Introduction to the Siddur (prayerbook)

On most Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and most holidays other than Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our synagogue uses the Reform movement siddur, Mishkan T'filah, which loosely translates as “Sanctuary of the Spirit” or “Tabernacle of Prayer.” There are two versions of Mishkan T'filah: most of the copies we provide are dark blue, and have full transliteration (transcription into English characters) of all of the Hebrew prayers. Those who are comfortable reading Hebrew – and our students, who are learning the language including our Adult Hebrew Students – should take the light blue edition, which contains no transliteration.

Mishkan T'filah is a  tool, and represents a “concept” in prayer services. Its format expects – almost demands – increased involvement on the part of the worshipper. There are two main important things to know about this prayerbook. The first is that all English is an open invitation for full participation, unless otherwise indicated or requested by the leader of the service.

The second innovative feature of Mishkan T'filah is that much of the liturgy is laid out in the format of a two-page spread, with the same prayer presented in four different formulations. The top of the even-numbered page is the traditional Hebrew of the prayer (with side-by-side transliteration in the dark blue edition.) Below that is a reasonably accurate translation of the prayer, ending in the exact same Hebrew sentence as the prayer above it. This blessing at the end of a prayer is called a chatimah (plural: chatimot) or “seal,” as it “seals” the theme and allows us to move on.

On the odd-numbered side of the page are two alternative translations, inspired by the theme of the prayer but often quite poetic or representing different theological ideas inspired by the original Hebrew. Both of these alternative versions also end with the same chatimah, the same “seal.” It is almost always the case that only one of these four versions of the prayer will be read, and then the service will continue – perhaps even without a page number being announced – on the next two page spread. But the other goal in this prayerbook is to allow worshippers to “explore,” on their own. So if the leader and most of the congregation are reading one version of the prayer, any individual may, at the same time, “take in” a different approach, or glance at the commentary at the bottom or on the side. The “signal” to turn the page, to come together again, is the fact that the chatimah is the same, in each of the four versions. Join in with everyone else, or “wander off” on your own, and come together again with the conclusion held in common with each rendition of the prayer.

On certain family-oriented services we use a colorful siddur called Gates of Prayer for Young People. In that prayerbook, italics in English indicate the place for congregational reading. And there are occasions when we use different books, or creative services compiled for particular occasions.

Our intent, always, is to balance the authentic experience of a living liturgical tradition with a sense of welcome and warmth in every worship experience, which will embrace and include those less familiar with these customs and prayers.

Each year, usually in the fall, one of our congregants leads a throw-back service using the old Union Prayer Book siddur with which many of our members grew up.  For both those who grew up with that siddur, and those interested in experiencing Reform Judaism as it used be, this is a unique experience.