kosher bookworm

A new prayerbook for American Jews: The Koren Siddur


Issue of May 22, 2009 / 28 Iyar 5769

Perhaps it was Dr. Philip Birnbaum who said it best: “The Siddur is the most popular book in Jewish life.

No book so completely unites the dispersed people of Israel. If any single volume can tell us what it means to be a Jew, it is the Siddur which embodies the visions and aspirations, the sorrows and joys of many generations... The whole gamut of Jewish history may be traversed in its pages: it is a mirror that reflects the development of the Jewish spirit throughout the ages... No other book so thoroughly expresses the creative genius of our people across the centuries.”

For all of my youth on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, both at The Community Synagogue Center and at the Young Israel of Manhattan, the Birnbaum Siddur was “the” siddur of choice.

For decades, this was the prayerbook that defined an era spanning the mid and late decades of the 20th century, a prayerbook that was to be found in the pews of Orthodox and traditional synagogues, nationwide.

Then Artscroll came along and, in one fell swoop, wiped the Birnbaun Siddur into near oblivion. For the next two decades their beautiful siddurim and chumashim  became the standard for many, sans the prayers for the State of Israel and absent in their commentaries the teachings of Rav Kook and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, as well as other ideologically motivated omissions.

Now, the decades have passed and a restlessness that has been churning for the past decade has brought forth a newly redesigned siddur responding to a change in religious ideological commitment and political reality.

While it is not the intent of this essay to go into great detail as to what defines this new mood, it will be this writer’s intent to attempt to spell out his impressions as to what the new Koren Siddur has come to represent for us and for the next generations to come.

First and foremost is change. Both in sponsorship and format this new prayerbook represents a brazen ideological reaffirmation of what has long been felt to be the deep seated sentiments of Orthodox and traditional Jewry in America, the mainstreaming of the State of Israel within the liturgical choreography of our worship service. Throughout this siddur, proudly sponsored by the Orthodox Union, is to be found rubrics that note the observances of Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. This is a first for an American-sponsored Orthodox prayerbook.

Whether it be the actual services themselves or the omission of Tachanun, or the recitation of Hallel, the introductory instructions reference the worshipper to the appropriate service and its location.

Change is most evident from the get go as you open the siddur and find the Hebrew text on the left side and the English translation on the right. This reversal has a reason and purpose to help enhance one’s devotion to prayer. The overall appearance of this siddur contributes  to a better appreciation of the texts, and the practical and understandable translation by British Chief Rabbi Jonathan  Sacks, which further reinforces that devotion.

The publisher, Koren Publishers of Jerusalem, has produced a clean and spare page with the Hebrew and English texts coming together at sentence end at the spin of each page. This, in my opinion, has made the siddur a more readable volume and most pleasing to the eye. Also, inasmuch as the siddur is primarily used in the original Hebrew, when opening up the siddur, the eye usually focuses to the left and that is where the Hebrew text is found  in this new  format  — where it belongs.

In a most learned essay recently written and published by Yeshiva University by Rabbi Jack Bieler, entitled “Fear of God and Prayer,” Rabbi Bieler goes into great detail highlighting some of the basic negatives of the Jewish worship service. Themed to the book’s intent on the enhancement of “Yirat Shamayim,” the book’s title (Ktav, 2008), the author delineates  an 11-point initiative aimed at improving prayer in the modern Orthodox mode.

The first of these points is directly relevant to what this new Koren Siddur aims to accomplish. Consider this:

“A redesign of siddurim that would engender greater focus and a more meaningful spiritual experience.”

All the rest is built upon and predicated on this first point. Without a viable, presentable and practical siddur, all the rest represents futility. In this, the Koren Siddur succeeds.

Further, it was noted at the outset that this is an American siddur. The question can be legitimately asked as to how this is so if this siddur is produced and printed in Israel by an Israeli publisher, utilizing a distinctive Israeli generated type set and translated with an elegant commentary by a rabbi who is an Englishman. A fair question, yet when seen through its content, the American yichus of this siddur will quickly become apparent.

First, its nusach is Ashkenaz for the diaspora. The Israeli alternatives are just that, alternatives for the tourists. Also, in addition to the appropriate prayers for the State of Israel and Tzahal, this siddur includes the traditional prayer on behalf of the welfare and wellbeing of our own national government and our country.

However, in addition to that, there is something else unique not only to this siddur, but  which  represents something very special in the history of the development of modern Jewish liturgy. On page 521, right after the prayer for the welfare of the government, there is a special tefillah titled   “Prayer For The Safety Of The American Military Forces.”

This special prayer has never before appeared in a traditional siddur and is unique to this siddur. For me, this has further come to endear this particular siddur to me.

The recognition of our armed forces and to pray for their safety especially in this time of war and national peril represents the greatest Kiddush Hashem any Jewish organization can commit itself to on behalf of American Jewry.

The Orthodox Union and its leadership who generated the original text to this prayer and Rabbi Sacks who gave it a new and most  sensitive translation are to be commended for this trailblazing and long overdue mitzvah. In effect, this tefillah enables us to extend our blessing over our men and women worldwide who risk their lives on behalf of the freedoms we enjoy here on these blessed shores.

Fortunate are they to have had the pen and talent of Rabbi Sacks, whose understanding and appreciation of the American political tradition  has been demonstrated time and again in the context of him many Divrei Torah over these many years. This depth of knowledge is reflected here and is appreciated.

The month of May is dedicated to a salute in honor of our US Armed Forces. This past Shabbos was Armed Forces Day and this coming Monday is Memorial Day, a commemorative that is taken very seriously in our community. Memorial Day observances in most suburbs take on a different cast from what we had witnessed in “the city” and to this we are proud to observe and to participate.

This siddur is proudly displayed in most seforim stores in our community. In light of the above noted tefillah, this siddur would make for an appropriate gift at this most solemn time on the civil calendar.

I began this essay with a quote from the great Dr. Philip Birnbaum, of blessed memory, that set the tone as to the importance the siddur has represented  for us down through the ages. I would like to conclude with a teaching from someone whom I personally  regard as the leading translator and  interpreter of Jewish liturgy today, our friend and long time resident of the South Shore, and a maggid shiur at Sh'or Yoshuv, Rabbi Avraham Davis, shlita, who taught us the following concerning the efficacy of prayer:

“Of all human activity, nothing so defines man as prayer. Prayer is man’s connection with the spiritual world, and as such it distinguishes man from other forms of creation... Man does not simply utter words of prayer, but rather becomes the living embodiment of the words he prays. By internalizing and personifying the words of prayer, man has the ability to achieve the pinnacle of his connection with the Divine.”

I am certain that both Eliyahu Koren, zt’’l, who designed the letters that bear his name and Rabbi Sacks, through his magnificent translation, represent most accurately the sentiments expressed by Rav Davis. To the Orthodox Union I say that I look forward to your next project on  the Chumash. Yashar Ko’ach to all for a most difficult task successfully accomplished.