Skip Navigation
October 6, 2015 | 23rd Tishrei 5776

An Almost-Overnight Introduction to Mishkan T'filah

by Art Grand

 Temple Or Rishon • Orangevale, CA

Our congregation had the opportunity to introduce Mishkan T’filah (MT) almost overnight. In the process, we developed a family curriculum which we believe has wide application.

Our opportunity developed suddenly. One of our bat mitzvah students has a relative who works for the Union for Reform Judaism, and on a lark he offered her the loan of a set of Biennial version MT siddurim. Of course we said yes. It was a wonderful way to introduce the congregation to MT. But then reality set in. Many worshippers report that they are confused and overwhelmed the first time they use MT. It takes about six weeks for people to get used to the new format. The first few services can be a challenge, even for an experienced worship leader. Imagine what it would be like for a thirteen year old, leading service for the first time, using a prayer book that the congregation has never seen. And of course, the experiment could backfire. The one short exposure to MT could leave a bad taste in people’s mouths.

So what did we do? We arranged to borrow the books for a two week period, long enough for some classes, a regular Friday night/Saturday morning service, and of course, the bat mitzvah itself. Our main goal was to develop a cohort of 6th and 7th graders and their parents who were comfortable with MT and who were willing to perform the mitzvah of supporting this young girl as she led services for the first time. The group made a wonderful cohort. The kids were in various stages of learning their prayers, and they had all sorts of questions about worship. The discussion of MT gave them an opportunity to discuss their questions with each other and with their parents. And it created a wonderful sense of community—forty kids and their parents, all taking responsibility for supporting the bat mitzvah.

We organized our learning into two sessions: A Sunday morning class to introduce MT followed by a learner’s minyan the following Sunday.

Introductory Class
The goal of the introductory class was to present the concept of “integrated theology”—the idea of integrating multiple theologies into a two-page spread—and to give people a sense of ownership of the new siddur. The lesson was organized as two parallel sessions, one for the kids and one for the parents. Both sessions used the same lesson plan:

  • Learners were asked to introduce themselves and to give brief answers to one of two questions:

Why do we pray?
Why do we use prayer books?

  • The teacher read the following text:

"The idea of prayer is based on the assumption of man’s ability to accost God, to lay our hopes, sorrows and wishes before Him. Contact with Him is not our achievement. It is a gift, coming down from on high like a meteor, rather than rising up like a rocket. Before prayer can come to the lips, the mind must believe in God’s willingness to draw near to us, and in our ability to clear the path for His approach. Such belief is the idea that leads us towards prayer.

…The issue of prayer is not prayer. The issue of prayer is God. One cannot pray unless he has faith in his own ability to accost the infinite, merciful, eternal God. One must not overlook one of the profound principals of Judaism: there is something far greater than my desire to pray, namely God’s desire that I pray. There is something far greater than my desire to believe, and that is God’s desire that I believe. How insignificant is the outpouring of my soul in the midst of this great universe. Unless it is the will of God that I pray, unless God desires our prayer, how ludicrous is all my praying.”

(Man’s Quest for God, Abraham Joshua Heschel)

  • The teacher observed, “If the problem of prayer is God, then the challenge of prayer is that we all understand God differently.” The teacher then explained that we all have our own theologies, and if the words in the siddur don’t match our personal theology, we feel as if someone is putting words in our mouths. The goal was to teach that Judaism is inherently multi-vocal, and that worship is most successful when we accept our differences and raise our voices together. This led to a discussion of the spread format and an explanation of literal translation (right hand side) vs. thematically-linked content (left hand side).

  • We handed out copies of MT and studied two two-page spreads: Ma’ariv Aravim and Ahavat Olam. On each two-page spread we read both the literal translation and the left hand side readings, then participants were asked if they had a favorite and, if so, why. Throughout the discussion, the teacher modeled acceptance, encouraging the participants to express the reasons behind their preference. At the end of the discussion, the teacher pointed out the theological differences between the readings—one mentioned God as Commander; one mentioned God as Mover of the heavens; one expressed awe of nature. Students asked how we, as worship leaders, would go about picking readings and this led to a discussion of how one structures a service to meet the needs of a congregation.

  • Having finished Ma’ariv Aravim and Ahavat Olam we turned to the two-page spread for the Sh’ma. This led to the inevitable question: Why is there only one translation on this two-page spread for the Sh’ma? “That’s the point,” we told them. “The Sh’ma teaches us that for all our differences we all believe in the same God.”

Learners' Minyan
The students left the first session with a sense that they owned MT. They understood the rationale for the prayer book, they had studied two two-page spreads, and they had selected “their’ version of each prayer. But liking MT and being able to pray from MT are two different things. Our congregation is filled with people who grew up with Gates of Prayer. Most of our worshippers have little sense of how the liturgy is structured; with fixed rubrics in a set order. The only landmarks they have are the familiar format and the familiar page numbers. Without these landmarks our worshippers might be totally lost.

How do we help these worshippers become comfortable with MT? I believe we help by giving them lots of context—by teaching them the history of the siddur, the rubrics, the meaning behind each prayer. As they gain understanding they will be able to create new landmarks, and it will become easier to pray.

