Writings from the Rabbis

A New Siddur for Beth Tzedec: Mah Nishtanah?
Mar 12th 2013

Tefillah, classical Jewish prayer, is one of the most challenging acts of our tradition for Jews of our century. To speak the traditional words of the siddur, to direct the heart to God and to feel some sense of attunement or response has become increasingly difficult. Our amazement has atrophied. We are inhibited by intellectual doubts, haunted by the Holocaust, and limited in our linguistic skills.

Yet candid conversations and academic analysis indicate that a yearning for a sense of the transcendent remains a deep desire of many people. So, despite our limitations, we return. We go back to rituals—to home and to synagogue. In the face of doubt and difficulty, we seek community and tradition, a connection to our souls and to the root-Soul of All. Yankev Glatshteyn, the Yiddish poet, articulated this ache in 1946:

Who will yearn after You, then? 
Who will flee You, over a bridge of longing, 
Only to return again? 
How to return?

For some, there is regular participation. For others, only an occasional celebration or sorrow brings them back to the ancient words. Some seek personal kavanah (mindfulness) or communal song. There are those who listen intently to the special melodies of Hazzan Spiro and the Beth Tzedec Singers, or to the derashot and divrei torah taught by our Rabbis. I witness strong feelings as names are called out before kaddish, as the Torah is carried through the aisles, when we sing “etz ˙hayim” together, and when families and individuals ascend to the Holy Ark at the close of Yom Kippur.

We know that these moments are fleeting, episodic. As Chancellor Arnold Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary has written, we need to do all this better, “to provide experiences of tefillah that, through music, words, and artful silence, usher [worshippers] into encounter with God, their fellow Jews, and themselves.”

Although there is no single solution, a combination of changes may help. Two years ago, when women were included in the minyan for public prayer, I hoped that this would encourage all people to take more seriously the responsibility of regular prayer. Another major development is about to occur in our congregation. 

As you may know from your own experience, the three most popular and influential Jewish books are the ẖumash, the siddur and the haggadah. On Pesaẖ, we use the haggadah for our home seder, the ẖumash for our synagogue Torah reading and the siddur for our personal and communal prayers. But this spring, one of these books will be different. This spring, Beth Tzedec will dedicate new siddurim, thanks to the generosity and graciousness of Ricky and Peter Cohen and Gabi Weisfeld.

We are gratified that Ricky, Peter and their children—Sarah and Michael, Martha and Teddy, Ethel and Jonathan—have dedicated Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals in memory of Ricky’s mother, Lillian Evelyn Dawson Stupp z”l. Lillian appreciated synagogue life, was deeply committed to Beth Tzedec, and devotedly recited kaddish at our daily minyan in memory of her son, Randallz”l. Sim Shalom will replace the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, originally published in 1947, that has been used at Beth Tzedec since our founding.

We are grateful to Gabi Weisfeld, who has done so much for Beth Tzedec, for dedicating Sim Shalom for Weekdays, in memory of her husband, Louis Weisfeldz”l. This siddur will replace The Weekday Prayer Book that has served us for over 50 years. To enhance the study of prayer, Gabi will also dedicate weekday and Shabbat editions of Or H̱adash: A Commentary on Siddur Sim Shalom. Additionally, to aid congregants with visual impairment, she will dedicate the large print edition of Sim Shalom in memory of her first husband, S. Robert Abrahamiz”l.

Mah nishtanah? What makes Sim Shalom different from our current siddur? While the vast number of traditional prayers remains the same, there is new liturgy that reflects the experience of the Holocaust and the existence of the State of Israel. Some tefillot include references to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and the texts reflect the participation of men and women. The supplementary readings feature works by contemporary scholars, writers and thinkers. Functional changes include more transliteration to enable non-Hebrew readers to participate, a gender sensitive translation, an easier to follow page lay-out, clarity of Hebrew fonts, and more helpful instructions.

There have been six generations of siddurim published by the Conservative Movement. The High Holiday Prayer Book (Silverman, 1939 and 1965), the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book (Morris Silverman, 1946), The Weekday Prayer Book (Hadas, 1961), Maẖzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (Harlow, 1972), Sim Shalom: A Comprehensive Siddur (Harlow, 1985), Sim Shalom for Shabbat and for Weekdays (Kahan, 1998 and Reisner, 2003) and, most recently, Maẖzor Lev Shalem (Feld, 2009). Each iteration reflects a more sensitive translation, adds more supplementary sources, and is more user-friendly. More recently, the siddurim also reflect more gender inclusiveness.

