June 8, 2024
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‘Of Making Many Books There Is No End’

The Jewish prayer book, or siddur, is the one Jewish text that Jews use most frequently but about which they know the least. When the first authorized siddur appeared in the ninth century, Rav Amram Gaon appended some instructions and laws. In the following centuries and across many countries, various prayer books (based on the Seder Rav Amram) appeared. Most consisted of just prayers with local variants. For the masses, this sufficed. At the same time, the schools of RaShI, the RASh and chasidei Ashkenaz produced extensive commentaries on the siddur. Throughout the various periods of Jewish history up to and including the 21st century, these two approaches continued to be published—text and commentary. Generally speaking, most Jews were/are interested in just the text with which they are most comfortable.

I grew up with the vanilla Tikkun Meir siddur. Others in the mid 20th-century may have used Tefilat Kol Peh, Kol Bo, or the Singer, Adler, or Phillips editions with English translation, or the Roedelheim siddur. This does not include the various chasidic siddurim or the nascent Sephardic siddurim. I am generalizing, but most American Orthodox synagogue goers at a time when intensive Jewish education was just coming into its own were content with a siddur whose text was familiar even though they may not have fully understood what they were saying or why.

Then two simultaneous revolutions occurred. Dr. Phillip Birnbaum, a rabbinic and Hebraic scholar, published his edition of the siddur (1949) including a new translation and an introduction about the textual corrections he was making. There were also notes about various customs and laws and source citations for the text of the prayers. This siddur was soon adopted in most Orthodox synagogues and within a decade was ubiquitous. Parisian Rabbi Elie Munk published his two-volume work Olam haTefila (1954), which was translated into “The World of Prayer” shortly thereafter (1961). This work provided a commentary and analysis of the prayers in layman’s terms so everyone who prayed could understand not only what he/she was saying but the deeper meanings of the prayers.

In the ensuing years, many, many different siddurim appeared, but the Birnbaum siddur was a mainstay in most shuls. Commentaries on the siddur also began to appear but as separate books. For the layman, the Birnbaum siddur was great. Those who wanted more explanations could turn to the siddur commentaries of Rabbis S.R. Hirsch and Joseph Hertz, Rabbi Wohlgemuth, or R. Nissan Mindel. Those who sought more detailed analysis had a plethora of siddur commentaries in Hebrew by Rav Kook, Yitzhak Baer, R. Yakov Emden, the Vilna Gaon, R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein, Otzar HaTefillos, and many others. The classic multi-volumed Netiv Bina by Rav Jacobson is the most comprehensive anthology of sources.

In 1960, the Rabbinical Council of America published a hefty volume for Shabbos and holidays edited and translated by Rabbi David DeSola Pool. For a variety of reasons it was not popularly adopted and was sidelined by the popularity of the Birnbaum siddur. The ArtScroll publishing machine gained prominence in the late ‘70s and steamrolled to distinction with the publication of their first (light tan color) siddur in 1984. Sources, notes, laws and practices embellished the text. Scholars quibbled with the translations and some other nuances due mainly to their charedi orientation, but it was very successful and began to be adopted in many synagogues. By the mid ‘80s shuls were including the prayer for the government and for the welfare of Israel in their services. These were both omitted in the ArtScroll siddur.

To rectify this omission, The Rabbinical Council of America sponsored a new (dark navy) edition of the ArtScroll siddur that included these prayers as well as an introduction by Rabbi Saul Berman. It is safe to say that this siddur has replaced the Birnbaum siddur in almost all Orthodox shuls. In the ensuing years, many other siddurim were published. Rinat Yisrael, the Metzudah Siddur, the Mesoras haRav Siddur, and others, but the ArtScroll siddur has retained its place of prominence as the siddur of choice in most shuls, although the Koren siddur is also enjoying popularity.

Now, in the first half of the 21st century, congregants are better educated and many are committed to serious Torah study. One area that requires more study is the siddur. Every prayer can be studied as if it was a piece of gemara. Not only the words themselves but the structure of the prayers, prerequisites to prayer, as well as its composition should be considered. The mature scholar has many resources as his/her disposal to accomplish this. The layman needs a guide that is accessible and manageable. Enter the new RCA siddur, Siddur Avodat HaLev. Recently released, this tome is almost 1500 pages but on thin paper so it is almost the same size as the Birnbaum or ArtScroll siddur. This is important because this siddur is meant to be used and consulted regularly. It features a new translation, sections for laws and customs, explanatory essays, and a running commentary utilizing classic as well as contemporary rabbinic and academic sources. The commentaries are straightforward and not tendentious. They are easy to understand and make the prayers more meaningful. The essays provide much information for contemplation and help to make the prayer experience more evocative.

The topics addressed in the 20 essays cover the history of our prayers, the philosophy of our prayers and of praying, many halachot, nusach, efficacy of prayers and, of course, kavana. The writers include a who’s-who of the Modern Orthodox yeshiva world including roshei yeshiva, academics, pulpit rabbis, and a rebbetzin. The siddur itself, aside from all standard prayers, includes prayers for all life-cycle events, Yom Haatzmaut, Yom Yerushalayim, and Yom HaShoah. This siddur also reflects sensitivity to women’s prayer experiences by including additional texts to enhance candle lighting, and appropriate texts for women’s zimmun and birkat haGomel. Full text formulations for gabbaim are also included.

The siddur is not just a collection of prayers. It is also a vehicle for Torah study. This volume achieves that goal and should be in everyone’s home and synagogue.


Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has taught the siddur at Frisch, Stern College, and at the Columbia Barnard Beit Medrash Program.

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