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August 2, 2014 | 6th Av 5774

The Structure of MT:
A Guided Tour through a Typical Two-Page Layout
(PDF Adobe Acrobat diagram included)

by Rabbi Kim Geringer

Let's look at the two-page spread, pages 34 and 35.

This is one prayer—Elohai N’shamah. Mishkan T’filah offers the worshiper four different ways to read (aloud or silently) or chant this prayer. We’ll begin on the right-hand page, 34.

At the top, outer edge of the page, we learn what service we are in—“Weekday Morning.” This means that this prayer is part of a morning service held during the week, that is, not on Shabbat or a festival.

Moving down the page slightly, on the outermost right-hand side of the page is a menu bar, in Hebrew. The bar lists the prayers which make up this section of the prayer service. The prayer that appears on this two-page spread is in bold printElohai N’shamah. Above it on the menu bar are the five prayers that precede this one in this section of the worship service; below it on the bar are the five prayers that follow this one in this section of the service. The menu bar helps the worshipers orient themselves in both the time and the space of the larger worship experience.

Moving in from the right is the prayer itself, in Hebrew. Facing the Hebrew text, the prayer appears in transliteration. Below both the Hebrew and transliterated versions of the prayer is a literal English translation.

Now let’s move across to page 35. Notice on the outermost left-hand side of the page that the menu bar appears once again, this time in transliteration. A quick glance shows that the worshipers have arrived at Elohai N’shamah after reciting Asher Yatzar, Mah Tovu, prayers for T’fillin and Tallit, and Modeh/Modah. The menu bar “previews” what’s coming next: Nisim B’chol Yom, Laasok, V’haarev Nah, Eilu D’varim, and Kaddish D’Rabanan.

Moving in from the menu bar, we find two prayers which are thematically related to the traditional text of Elohai N’shamah. As Mishkan T’filah editor, Rabbi Elyse Frishman has explained, “…the left-hand material was selected for both metaphor and theological diversity. The choices were informed by the themes of Reform Judaism and life: Social justice, feminism, Zionism, distinctiveness, human challenges.” A worshiper who wished to know the author of these prayers could turn to “Source Citations” beginning on page 687 and would find under “Weekday Morning, p.35” that the author of the prayer on the top, “Praise God in the depths…” is Stephen Mitchell, and the author of the prayer on the bottom, “My soul came to me pure…” is Elyse Frishman.

Look now below the line. On page 34, the worshipers learn that Elohai N’shamah is actually a composite prayer from two sources: The Babylonian Talmud, tractate B’rachot, folio page number 60b and the Book of Job, chapter 12, verse 10. Below the line on page 35, we see that two concepts used in this prayer—nishmat chayim (the breath of life) and nefesh chayah (living being) are drawn directly from the Book of Genesis, chapter 2, verse 7. That verse reads: “Then God Eternal fashioned the man—dust from the soil—and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, so that the man became a living being.”

Finally, a very important part of this two-page spread is the chatimah, the final blessing of the prayer. The function of the chatimah in a prayer is, essentially, to summarize the qualities of God which are enumerated in the body of the prayer itself. Here the prayer is about the placement of the soul by God in the human body, “Praised are You, Adonai, in whose hands is every living soul and the breath of humankind.” You will notice that this chatimah appears four times on this two-page spread, as the summation of each of the four options: The Hebrew and the English on page 34, and the two theme readings on page 35. Perhaps in a given service the worship leader elects to read this prayer in the Hebrew. Some of the worshipers may choose to read along. Others might wish to read the English translation to themselves on the bottom of page 34. Others might opt to privately read either of the prayers on page 35. No matter which option is selected, when the worshipers hear the leader recite the chatimah, they will know that the reading of this prayer is now complete. They should either turn the page or wait for the leader to announce the next page in the service.

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Rabbi Geringer is the Program Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism's Department of Worship, Music and Religious Living.

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