Or H̱adash is a full commentary on Sim Shalom by Reuven Hammer, who will be our guest scholar for Shavuot. It includes explanations and commentary, essays explaining the history, structure and meaning of prayers, and a full commentary on Pirkei Avot. Last year, Josette and I dedicated a siddur for families in shivah. The Bond of Life (Harlow, 1983) includes traditional prayers and sources for study, explanations of mourning rituals, inspirational reflections and an essay on the psychology of grief.

These new siddurim are long overdue and an important component of our efforts to deepen and renew our experience of prayer. You also have the opportunity to inscribe individual siddurim in memory or in honour of someone you love. Information will be sent to you shortly. 

But to enable prayer to be truly meaningful, each of us must also bring something to the moment. In Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin writes about deliberative practice, a willingness to devote time to what one is not good at and motivation to practice alone. When the haggadah tells us that “in every generation we must see ourselves as if we were leaving Egypt”, it suggests that to move ourselves from the past to the future, we must be willing to go through an effort comparable to that of Exodus. The Torah tells us, “Then, the people of Israel could sing”.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel differentiated between prayer of expression and prayer of empathy. The prayer of expression stems from our inner feelings and searches for a vessel, words to express what is trying to burst forth from our soul. That is the inchoate yearning I have seen and heard in moments of pain and overwhelming joy. The prayer of empathy begins with the word on the page and seeks to evoke from within us mirrored feelings. Our new siddurim are intended to help us with those prayers, to better articulate our tefillot, to enable us to empathize with the language of the liturgy so that we might gain more spiritual insight and attunement. 

Our new siddurim are akin to splitting the Sea of Reeds. They open the waters for us. But we must still walk forward on our own. Then the people of Israel will be able to sing.

Mah Nishtanah—What is Different?

Some of the differences between a Conservative siddur and an Orthodox version are:

A modification of three morning berakhot that praise God for creating each individual in the image of God, a free person and a Jew, rather than the classical text that expresses gratitude for not having been created a woman, a slave and a non-Jew.

Retaining the memory of the sacrificial system rather than a hope for its restoration. Sacrifice was the classical means of gaining atonement from sin and closeness to God. After the destruction of the Temple, the Rabbis of the Talmud indicated that prayer and deeds of ẖesed would stand in place of sacrifice. The recitation of Biblical passages about sacrifice was another way of retaining the memory of the Temple service. In Sim Shalom, the early morning study selections emphasize that deeds of loving-kindness provide atonement from sin and a connection to God.

Rephrasing the prayers in the Shabbat and Holiday Musaf service for a resumption of the sacrificial system to state that our ancestors formerly brought these offerings. 

Adding a new “al hanissim” (for the miracles) to take note of the birth and vibrancy of the State of Israel as a contemporary miracle.

Modifying the prayer for peace, Sim Shalom, which concludes the daily Amidah, to explicitly articulate our concern for universal peace. 

Changing the Shabbat prayer for the welfare of the community to include those who are devoted to the rebuilding of the Land of Israel, and to refer to the teachers of Torah throughout the world (and not historical Babylonia).

Adapting, abridging and adding to the weekday Taẖanun prayers to encourage more personal supplications. 

Revising the Tishah b’Avprayer Naẖem, to mourn for the destruction of the Temple, and to recognize the contemporary reality of a reborn Jewish State. Siddur Sim Shalom also includes other readings and prayers that give voice to the losses of our people during the Holocaust.

Adding or restoring prayers derived from the Jewish mystical tradition, including Kiddush Levana (blessing the advent of the new moon) which was deleted in the Silverman prayer book.

Rephrasing English language prayers to be gender sensitive. Where appropriate, Hebrew prayers include references to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Hebrew formulations of prayers reflect the participation of men and women.

Presenting the opening berakhah of the Amidah in two versions. The traditional language, mentioning “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”, will continue to the phrasing for public liturgy at Beth Tzedec. A version including “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah” will be an option at Beth Tzedec for personal prayer.

Adapted from: www.shamash.org/lists/scjfaq/HTML/faq/09-19.html

Resources for further thinking on this subject:

Erica Brown, 10,000 Hours.

Arnold Eisen, Tefillah. www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/blog/pdfs/Tefillah.pdf

Arnold Eisen, Make Some Noise.

For more information about the differences between Orthodox and Conservative prayer books, please contact Rav Baruch's assistant, Lynn Levy.