Rethinking Jewish Prayer, Part III

Practical Suggestions

A few days ago, in the first post, we discussed our re-engagement with Jewish prayer, describing how we are not just reciting meaningless words, or remembering something that happened in the past. Rather, Jewish prayer is a re-enactment of sacred events. It is participation in a Sacred drama. Therefore, we encouraged thinking about the Siddur as a script. Through reenacting these events, we live out the story of the Jewish people, our Covenant with HaShem, and participate with the angels in heavenly worship. The Siddur, in so many ways, reminds us of who we really are and what G-d expects from us.

In the second post, we looked at the baggage we often bring to Jewish prayer which can inhibit our ability to get the most out of it. This week we’ll explore how to find deeper spirituality in Jewish prayer, and some practical suggestions for finding a proper prayer book that’s right for you.

Finding a Siddur

Most people do not realize that one should shop for a Siddur the same way one should shop for a Bible. With so many different versions and styles, it is important to not settle on the first one you find, or to necessarily settle on the one your local community uses. Rather, for your own private devotions it is important to find a Siddur that speaks most to you. After all, it is called a “prayer book” for a reason. If your Siddur does not move you spiritually, and inspire you to new levels of prayer, there is a problem.

It is also a good idea to have two or three different versions. Just as one should study the Bible from different versions, so should one recognize that same richness in variety when it comes to the Siddur. Not all prayer books are created equal. What speaks to you may not speak to someone else. And what moves you at one moment may not at another. So mix it up to keep up the spontaneity and freshness.

So many people pray only from one type of Siddur. Either because they are caught up in a mindset that says, “this is the most authentic prayer book,” or because they are simply not aware of the numerous versions of prayer books. It is important to remember there is no one way to be Jewish. Jewish life is actually broader then we often consider. As such, there are also prayer books that reflect these variations.

In my first post on Jewish prayer I mentioned my preference to daven from Sim Shalom, the Conservative prayer book because of its traditional approach, yet consideration of matters of social justice and egalitarianism. At other times I prefer Artscroll’s complete Hebrew version. And yet, there are also times when I might flip open the new Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, for its rich spiritual and inspiring commentary, or the new Koren Siddur, with its rich progressive Orthodox commentary by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

When it comes to the Siddur … think bigger! And think out of the box. In an effort to get people to think beyond Artscroll (which is also a great Siddur), there are a number of other Siddurim also worth considering.

Other Helpful Suggestions

Baby Steps: Incorporate Jewish prayer into your life a little at a time.

For example:

  • Pray the Modeh Ani when you wake up, and pray the Shema when you go to bed.
  • Try to pray an abbreviated Shacharit (morning) service once a week … and build from there. For example, start with Ma Tovu, read a Psalm or two, recite the Shema and Amidah, and then close with the Aleinu.
  • If you are Jewish, go to a morning minyan at a local synagogue that is user friendly to familiarize yourself with the Siddur, and allow the melodies and words to become familiar to you.

If you are a congregational leader:

  • Do an occasional learner’s minyan.
  • Make liturgy accessible.
  • Experiment a little. Try new melodies to make it engaging. Who said liturgy has to be slow and boring? At one time, the melodies we now consider “traditional” were new and daring.
  • Visit area synagogues and observe how they make liturgy user friendly.
  • Occasionally give brief and inspiring explanations before prayers (don’t do the same explanations every week, that’s the antithesis of inspiration!)
  • If your community uses a prayer book, call out page numbers regularly.
  • Involve the music/”worship” leader in discussions of incorporating liturgy into your service.
  • Experiment with new seating arrangements: take the leadership off the bimah and set them on the floor. Put everyone in a circle. It makes prayer a communal experience, not a spectator sport.

A Few Recommended Resources

The Synagogue Survival Kit – by Jordan Lee Wagner

To Pray as a Jew – by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donnin

First Steps in Hebrew Prayer – by Dr. Danny Ben Gigi (also comes with a CD)

The Book of Blessings – by Marcia Falk

*There are also a number of websites which offer liturgical help.

Jewish prayer is what you make of it. It can either be dry and boring; or alive, spiritual, and empowering. Jewish prayer should be understood as participation in a sacred drama, a reliving of Israel’s history, and participation in heavenly worship.

As we approach the High Holidays, let’s delve deeper and reach higher. Through Jewish prayer we have an opportunity to encounter G-d as our people have done for thousands of years.

“L’Shanah Tova Tikateivu – May you be inscribed for a sweet New Year!”

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Simchat Yisrael Messianic Synagogue in West Haven, CT, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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3 Responses to Rethinking Jewish Prayer, Part III

  1. robyn says:

    This was very helpful. I have the Artscroll women's siddur, but it's a bit overwhelming! Thanks for some tips on where to start.

  2. Rabbi Joshua says:

    Hi Robyn,Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found this helpful.L'Shanah Tovah!

  3. rik says:

    Rabbi Jashua, thanks for useing the term reenactment. That is such an active statement that to me could evoke a sence of reengagement with a linage/legacy of acting and engaing El Elyon, Elohim,and that takes us back to B'Resheet all in the here and now. It's not just a matrix it's the original matrix. Currently in our daily amidah part of our conclusion states to Adonai, you are bringing to life from the dead,you are mightly to save or bring salvation to us. In the light of Messiah an other term that could be included is regeneration. Wow, why a person would not be compeled to participate is beyond me. There was a big hurrah over the Matrix movies. This is an oppertunity to engage in and with the original matrix between G-d and man. Blows my mind. By the way if you'ev never taken the oppertunity and disciplen to wakeup and do morning prayers at sunrise. Its amazing. and have in mind Isa.60 When you wake-up and start. I couldn't begin to tell about being up at a high lake in the woods at sun rise with the sun begining shine off the water in the middle of your amidah. I'll just say you feel it through your tallit before anything visual.

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