Beginner’s Guide to the Siddur

September 7, 2014
Mishkan T'filah

Mishkan T’filah, the Reform siddur

A siddur (seh-DOOR or SID-der) is a Jewish prayer book. It is an anthology of prayers, readings, and poetry, some of which date to the time of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The word siddur means “order.” It is just that: it gives the proper order for the service. The plural is siddurim.

There have been many different siddurim since medieval times because each siddur reflects the custom of a particular group of Jews. There are some major, well-known siddurim with wide distribution, such as Mishkan T’filah (Reform), Siddur Sim Shalom (Conservative), Kol HaNeshamah (Reconstructionist), Siddur HaShalem and Siddur Rinat Yisrael (Orthodox.)

Some smaller communities produce their own siddurim. For instance, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco has published its prayer book, Siddur Sha’ar Zahav.

What prayer book is best for you? The one your community uses. While the basic order of service is the same in every siddur, small differences in wording, pagination, and arrangement can be extremely frustrating. Unless you want to have a copy for home study and prayer, there is no need to buy a prayer book: most synagogues provide them for worshippers. However, if you want to take it home or put marks in it, buy your own!

Liturgist and Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski once described the siddur as “the journal of the Jewish People.” Torah is God’s gift to Israel, but the siddur is in the words of our ancestors, our scholars, and our poets.


Bless Your Heart!

August 28, 2014

heart“Bless your heart!”

The urban dictionary and my not-Southern friends tell me that these words are the way Southerners tell a person that he or she is a fool without actually saying so.

This grieves me.

I grew up using this phrase to express genuine sympathy. There may be parts of the Southeast US where people use it sarcastically, but I guess I’m from a different part of the South. Or maybe I’m such a fool that I didn’t realize it was sarcasm.

It springs to my lips when a friend tells me that they have cancer, or that their dog died. I know I can’t do or say anything that will fix things. All I can do is express my solidarity with their situation, and those are the words with which I learned to do it. The phrase springs directly from my own heart to theirs: “Bless your heart!”

In good times, a blessing is a celebration of the good. In bad times, it is a fervent wish for better times. In Jewish tradition, it is a pause in the flood of experience to stop, to pay attention, to be present.

I think the world would be a better place if we blessed each other more often.

So know that if I say to you, “Bless your heart!” I’m not being sarcastic. I’m just the kind of fool that loves blessings.


Which Jewish Song has More Tunes than Any Other?

August 24, 2014

אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם

Adon Olam

If you attend synagogue services, sooner or later you will encounter Adon Olam, an ancient hymn. It has been part of the daily service since the 15th century.

The words are beautiful, and in Hebrew they are perfectly metrical. Because it is a beloved prayer that scans perfectly to 4/4 time, (iambic tetrameter, for poetry geeks) it can be sung to any melody in 4/4 time. Beautiful melodies have been written for it. Here’s an example:

If you search for keywords “Adon Olam Traditional” on YouTube.com, you’ll find many more. Here’s one of my favorites:

Because it’s so perfectly regular, you can also sing it to pop tunes. Here’s one making the rounds of the Internet lately:

I’ll spare you the one of two tweens singing it to a Justin Bieber tune. Suffice it to say, you can sing it to anything from “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

For many Jews, myself included, the words can be a mantra in time of trouble. In essence, they affirm a faith in a God beyond all human understanding who is nevertheless present to my distress:

Adon olam, asher malach,
b’terem kol y’tzir nivra.
L’et na’asah v’cheftzo kol,
azai melech sh’mo nikra.

V’acharey kichlot hakol,
l’vado yimloch nora.
V’hu haya, v’hu hoveh,
v’hu yih’yeh b’tifara.

V’hu echad, v’eyn sheni
l’hamshil lo, l’hachbira.
B’li reishit, b’li tachlit,
v’lo ha’oz v’hamisrah.

V’hu Eli, v’chai go’ali,
v’tzur chevli b’et tzarah.
V’hu nisi umanos li,
m’nat kosi b’yom ekra.

B’yado afkid ruchi
b’et ishan v’a’irah.
V’im ruchi g’viyati,
Adonai li v’lo ira.

Translation: (note: Hebrew is a gendered language. In the interest of giving a fairly literal translation, I employed masculine pronouns. However, God is beyond all gender.)

The Eternal Ruler who reigned
before anything was created:
When all was made by His will
“Monarch” he was proclaimed to be.

And when everything is no more
He still all alone shall reign.
He was, He is,
and He shall be in glory.

And He is one, and there’s no other,
to compare or join Him.
Without beginning, without end
and to Him belongs dominion and power.

He is my God, my living Ransomer.
my solid Rock in time of trouble,
and He is my miracle and my refuge,
who answers on the day I call.

To Him I commit my spirit,
in the time of sleep and at waking,
And as with my spirit, so my body:
God is with me, I shall not fear.

Do you have a favorite tune for Adon Olam? What’s your favorite Jewish song?


Praying the Sh’ma

August 7, 2014

The Shema in a Siddur (Prayer Book)

The Shema in a Siddur (Prayer Book)

 

Sh’ma Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad!

Listen, Israel! The Eternal* is our God, the Eternal is One!

This week’s Torah portion, V’etchanan, contains the Sh’ma, the Jewish statement of faith. The Sh’ma is the first prayer a Jewish child learns and often the last prayer on the lips of a dying Jew.

