How to Choose a Siddur

Jewish prayerbooks today are easier on the eye--but they challenge the heart and mind in diverse ways

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Reform: Diversity and Development

If you are looking for a siddur that downplays Hebrew in favor of short paragraphs of fluid English, you may want to try the Reform Gates of Prayer. When it was published in 1975, it was a groundbreaking publication. Reflecting rather than masking the theological diversity of its Reform publishers, Gates of Prayer offered alternative versions of each service: weekday morning or evening, Shabbat morning or evening, with no fewer than 10 versions of the Friday night liturgy. It offered much more Hebrew than earlier Reform siddurim, as well as an acceptance of Jewish nationalism.

The book's editor, Rabbi Chaim Stern, was the Reform movement's outstanding liturgist of the late 20th century. His voice is heard in the poetic cadences of its translations and its new meditations. His, too, is much of the deft reworking of traditional Hebrew passages once excised but now extensively emended instead, often on the basis of ancient versions, to conform to Reform Judaism's tenets. This siddur does not accept literal conception of the revelation of Torah, the physical resurrection of the dead, and the reinstitution of sacrifices. A partial re-issue of Gates of Prayer, featuring gender-sensitive language, has been published by the CCAR.

In keeping with this admonition that "'Reform' is a verb," the publishers of Reform liturgy prepared a new siddur, Mishkan T'fillah ("sanctuary of prayer"), which marks yet another new approach. Diversity has not disappeared. Instead of multiple services, though, each with its ideological bent, some individual page spreads in Mishkan T'fillah offer as many as four versions of the same text, with one of those versions being a full Hebrew text and a transliteration alongside it. The editors want to enable worshippers to return in large measure to all-Hebrew worship, but they also provide the tools to enable participation by those who cannot phonetically decode the Hebrew text.

The biblical matriarchs appear alongside the patriarchs in this siddur, one of many indications that this prayerbook is aimed at a gender-egalitarian society. There are two other subtle but important innovations. Unlike most full-use prayerbooks, this siddur does not begin with the weekday service and go on to Shabbat. It gives primacy of place to the Shabbat liturgy, with the weekday following behind. On the other hand, materials for home observances, such as Kiddush and the parents' blessing for their children on Friday night before dinner, come first in Mishkan T'fillah, symbolizing a new awareness of the primacy of the home in inculcating Jewish knowledge and commitment.

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Rabbi Peretz Rodman

Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based rabbi, teacher, writer, editor, and translator. He was a founding editor of MyJewishLearning.com.