I teach Torah for a living, focusing on trying to empower (mostly) adult students to read and negotiate for themselves the world of seforim which make up a large part of our collective, kaleidoscopic view of the world. Most of my students are relatively new to, and with little past positive experience with, our traditional sources and with those who base their practice of Judaism on them. I could say, “It’s an uphill battle,”, but that would be false and unfair–it’s not a battle, but rather a shared joy, and we’re all, teachers and students, rabbis and laypeople, all of us beginners.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the major challenge most of my students face is not their facility with Hebrew, either translating or reading “without the dots”. (With practice both of those skills advance.) The greatest common deficit I observe is the lack of context and lack of familiarity with phrases, prayers, rituals and psalms that the authors of these seforim take for granted. In today’s jargon, there is no commonly accepted Judaism 101.
Yes, I often disparage the unimaginative endless repetitions of entry-level classes offered by most synagogues as “Judaism 101”, but that’s because these repetitions of the simplest lessons, often taught down at a child’s level of spoon-feeding “do”, “don’t” and “don’t think about it”, block students from ever learning something new and deeper. However it is important to have a basic body of core knowledge, to give us a common language for intelligent conversations and spiritual journeys. Like much in Judaism, our best resource has long been in our possession, but, taking it for granted, we often overlook it.
“The Siddur,” one of my rabbis long-ago taught me, “is a Jew’s best friend.” Unfortunately, as our conception of תפילה (Tefillah) prayer is often so far removed from its real meaning and seen, rather, through a Christian lens of asking favors from God, these ancient words and their subtle meanings easily becomes trivialized. And then, for too many “actively participating” Jews, they have merely become a script of words to speed-read. The richness of this resource is frequently overlooked.
(My examples will come from the Berditchever Siddur that I personally use, one of many Nusach Sfard siddurim. In general, there are three basic groupings of siddurim. Nusach Ashkenaz, the “German” formulation (נוסח, nusach, is a form of the word סיח, si-ach, which means conversation but also implies תפילה, Tefila, Prayer (TB Berachot 26:)), common to non-Chasidic Europeans-derived Jews, Nusach Sfard, common to Chasidim (Nusach Ari, a version based on the ideas of the Ari z”l, the famous 16th century Kaballist, is a variation of Nusach Sfard and is commonly used by Chabad (although most Chasidic groups argue that their nusach is also faithful to the Ari z”l) and Nusach Eidut HaMizrach, the Oriental liturgy, common to Sephardim (from Spain/Turkey and other Mediterranean communities) as well as Jews from North Africa and the Arab countries that used to host millennia-old Jewish communities (now all but destroyed). In reality, these three versions are substantially the same, usually differing slightly in the order of several prayers, the addition of others or, in a few cases, choosing a different authority’s expression of the prayer. (There are also people currently working to develop a Nusach Eretz Yisrael, appropriate for living in Israel rather than in the diaspora, much of it based on the Yerushalmi rather than the Bavli Talmud, and also influenced by Yemenite custom.) In spite of the high degree of similarity, there is no standardization, Baruch HaShem, of any of these three nusachot and you’ll likely find minor variation between individual siddurim.)
Yes, reciting these words does offer a script and a technique to “connect with God using the Prayer Channel” (as I’ve written extensively in earlier essays) and that is the siddur’s primary purpose. But a quick overview of our siddur reveals so much more. It begins with the Modeh/ah Ani which, daily, reminds us of the very concept of soul, Neshama. Donning our Tallit, there are four pasukim, Mah Yakar, Yirv’yun, Ki Im’cha Makor Chayim and M’shoch Chasdecha, to contemplate, slowly but surely deepening our understanding of their meanings day after day, year after year. Tefillin present us with more deep pasukim, but also with the last reading from Parshat Bo, Kadesh Li Kol Bachor and V’Haya Ki Yaviacha. Before we’ve uttered a word of “prayer”, we’ve already familiarized ourselves with verses and chapters and deep concepts!
We continue with Adon Olam and/or Yigdal, the first a description of God’s inscrutable relationship to us and our world, the second a poetic summary of Rambam’s list of trans-logical qualities of God and His relationship with mankind. Next we visit Birchot HaShachar, a list of morning blessings/acknowledgements/thanks to The Creator for making us and our world exactly as they are. Many of these, we find, are based on various Psalms (146 contributes a number of phrases), so we simultaneously visit and familiarize ourselves with them. There’s a daily recital of Akedat Yitzchak (the near-sacrificing of Yitzchak) as well as, later on, the recital of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea. We not only read the Torah’s mandates for the daily offerings and their preparation, we also study the chapter of Mishna (Zevachim 5) that actually describes the procedure for a number of sacrifices performed in the Bet HaMikdash. We daily review the thirteen scriptural analysis techniques of Rabbi Yishmael (which also correspond to the Thirteen Principles of Divine Mercy). We recite, day after day, collections of pasukim from Tanach and then a number of set Tehillim (Psalms) as well as special ones for each weekday. The Shema and it’s brachot not only ground us in three chapters of Chumash, but many phrases from both Tehillim and various Nevi’im (Prophets). There are also phrases and ideas from the Talmud and the Zohar interwoven throughout. Over time we become evermore sensitive and appreciative of the deep knitting of all these diverse threads together into a single magnificent tapestry of devotion and wisdom.
You should get the idea that not only do we chant these words with special devotion, but we also familiarize ourselves, and deeper our understanding and familiarity, with the same body of knowledge that Jews, including the authors of the rabbinic texts I teach, have been familiar with for millennia. Our seforim were written with the presumption that their future readers would share this background and would, thus, recognize the references to them.
Additionally, familiarity with the verses and the songs and the brachot we regularly say provide us with the vocabulary we often fear we lack when we encounter these words in our texts. Our daily repetition becomes a major element in our “toolbox” to decode and understand the deep wisdom our sages so desperately want to transmit down the generations to us and to our own descendants.
While it goes without saying that it’s a mitzva to pray three times a day, with the Siddur our script for that, it has so much more to offer each of us.