May 13, 2009

Jewish prayerbooks

John Hobbins is a Methodist preacher with polymath interests, so it is not surprising that he has turned his attention to Jewish prayerbooks.  John writes in an opinionated, and sometimes provocative and hyperbolic fashion, so rather than paraphrase his opinions, I will simply quote him:

The first thing you will want to do after reading the review is pre-order the about-to-be-published KorenSacks siddur, a great alternative to ArtScroll provincialism. I fail to see how one can read Lockshin’s comments without taking that step, if one cares to daven with all one’s mind, soul, and strength. To be sure, I find Sacks’ apologetics and rhetorical strategy sappy-sweet and unconvincing often enough. But it is not nearly as mind-numbing as ArtScroll’s approach tends to be. With Sacks’ siddur in one hand and Tabory’s JPS Commentary to the Haggadah (great price here) in the other, I will soon be in seventh heaven.

I wish to mention that other than Sack’s new prayerbook (which is not yet published), I own and have read all of the books listed in this post.

About Jewish Prayer

I wish to give my own discussion of Jewish English prayerbooks here.  First, let me discuss how Jewish prayer is different than Christian prayer.  Normative Jewish prayer occurs in groups of ten or more (a minyan).  It occurs three times a day; and more often on most holidays and on the Sabbath.  Orthodox Jewish prayer is long – a Saturday morning service may take 4 hours; regular morning prayers take 1 to 1.5 hours.  On some days, e.g., Yom Kippur, the entire day is spent in prayer.  Prayer is not lead by a rabbi (but by a chazzan or cantor – in some congregations, this is not a fixed position but rotates through all of the regular attendees), and no rabbi is necessary to conduct the prayer service.  Each praying member prays almost the entire service himself.  The service is prayed entirely in Hebrew (and Aramaic).  (However, prayer in English is considered valid.)

As this brief description makes clear, Jewish prayer services are rather unlike typical Christian Sunday services or masses.  In a traditional Latin Catholic mass, the service is conducted by the clergy and the audience watches the service.  In a Protestant megachurch setting, the audience may sing some songs, but the focus is on the sermon and Bible lesson.  Neither of these match well with Jewish prayer.

If one had to find a Christian analogue to Jewish prayer, it would be the liturgy of the hours in religious communities (e.g., Benedictine) where long sessions of prayer happen multiple times a day.  But even this analogy is loose, and Jewish prayer contains many unique features.

Before attempting Jewish prayer, it is helpful to understand more about the intricate structure of Jewish prayer.  There are a number of books that survey this:  two books that I like are Adin Steinsaltz’s Guide to Jewish Prayer and Elie Munk’s World of PrayerJohn mentions annotations in his post, but in fact, reading one of these overviews will serve one much better than reading the footnotes in a prayerbook.

ArtScroll prayerbook

Today, among Orthodox synagogues in the US with substantial English-speaking membership, the most popular prayerbooks (siddurim) are editions by ArtScroll and by Kehot (the latter are particularly widespread in Hassidic and Chabad synagogues).

25 years ago, before the arrival of ArtScroll, the situation in Hebrew-English prayerbooks was a bit sad.  The main problem was merely typography.  The reprints over the years had worn out the type and the Hebrew was difficult to read and sometimes completely unintelligible.  A second problem was that instructions (to stand up, sit down, etc.) were often omitted or written in Hebrew only, making it difficult for many newcomers to follow.  A third problem is that there are many liturgical songs and special prayers called piyyutim that were included or omitted in prayerbooks on a somewhat arbitrary basis.

ArtScroll addressed all of these problems and became a huge success as a result.  The Hebrew type in their prayerbooks is crystal clear; instructions are written out in English, and there is a wide variety of piyyutim included all carefully marked as optional.   It is because of the latter that ArtScroll prayerbooks are so much thicker than other Hebrew-English prayerbooks.

Beyond this, ArtScroll heavily innovated.  ArtScroll, which comes from the more haredi-oriented wing of Orthodox Judaism, published an edition for modern Orthodox, the RCA ArtScroll.  It is interesting to note that ArtScroll’s excellence was so striking that even their main intellectual opponents (the Modern Orthodox) in the Jewish world turned to ArtScroll to produce their standard prayerbook.

ArtScroll proceeded to publish Ashkenazi and Sephardic editions of their prayerbooks; to publish a full set of machzorim (again both in Ashkenazi and Separdic editions); and then produced interlinear editions (for those learning Hebrew) and transliterated editions with Roman characters (for newcomers unable to quickly sight-read prayerbooks) and corresponding editions of the machzorim and the psalter.

