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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775
The Roots of the Siddur



The siddur, prayer book, is the fruit of a dynamic process. In fact, it was not until the ninth century that a seder, fixed order, of prayers appeared. Nevertheless, because it mirrors Jewish life, the siddur continued to change from then to the present time. Moreover, because the siddur embodies customs long established, Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews have their own siddurim. For all Jews, however, the siddur is an essential and precious possession that guides individual and group prayer and provides religious instruction. The siddur links us to our ancestors and their search to come closer to God.

In the following the author demonstrates that the siddur, while not immutable, provides boundaries within which we are free to make changes. Unlike the Bible, the siddur was never canonized. Explain why. Despite internal changes and the appearance of new prayer books over the centuries, the siddur's basic structure has not changed. Why?

The Roots of the Siddur
Some people have strange ideas about the siddur, our prayer book. One of the strangest is the notion that all our basic Jewish prayers were composed eons ago in some imaginary period of Jewish greatness, a time of brilliance and creativity when Jewish teachings, laws, and customs were set once and for all—and that these prayers were then put into order and "frozen" for all time in what became known as the siddur, our "order" of prayer.

In fact, the earliest known comprehensive collection of Jewish prayers was not compiled until the ninth century. Thus, the first real written siddur is only about 1,100 years old. However, Jewish worship services existed long before that-at least another thousand years, even longer if one includes biblical prayers. If we want to find the roots of the siddur, we have to ask three separate questions: (1) What was Jewish worship like before that famous first siddur was issued? (2) How did Jewish prayer services change once that siddur appeared? (3) What happened to the siddur and the worship that accompanied it during the 1,100 years that have since passed? We shall see that the answers to these three questions are like three chapters in a story we might call "Freedom within Bounds."

Opposite Poles
The early rabbis (in the first two centuries of the Common Era) worried about reconciling two conflicting requirements of worship services. On the one hand, they knew true worship demanded the spontaneous outpouring of the human heart. Praying could not be mechanical, else worship would deteriorate into mere words, empty of emotion and sincerity. On the other hand, the rabbis realized that a gathering of individuals, each praying in a different way, is not a community. Therefore, some regulations were necessary to harness absolute freedom in praying.

Slowly but surely the rabbis constructed a framework of Jewish worship services—a kind of blueprint setting down certain themes essential for the services in the same way that a blueprint establishes the shape and character of a building. Just as the final appearance of the structure was determined by the choice of paint and building material, so the nature of the worship service would depend upon the way the themes would be expressed in words chosen by the individual Jew.

The blueprint of the rabbis supplied the "order" of the daily worship service. The designated certain Torah portions that had to be read, and they established various basic themes that had to be expressed in the prayers of the congregation. This daily service, in turn, was expanded or otherwise altered to form the structure of the prayer service for the Shabbat and the Festivals. The daily service was subdivided into three separate services: morning (shacharit), afternoon (minchah), and evening ('arvit or ma'ariv). Each of these services followed a certain thematic logic, progressing from (1) preparation for prayer to (2) affirmation of belief to (3) requests for divine assistance and, finally, to (4) concluding prayers of praise and thanksgiving.

Morning Service
The morning service, which contains all four of these elements in very clear form, began, for example, with some psalms. These were the preparation for formal worship, "mood setters," designed to move people's minds from the mundane to the holy. When the people were ready, the leader called them formally to congregational prayer by saying something like our Barechu (Praise the Eternal who is to be praised!); and the people answered, as we do, indicating that they now were really a congregation of worshipers, not just isolated Jews who happened to be gathered in one place. Next came the recital of the affirmation of Jewish belief, in the form of the Shema and some accompanying benedictions, two before and one after. The two blessings preceding the Shema asserted God's role as Creator of the universe and God's selection of Israel as the people to whom the Torah would be given. The Shema itself affirmed the unity of God and God's absolute rule over the universe. The third blessing declared God's presence in all of history and in the lives of God's human creations. This is symbolized by God's entrance into history to save the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery. After reciting the Shema and its blessings, the people were given the opportunity to petition God for both personal and communal favors. (We now call that section of the service the Tefilah, and Amidah, or the Shemoneh Esreh.) The worshipers concluded their service with final words of praise.