We began our learner’s minyan with a brief overview of the history of the siddur. The goal was for people to understand that some parts of the liturgy have been fixed for thousands of years while others have been in a constant state of flux.

We began the discussion by saying that the idea of a prayer book began when the early rabbis were discussing the V’ahavta. The rabbis had all sorts of questions: What words are we supposed to say? How early in the evening can we say them? Can we simply start saying the words of the V’ahavta, or do we have to say other prayers first as warm ups? Were there specific ways to pray that would best show our love for God? We explained that a consensus began to emerge out of the rabbis’ discussions—a sense that if worshipers touched on certain themes in a certain order, they would be able to pray with the right feelings. We explained that worship was originally like a jazz performance, with great artists improvising on fixed themes. But as Judaism spread through Europe, it was necessary to publish a prayer book—to have a fixed liturgy for all Jews so that Judaism wouldn’t become fragmented. As printing became less expensive, many different communities developed their own siddurim, and thus the written liturgy evolved over time.

From here we jumped to modern times. We explained that Gates of Prayer was written in the shadow of the Holocaust—a time when many people could not accept the theology behind the traditional prayers. And we told people about the “trick” behind GOP: That in many of the services, the English had little to do with the Hebrew. People were amazed by this. They assumed that every service had been literally translated.

Finally we talked about the development of MT—about the CCAR study "Lay Involvement in Worship and Liturgical Development," which showed that people wanted to make their own decisions about theological issues. Congregants wanted the Hebrew, the literal translation, and the readings all on the same page so that they could choose.

The discussion about the history of the siddur was informative, but it had an affective purpose as well. It taught people that the liturgy was never about rabbis making rules and lay people blindly following them. The liturgy was about finding the themes and the structure that would bring people closer to God—about universal themes of thankfulness and humility that spanned generations and about prayer books that evolved over time. The rabbis were sensitive to the needs of their worshippers, and through the CCAR study, our Movement was being equally sensitive.

After fifteen minutes of teaching we began the service. I sat on a stool in front of the bimah, and the bat mitzvah girl sat in the front row. I explained that we would be praying a Shabbat morning service—the exact service that the bat mitzvah would be leading at the end of the week. I would teach; the bat mitzvah would lead the prayers; and people could ask questions at any time. I was careful to introduce each prayer with a teaching about liturgy. Our congregants are pretty good about asking questions. MT can be pretty overwhelming; it turns the most curious congregant into the child who doesn’t know how to ask. The introductions ranged from kavanot to describing the history of the prayer to anecdotes about how/why the treatment of a particular prayer had changed in different drafts of MT. The content of the introductions was almost secondary. What mattered was that we were willing to slow down the service and give them more context than they had ever had before. My willingness to feed them information and to turn them into knowledgeable worshippers allowed them to get over their sense of being overwhelmed. At the end of the service, I asked for questions and informed them that they were now the congregation’s “experts” on MT. This was a wonderful thing for them; they had gone from casual worshippers to MT experts. I believe that their sense of being competent Jews has changed forever.

The Bat Mitzvah Service
One of the challenges of a bar/bat mitzvah service is that families remember previous b’nei mitzvah. If you change the liturgy, you get complaints like “My older son got to lead such-and-such a prayer, and my younger son didn’t.” In order to avoid this, we made sure that the bat mitzvah service was reminiscent of our regular Saturday morning minyan. The service used all of the same rubrics and had our usual balance of Hebrew and English, but of course, the English readings were different. The rabbi wrote out all the transitions—with specific wording for announcing page numbers, and the bat mitzvah read them verbatim in her own voice and with tremendous poise. This turned out to be crucial in guiding people through the service.

Our experiment with MT was a huge success. The bat mitzvah was a huge success. The parents who attended the class told us that it was a wonderful experience. In fact, they asked us if we could borrow the books again and repeat the class for a larger audience. Our success was the result of two factors. First, we could honestly tell people that we had not yet decided whether to purchase MT. In fact, the Religious Committee had not even discussed it. We were just taking advantage of an opportunity to learn and to experiment. Second, our focus was on teaching about worship, not on teaching about MT. As we gave people more information about worship—about relating to prayer, about finding God in prayer, about the history of prayer—they became more secure, and more willing to take a chance on a new book.

The opportunity to borrow a set of prayer books is rare; however, we believe that the idea of introducing MT to small cohorts has wide applicability. It allows worshippers to become comfortable with the new book in a safe, informal setting before they use it in a formal service. We suggest using our curriculum in two ways:

  • If you have not yet decided on moving to MT, buy thirty to forty copies and experiment with it using our curriculum. It’s a low pressure way to get buy-in. The classes will change the way people relate to prayer even if you decide not to switch to MT.

  • If you have decided to move to MT, consider introducing it to small cohorts before you start using it for your main worship service. The curriculum can be used with a wide variety of groups—adults, families, seniors, etc.

Art Grand serves as chair of the Joint Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living and can be reached at

Comments left on this website are monitored. By posting a comment you are in agreement with Terms & Conditions.

URJ logo

Donate Now



Multimedia Icon Multimedia:  Photos  |  Videos  |  Podcasts  |  Webinars
Bookmark and Share About Us  |  Careers  |  Privacy Policy
Copyright Union for Reform Judaism 2015.  All Rights Reserved