To date, I have seen no plans for anything close to ArtScroll program of prayerbook publications.  Merely on the basis of the included piyyutim, and the large variety of editions for Hebrew-learners, I think ArtScroll’s dominance in the prayerbook world is unlikely to be challenged.

Now, let me turn to the most controversial part of the ArtScroll prayerbooks – their annotations.  First, let me say it is easy to ignore these annotations since they are unobtrusive.  The annotations reflect a classical Talmudic view of prayer from a haredi perspective.  John calls this perspective “provincial” but I think that word misses the right nuance; I would instead call them “traditional.”

Annotated Prayerbooks

If one wishes a more scholarly annotated prayerbook, an excellent choice is the ten volume set (which won the National Jewish Book Award) called My People’s Prayer BookThese comprehensive volumes include about nine independent running commentaries on the prayers, examining the prayer from a variety of perspectives.  The publisher’s blurb says (and mostly holds true to this promise):  “most respected scholars and teachers from all perspectives of the Jewish world. They explore the text from the perspectives of ancient Rabbis and modern theologians, as well as feminist, halakhic, medieval, linguistic, biblical, Chasidic, mystical, and historical perspectives.”

Individual volumes include:

  1. The Sh’ma and its Blessings
  2. The Amidah
  3. P’sukei D’zimrah (Morning Psalms)
  4. Seder K’riyat Hatorah (Shabbat Torah Service)
  5. Birkhot Hashashar (Morning Blessings)
  6. Tachanun and Concluding Prayers
  7. Shabbat at Home
  8. Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming Shabbat in the Synagogue)
  9. Welcoming the Night: Minchah and Ma’aarim (Afternoon and Evening Prayers)
  10. Shabbat Morning: Shacharit and Musaf (Morning and Afternoon Services)

There is a matching Haggadah as well, described below

For Machzorim, a very special and highly idiosyncratic (and advanced) commentary on the machzorim can be found in editions that incorporate lessons from Joseph Soloveitchik.  Since the Rav often talked at length about the High Holy Days, there is a wide variety of excellent material available.  Because these volumes are actually printed and distributed by ArtScroll, they maintain the advantages of superior typography common to all ArtScroll editions.

Finally, I wish to again recommend Steinsaltz’s and Munk’s books mentioned above for a general overview of prayer.

Sack’s prayerbook

Jonathan Sacks is the head of the United Synagogue, one of many Jewish groups in Britain.  He is thus accorded the title “Chief Rabbi” (somewhat misleadingly).  He is a prolific author, and has published a number of excellent works.  In particular, he oversaw the preparation of the 2005 Authorized Daily Prayerbook, which is fine, although lacks many of the advantages of the ArtScroll.  Sacks has reportedly prepared an annotated edition of this book which will be published by Koren (which, like ArtScroll, is famous for beautiful typesetting of Hebrew books.)  Amazon reports this new prayerbook will be distributed this week, and I eagerly look forward to reading comments on it.

In the meanwhile, you can read two reviews from people who actually saw preliminary editions of this:  Elli Fischer (who is active in the conservadox egalitarian prayer movement) and the unique “Mississippi Fred MacDowell”.  Both of them illustrate their points with quotes.

John sharply criticizes Sacks, as quoted above, “I find Sacks’ apologetics and rhetorical strategy sappy-sweet and unconvincing often enough.”  I’m not sure if John actually saw the as yet unpublished siddur or if he is referring to some other work by Sacks; but his praise for the new siddur seem faint.  But it seems that I appreciated Sacks considerably more than John does.  Based on my reading of a similarly styled work; Sacks’ annotated Hagaddah, I have high hopes that this new siddur will be an excellent addition to Jewish libraries.  We will have to see though – I don’t want to review a book before I read it.

Nonetheless, if only because the number of editions is so sharply limited compared to the many dozens of editions available from ArtScroll, I doubt that Sacks’ siddur will make much headway at first.

Annotated Hagaddah

In passing, John also mentions the JPS Haggadah; and he is the first person that I’ve seen praise that work (although it has its merits).  I think there are many better choices, though.  I would not directly compare the Haggadah text (which is primarily talmudic in style) with a prayerbook, but as long as he raises the issue, I suggest these annotated Haggados instead:

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with the Maxwell House Haggadah – it is, after all, free.

No comments: