hebrew text. This siddur could therefore be a good choice for when newcomers who are unfamiliar with tefilah come to our shul.

This siddur was created for a Modern Orthodox community. It includes a zeved ha-bat ceremony (p. 1035) to celebrate the birth of a daughter and tefilot for the holidays of Religious Zionism like Yom Ha-Atzma’ut (p. 911) alongside detailed liturgical instructions for those who travel between Israel and the diaspora and must navigate our divergent calendars for such matters as reciting “mashiv ha-ru’ah u-morid ha-geshem” (rain prayer) (p. 1323).

In 2018, this siddur was upgraded to include the full text of the five megilot (scrolls) with English translations, full translations of the Torah reading for festivals, and translations of the hoshanot prayers for Sukkot.  

However, the addition of numerous English instructions and commentary clutters the Hebrew pages of the Koren-Sacks siddur and diminishes the simple beauty of the classic Koren all-Hebrew siddur. Furthermore, the publisher’s decision to place the Hebrew tefilot on the left, odd-numbered, pages, a reversal of earlier English-Hebrew siddurim that was undertaken to enable a more artistic and poetic layout, is confusing to some older worshippers who may be reluctant to undertake the process necessary to become acclimated to something new. 

New RCA (Avodat HaLev)

A final possibility for a siddur for our shul is the new RCA Koren Siddur. After the Orthodox Union published the Koren-Sacks Siddur, the RCA undertook the lengthy process of producing an updated and revised siddur of their own. This process culminated in the 2018 publication of Siddur Avodat haLev. This siddur avoids the worst pitfalls of some earlier siddurim, but at the same time lacks some of their most positive and exciting attributes. It may be the first choice of no one, but the best choice for many communities. 

On the positive side of the ledger, the New RCA siddur is printed in a simplified and easy-to-read font. Those who find the Koren siddur overly ornate and hard to read should find the New RCA siddur easy to use and familiar. The English translation is printed in a normal, non-italic, font that is clear and usable. The translation is a notable improvement over the one found in the Artscroll (Old RCA) siddur and offers the English reader a literate and eloquent entree into the world of traditional tefilah. The commentary is culled from modern and classic rabbinic literature and focuses on sharing basic insights into the words of tefilah itself. 

The New RCA siddur also goes farther than any other Orthodox siddur in its awareness and sensitivity to the basic fact that half of the siddur’s regular users will be women. Hence, the siddur’s instructions explain that “one should recite” instead of “he should recite,” instructions for a zimmun for three or more women eating a meal together and ways to honor female hosts when men or women recite zimmun (p. 220) are included in the siddur, and the Hebrew text itself offers variants to accommodate a female worshipper (modah ani for women vs. modeh ani for men)

On the negative side of the ledger is the missed potential of what could have been. The commentary does not offer the sort of grand introduction to the components of Jewish prayer that Rabbi Sacks provides. The translation does not match the beauty of Rabbi Sacks’ translation, and similarly absent is the knowledge that a scholar such as Rabbi Sacks, in love with two languages, oversaw its publication. In a disappointing disconnect between the siddur’s editors and its target audience, seventeen out of eighteen brief essays on the history, meaning, and laws of tefillah that are included in this siddur were written by men (pp. E5E6). Many of those men are scholarly and influential leaders of our community whose words would be welcomed by anyone seeking to learn more about the siddur. Yet there are numerous female scholars whose scholarship could have been included, but was not. Their inclusion would have both modeled the ways that our community encourages men and women to become scholars of Torah and of Jewish liturgy, and helped female worshippers see themselves within the pages of the siddur.

Conclusion

The decision of which siddur a congregation should use is both a significant choice for any congregation, and a choice whose importance should not be exaggerated. Purchasing a new siddur is a significant expense for a shul, and the choice should not be made lightly. The  siddurim on our shelves is one of the first ways a visitor learns about a shul, its values, and religious priorities. Congregations should make these decisions with the hope and expectation that the siddurim that they purchase will be used for the next decade or more by hundreds and thousands of worshippers, including children who are not yet born!

At the same time, each time I consider this choice, I am reminded of the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who shared the following thoughts in a 1953 lecture that was subsequently published as “The Spirit of Jewish Prayer”:

To Kabbalah and Hasidism the primary problem was how to pray; to the modern movements, the primary problem was what to say. What has Hasidism accomplished? It has inspired worship in a vast number of Jews. What have the moderns accomplished? They have inspired the publication of a vast number of prayerbooks. 

Prayer, Heschel reminds us, is one of the most demanding and religiously worthwhile mitzvot. No siddur can turn prayer into an easy mitzvah. The energy invested in selecting the right siddur must be balanced by an even greater investment into learning how to use it, alongside a commitment to take advantage of the occasions on which we come together as a community as opportunities for transcendence and sanctity.