Jew­ish Text

Mishkan T’Fi­lah: A Reform Siddur

Elyse D. Frish­man, ed.
  • Review
By – March 9, 2012

A recent study found that the younger gen­er­a­tion of Reform Jews was more com­fort­able with Jew­ish rit­u­al than their elders. The new Reform prayer book, Mishkan T’filah, speaks to this trend. Every gen­er­a­tion needs to cre­ate its own prayer book to express, in its own idiom, its unique rela­tion­ship with God. This vol­ume is addressed to those liv­ing at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tu­ry and reflects the desires of cler­gy and laypeo­ple ded­i­cat­ed to includ­ing more Hebrew; meet­ing the needs of a diverse pop­u­la­tion; hav­ing a clear and unclut­tered pre­sen­ta­tion, and increas­ing the use of tra­di­tion­al, as well as new, litur­gy. It reflects the val­ues of this gen­er­a­tion: the desire to be polyvo­cal” rather than uni­vo­cal and the need to retain choice as a pri­ma­ry ele­ment while at the same time attempt­ing to cre­ate one community. 

Gates of Prayer, pub­lished in 1975, stands as a tes­ta­ment to a time in which per­son­al choice was the oper­a­tive prin­ci­ple. Rab­bis and prayer lead­ers were free to select, for exam­ple, from among ten Sab­bath evening ser­vices or six Sab­bath morn­ing ser­vices. By con­trast, Mishkan T’filah offers only two options for evening and morn­ing — and nei­ther of these two reflects the excep­tion­al­ly wide range of the­ol­o­gy present in Gates of Prayer. 

Of prime impor­tance in the new sid­dur is the val­ue of inclu­sive­ness. First of all, the translit­er­a­tion of every prayer is for­mat­ted direct­ly oppo­site the Hebrew, with the trans­la­tion placed under­neath both. The sheer increase in quan­ti­ty of Hebrew stands in stark con­trast to the Union Prayer Book and Gates of Prayer. The fact that this vol­ume opens only in the Hebrew direc­tion is a fur­ther indi­ca­tion of the grow­ing pri­ma­cy of Hebrew in the Reform move­ment. Sec­ond, wor­ship­pers who do not know how to read Hebrew can turn to the translit­er­a­tion of every prayer, where ver­bal recita­tion, singing, or silent wor­ship is avail­able to all. Third, in order to bal­ance the pri­ma­ry sta­tus accord­ed to the text in either Hebrew or its translit­er­a­tion or trans­la­tion, the fac­ing page strives to pro­vide mod­ern mean­ing and pos­si­ble appli­ca­tions to the clas­sic texts. The trans­la­tions are often not lit­er­al and the fac­ing page is a wel­come expan­sion of the Read­ings and Spe­cial Themes sec­tions of Gates of Prayer and are, in fact, more appro­pri­ate­ly locat­ed here. 

As for lay­out and for­mat, the sid­dur, while heavy to hold, is all encom­pass­ing, includ­ing Shab­bat, week­day, fes­ti­val, and sacred occa­sions, as well as home and syn­a­gogue obser­vances, mak­ing it a more com­pre­hen­sive sin­gle vol­ume than the Gates” series. Each indi­vid­ual prayer is by and large restrict­ed to one page. There is a nice effort made to bal­ance the ten­sion between what is con­stant and repeat­ed in each ser­vice with the desire to bring some­thing fresh to its expres­sion. This is accom­plished with the Shma, for exam­ple, by lay­ing out the prayer in a half-cir­cle over two pages in each ser­vice in which it is recit­ed, repeat­ing some ele­ments and adding new ones. To make the ser­vice slight­ly eas­i­er to fol­low, each page has mar­gin notes con­tain­ing the order of that par­tic­u­lar ser­vice with the loca­tion in boldface. 

Regard­ing the text itself, there is much that is new in Mishkan T’filah that was absent in Gates of Prayer (and cer­tain­ly in the Union Prayer Book). The inclu­sion, for exam­ple, of reviv­ing that which is dead,’ albeit in paren­the­ses to giv­ing life to all,’ stands as a rather promi­nent return to the ancient text. More star­tling is the inclu­sion of the Ten Com­mand­ments, reflect­ing a return to an ancient prac­tice aban­doned for gen­er­a­tions. The fram­ing of the Yom HaShoah, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and Purim ser­vices as litur­gi­cal inser­tions is in keep­ing with the intent of the bless­ings. The wel­come addi­tion of the Sephardic greet­ing, May God be with you,” and the con­gre­ga­tion­al response May God bless you,” is won­der­ful. Some prayers con­tin­ue to be omit­ted, for exam­ple, the sec­ond para­graph of the Shma, while oth­ers, such as the intro­duc­tion to the priest­ly bless­ing, are modified. 

Undoubt­ed­ly, some will cri­tique the deci­sion to offer two ser­vices rather than one. Oth­ers might object that the font is too mod­ern, or that the attri­bu­tions should have been list­ed with the read­ings rather than at the end. The sheer weight might be dif­fi­cult for some, but the desire to pro­vide a com­plete ser­vice rather than requir­ing wor­ship­pers to con­tin­u­ous­ly turn pages to skip was the result, I am sure, of exten­sive delib­er­a­tion and con­scious choice. 

I wish the authors had focused a bit more on how each prayer works rather than only on what it means. Texts such as ma tovu’ are respons­es to often hid­den ques­tions of iden­ti­ty, feel­ing, and emo­tion. Per­haps a com­pan­ion essay — beyond those pro­vid­ed in the intro­duc­tion and on the Union for Reform Judaism’s web­site— might con­tribute to under­stand­ing why cer­tain choic­es were made. 

Evo­lu­tion from Union Prayer Book to Gates of Prayer to Mishkan T’filah is obvi­ous sim­ply from the titles of the three Reform prayer books: from Eng­lish to Hebrew, from uni­ty to choice, and a pro­gres­sion from a prayer book to a siddur. 

Yash­er kochachem! 

Note: The review­er is a mem­ber of the CCAR and of the com­mit­tee of the Rab­bini­cal Assem­bly, which is cre­at­ing a new mah­zor for the Con­ser­v­a­tive movement.

Stu­art Kel­man is the Found­ing Rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom in Berke­ley, CA and the Dean of the Gam­liel Institute.

Discussion Questions