Beginner’s Guide to the Siddur

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.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

6 thoughts on “Beginner’s Guide to the Siddur”

  1. This is the siddur my temple uses. I do get confused, though, trying to understand how the rabbi or cantor picks what we’re going to sing or chant. Is there any set order? Or is it just the rabbi’s choice?

    I guess I’m trying to discern if there’s a general pattern to the service or not. As far as I can tell, our rabbi generally uses the same prayers and chants at the start and end of the service, but sometimes what goes in the middle is a little mixed up. Is there a set of prayers that are always supposed to happen in a set order? I guess I want to know this because coming from a Catholic background I always knew what was coming up next; right now with the siddur, I’m still confused most of the time.

    1. Adam, that’s a really good question, and I’m going to answer it in my post tonight.

      The bottom line is that yes, there are key elements, and the rest of it can be shortened or lengthened in many ways.

      More soon, I promise!

  2. Oh, one more thing. When exactly do you bow? I see people doing it but I cannot pin it down to something specific in the siddur yet. Help?

    1. This post may help answer your question, Adam: Dancing with the Rabbis. I find it helpful to think of the service as something we dance as well as sing, although the bowing is optional. Only a few pieces of “choreography” are really essential to Jewish Prayer, like standing (if you are able) for the Amidah (long standing series of prayers after the Shema) and always facing the Torah, even when they are marching it around the room.

      This is another thing most of us learn by doing it over and over with the congregation. The #1 best thing you can do to learn is to attend services regularly.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

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