By the end of the second century the thematic structure of the worship service was very largely settled. The Shema passage was a biblical quotation and could not be altered. But most of the remaining prayers were not hallowed by being of biblical origin, and, as long as worshipers expressed the themes laid down by the rabbis-creation, God's covenant with Israel, God's presence in history, etc.-they were free to say the prayers in their own language. In this way Jewish prayer was both structured and free: "Freedom within Bounds."

The Second Question
We come now to our second question: Under what circumstances did the first siddur, or "ordered" prayer book, appear, and how did Jewish prayer services change once it appeared?

When we think about it, having the theoretical freedom to recite a given blessing differently every day of the year, depending on the whim of the individual prayer leader, is quite extraordinary. Throughout the centuries, great poets called payyetanim abounded. We even have records of some who composed enough different poetical embellishments of particular prayers as to make it possible not to repeat the prayer in exactly the same way for three to four years running!

But such great artistry in prayer was the exception, not the rule. Most congregations tended toward the opposite extreme. Daily creativity is hard, and most communities began reciting their prayers in much the same manner every day. In other words, local customs developed. People in a particular town expressed a required theme with one phrase rather than another, inserted this poem and not that one, bowed here rather than there, and so on. The theoretically endless range of possible expression had crystallized within the various Jewish communities into different local preferences depending on where you happened to live.

The Gaon of Sura
Now, perhaps the most outstanding authority in the Jewish world around 1,200 years ago was the intellectual leader of the leading Jewish academy at Sura, in the vicinity of Baghdad. He bore the title "Gaon" (plural: Geonim), a technical term roughly equivalent to "Your Excellency." Since about the year 760, the various men who held the lofty office of Gaon had noted the disparity in the prayer customs of the scattered Jewish communities. They were receiving an increasing number of letters inquiring about the origin or the permissibility of various prayer customs, and they made it a practice of responding to them. Since the Sura Academy was located in Babylonia, the Gaon had a record of the thinking of the Babylonian rabbis who had preceded him—the record of the Babylonian Talmud. Many of the questions a Gaon received dealt with matters of Jewish law; and, as any lawyer today would do when faced with a question regarding the permissibility or the legality of a particular practice, the Gaon relied on his record of legal precedent, the Babylonian Talmud. He also depended on what he himself knew to be customary in his own and surrounding academies. When the customs he learned about in letters ran contrary to these guides, he declared them illegal and urged his correspondents to adopt the Babylonian way of Jewish worship instead.

The eighth and ninth centuries provided the opportunity for thousands of such "responsa" (as the gaonic answers came to be called; "responsa" is the plural, "responsum" is the singular form), each of which then became yet another precedent for later Geonim to consider when answering Jewish legal questions put to them. By the year 857 the number of set responsa to the many Jewish communities around the world had become enormous. And, in that year, a man named Amram bar Sheshna became the Gaon at the Academy of Sura. It was he who wrote down the first comprehensive collection of Jewish prayers, along with instructions on how, when, and where to recite them. This is our first-known written siddur.

Seder Rav Amram Gaon or "The Order of Prayer composed by Rav Amram Gaon" is simply another answer (responsum) to another question about prayer. But it is a long answer, explaining to a relatively new Jewish community somewhere in Spain all the rules and regulations that had grown up through the centuries and now governed worship services in the Babylonian Jewish academies. It contains, not only the daily, Shabbat, and Festival services, but also a Pesach Haggadah and descriptions of lifecycle ceremonies and blessings for special occasions. In his collection are many biblical quotations, particularly psalms; benedictions of illustrious rabbis of preceding centuries; and poetry and hymns composed by past generations. The wording for all of this is given, along with introductory remarks regarding common errors people make and the proper way to say the prayer in question. That "proper" way was, in fact, simply the Babylonian way, supported by precedents from the Babylonian Talmud, "proper" according to actual prayer practice at the Babylonian academies of the time, and "proper" according to the growing body of legal decisions made by previous Geonim.

