The Jewish Eye
The Koren Siddur
The Koren Siddur
With Introduction, Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks
Koren Publishers Jerusalem, 2009, 1244 pages.
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 26, 2009
Most Jews read the siddur, a Hebrew word meaning "order," implying the order of prayers, with little or no comprehension of what they are reading. They are no different than Christians and Muslim. All fail to fulfill the purpose of prayer. The Hebrew word for prayer is tefillah, which is based on a root that means "to judge oneself." Prayer in Judaism is more than a petition, the basic meaning of the Latin and Greek word upon which "prayer" is based. It is a time of reflection, of inner judgment, of considering change and improvement.
The siddur is an anthology of widely divergent ideas that were composed by Jews – and non-Jews in some instances, like the ma tovu ohalekha prayer that is at the beginning of the siddur - with different ideologies over a long period of time. The siddur contains pieces from the Bible, such as Psalms, and poems written in the sixteenth century by mystics, such as the prayer welcoming the Sabbath called in Hebrew lecha dodi. By incorporating such a wide spectrum of views, the rational and the mystical, old and relatively new, Jews are capable, if they understand the prayers, to reflect on what is being said, the history of their religion, the concerns of its adherents, see if and how the prayers relate to their lives, and ask themselves whether the prayer they are reading can help them develop themselves and improve society.
Does the new Koren Siddur improve upon these matters and aid Jews in better understanding what they are reading?
The answer is an emphatic "yes." Indeed this is one of the primary purposes of the new siddur. It aids Jews in acquiring all of the above-mentioned benefits by its manner of presentation, its translations and its commentaries. The following innovations of this new siddur are a small sample of how this siddur enhances its users’ period of prayer and their understanding of Judaism.
- Both the Hebrew and English are written with a beautiful font especially designed to enhance the siddur.
- Both the Hebrew and English are generally written with poetic spacing that, unlike run-on sentences, prompts the reader to think and consider the meaning of each phrase, as in the mourner’s kaddish:
Magnified and sanctified
may His great name be,
in the world He created by His will.
- There is a rational acceptance of the existence of the State of Israel and the United States, which is absent from the currently widely-used siddur. There are services for Yom Hazekaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom HaAtzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, and for Yom Yerushalayim, the day commemorating the reunion of Israel’s capital Jerusalem.
- Highly significant is the English translation and commentary of Sir Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the British Empire. Rabbi Sacks introduces the siddur with an instructive thirty-two page Understanding Jewish Prayer. Rabbi Sacks’ English is impeccable, unlike the yeshiva-type English contained in the currently popular siddur.
- Unlike this currently popular siddur that openly promotes a mystical ideology and a world-view where God is present in everyday affairs and manipulates individuals, groups and nations like puppets to do His will, Sacks’ translation and commentary is open-minded and reasonable. For example, while discussing Israel’s Independence Day, he mentions the mystic Nachmanides’ view (in his commentary to Leviticus 18:25) that Jews only fully fulfils the divine commands (mitzvot) when they perform them in Israel. Sacks writes, among other things: "Interpreted non-mystically, this means that the Torah represents the architecture of a society, it is not just a code for the salvation of the soul. The Torah includes laws relating to welfare, the environment, the administration of justice, employer-employee relations, and many other matters not normally thought of as religious. It is less about the ascent to heaven, than about bringing heaven down to earth in the form of a just, gracious and compassionate social order." This world-view stands in stark contrast to that advocated in the currently popular siddur.
- The new siddur contains a Guide to the Reader section that is an excellent introduction to how Hebrew should be pronounced and explains how the editors of the siddur made pronunciation easy by inserting clues in the Hebrew text. An example is that the emphasis on all Hebrew words should be on the last symbol except where the editors placed a small line next to the vowel in words that are not so pronounced.
- There is a section explaining how the services differ in Israel.
- There are 66 pages of 490 instructions on the laws of prayers.
- The editors of the new siddur recognize, as they should, that there have been centuries of debate as to the wording of some prayers. Two pages delineate these differences.
- Many people do not know when and how to respond to certain prayers – for example, should one say "amen." This is addressed.
- There are charts indicating what prayers could be said for special occasions, such as the birth of a child, for an illness and for guidance.
- Many synagogue attendees cannot read Hebrew and do not know how to navigate through a siddur, so the editors placed an English transliteration of the two types of mourners’ kaddish as the last pages of the siddur.
- It is refreshing and characteristic of the Koren Siddur to read on page 26 that Jews "believe that every human being is equally formed in the image of God," men and women, Jew and non-Jew.
These are just some of the many innovations introduced in the Koren Siddur. Synagogues should replace their current prayer books and give their parishioners this magnificent volume.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.
The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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