A teacher once gave me an exercise that I still find useful:

1. Find a quiet place to sit.

2. Say the first word of the Sh’ma: “Sh’ma.” Say it aloud, and listen to it.

3. Think about what that word means. Let your mind flow to other possibilities than the usual “Hear.” Or let your mind linger on the sound of the word. It’s up to you. (You can do this either in Hebrew or in English. Do what is comfortable for you.) Let your mind play with it until it is ready for something new.

4. Take a moment to be completely silent. Then take the next word, “Yisrael.” Say it aloud. Listen to it. Think about what all the various things the word means to you. Let your mind linger on it for a while.

When you are ready, proceed through the rest of the Sh’ma, one word at a time.

Sh’ma. Yisrael. Adonai. Eloheinu. Adonai. Echad.

Listen. Israel. Name of God. Our God. Name of God. One.

Now here’s my question: What does the Sh’ma mean to you? 

*The actual word in Hebrew is the Name of God, which Jews do not pronounce. You may fill in with “Adonai,” “HaShem,” “The Eternal,” “Lord” or whatever works for you. Or you may simply be silent.

 

 

 


There’s an App for Blessings!

July 20, 2014

blessingsA reader asked about blessings: how can one learn them, learn which is for which, and so on?

The easiest way to learn that I know is an “app” from the Central Conference of American Rabbis (yes, I’m a member.) It’s called “Daily Blessings.” It includes the traditional blessings, plus some innovative ones that the Reform rabbis found useful.

It sorts them by menus, so that you can use the app to figure out which blessing is appropriate. It gives you the Hebrew, the English, and a transliteration of the Hebrew, so that you can say the blessing in either language. If you want to hear the Hebrew, you can play the blessing, voiced by an Israeli rabbi. It’s available through both GooglePlay (Android), iTunes, and NookApps.

At $1.99, it’s a deal.

Go and learn!

 


A Blessing for Tomatoes

July 11, 2014
From my garden

In my garden

Observant Jews make a blessing before we eat, not just before meals, but before we eat a bite of anything. It is a way of acknowledging that the world is not ours, that we did not create the food, and that we notice the blessings around us.

My garden is a little late this year, but I finally have tomatoes reddening on the vine. Before I eat one, I’ll say the blessing for food that grows from the earth:

 

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, bo-rey pe-ri ha-adamah.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the earth.

 

If you are eating the tomatoes with a full meal, then you can skip the tomato blessing and “cover” the entire meal with the blessing for bread (assuming you have bread at the meal):

Ba-ruch A-ta, Adonai El-o-hei-nu, Me-lech ha-olam, ha-motzi le-chem min ha-aretz.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the land.

 

I’ll cover more food blessings in future posts. For now, if it grows in the ground, “borey peri ha-adamah.”

And if it is bread, “ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz.”

And yes, if the Hebrew is daunting, prayers in English absolutely do count!

 


Smooth Davener

June 22, 2014

I’m very, very tired after a wonderful weekend of wedding festivities. Still I had a thought today that I wanted to share on this blog.

We prayed all weekend, from Friday night services, to Saturday morning services, to Havdalah Saturday evening. We used the Reconstructionist prayer book for services. Three of the officiating rabbis were Reform rabbis and one was Conservative. I am not sure where the cantor went to school, but her voice was from heaven.

The out-of-town guests were of all backgrounds, and from all over the world: most were Jewish, but not all. Some were American secular, some Reform, some from Conservative and Orthodox homes. A few were clearly very traditional, walking to synagogue, and dressing for modesty, heads covered. The Israelis were all secular, but of course, Hebrew was no bar for them, but some of the prayers were in English, too.

Most of us hadn’t met except by hearing about each other from the couple. The lovely thing about having Shabbat together and davening our way through it was that the individuals who came together had, by the time of the chuppah, become a kahal. We had played Jewish Geography, played peekaboo with the cantor’s adorable baby, and shared our “how I met David & Yuval” stories. The Israelis tried out their English, the Americans tried out their Hebrew. But more than that, we and the regular congregation had prayed our way through Shabbat.

I doubt there was anyone in any of the services who found them 100% familiar, because the siddur (Prayer Book) was somewhat unfamiliar to the rabbis and the rabbis were completely unfamiliar to the congregation. We all do things differently. I knew the prayers, but some of the tunes were new to me, and everyone else was unfamiliar with some aspect of the services. But we stumbled together, we let the people who were leading carry us, and we became a congregation. By the time we got to the wedding itself, we were One.

I know that Jewish communal prayer is a challenge for some of my readers. And yes, there are things one has to learn, but the fantasy of being a “smooth davener” can actually get in the way of your real life prayer experience.  None of us so-called experts are all that expert except in our familiar minyanim, our home congregational praying-groups. Put us with a diverse new bunch of Jews and it gets messy fast. That’s OK, if we can resist the urge to squabble about the “right way” to do things and simply let it go and pray together.

The biggest barrier for me in that situation is my ego. If I need to look “expert” then I’m going to be uncomfortable. I learned all my Hebrew as an adult, and when some words are new, I stumble. I don’t know every tune that was ever invented, either. Back when I clung to the fantasy that someday I’d be a smooth davener, services could be miserable. I was unsure of the pages, unsure of the tunes, unsure of the words, and absolutely sure that I looked like a fool.

This weekend, there were moments when I was unsure of the page, unsure of the tune, stumbling over the words, and it was all OK. After twenty years of davening as a Jew and eight as a rabbi, I know that that’s going to happen with an unfamiliar siddur and a minyan that’s new to me.  When those moments came, I shut my eyes, relaxed my body, and felt the prayers around me lift me, like a fresh breeze under my wings. And it was all good.


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