Rav Amram's book was handwritten, since the printing press had yet to be invented. The book could not be mass-produced for entire congregations: copies had to be made one at a time by scribes working slowly and methodically. At most, Rav Amram's siddur found its way into the hands of rabbis and chazanim (cantors), who used it as their guide in leading prayer services. But it became the most trusted work on the subject of Jewish prayer. In the centuries that followed its regulations would be cited in the writings of eminent rabbis throughout Europe.

Rav Amram's Influence
We now arrive at our third question: What happened to Jewish worship after Rav Amram wrote his book? Since scribes cannot compete with high-speed printing presses, we can imagine that nothing changed immediately, especially since old communities, such as those in Palestine, which had long-standing prayer customs of their own, were not always willing to change them simply because someone in distant Babylonia had not considered them "proper" according to Babylonian standards. But in the ninth and tenth centuries new Jewish centers began springing up all over Western Europe. They had no old, established customs to fall back on, and so they accepted Rav Amram's teachings. Eventually Seder Rav Amram became the basis for European and—much later—for American prayer books. The acceptance of his book in Europe guaranteed that nearly all Jews thereafter, including ourselves, would be the spiritual descendants of the Babylonian Geonim.

The consequences of this acceptance have been enormous. The freedom of Jews to express required themes in their own way was now gone. Language for prayers that had not been fixed before Rav Amram's siddur came later to be regarded as fixed and unchangeable. Customs that had been merely Babylonian preferences were now considered to be binding on every Jew. What had begun so many centuries before Rav Amram as an attempt by the rabbis to build merely a structure for Jewish worship, a progression of themes that individuals and congregations might flesh out in their own way, was now a rigid prayer book with fixed wording and detailed instructions.

Every group of Jews since Rav Amram's time has had to struggle with the tension between the structure—now rigid and unyielding—and the ideal of spontaneity in prayer. In various times and places Jews have been able to add to the fixed prayers in Amram's siddur by writing new prayer material. Those that stood the test of time were added to the siddur and were later considered to be just as authoritative as Amram's prayers had been. The Kabbalat Shabbat, or service introducing Friday evening, for example, is almost entirely the work of sixteenth-century mystics living in Palestine. Memorial prayers for the Yizkor service speak plaintively of Central Europe after the Crusades and the pogroms in Poland of the seventeenth century. The poem "Yigdal" is the philosophy of Maimonides (twelfth century) set in prayer form in Italy in the fourteenth century.

New Versions of Siddur
Thus, over the ages, many new modifications of Amram's siddur were composed, nearly all of them based substantially on Amram's original but enlarged and invigorated with the spiritual expression of new generations. Particularly after the introduction of low-cost printed books, when everyone in the congregation could own a siddur, people tended to think of the prayer book they were raised on as timeless and eternal, going back perhaps to Sinai. But the truth is otherwise. The basic themes and structure of the prayer book do go back to antiquity (although certainly not to Sinai!), but the language of our most familiar prayers was composed in later centuries. Usually the words we say are merely the Babylonian versions popular during the Gaonic Age, versions Amram set down in his book. Other prayers and prayer practices used by some congregations may be old or new, reflecting the thinking and experience of Jews living in Spain, Poland, Germany, or America.

To know the siddur is to know ourselves through our own past. To use the siddur in any of its versions is still to struggle with the task of the earliest rabbis: to take the structure and the themes of Jewish prayer that have been handed down to us and to make them uniquely our own.

Lawrence A. Hoffman, "The Roots of the Siddur," in Keeping Posted 22:6 (March 1977), Reprinted in Alan D. Bennet, ed., Journey Through Judaism: The Best of Keeping Posted (New York: UAHC Press), 1991, pp. 123-126.


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