A Review of the Nehalel Siddur

Nehalelby Zvi Grumet

When the Nevarech bencher first appeared in 1999, it attracted attention. The notion of integrating full-page color photographs with the text of birkat hamazon caught people’s eyes. The beauty of the photographs, and he fact that they brought images of Eretz Yisrael into the birkat hamazon (perhaps redirecting the attention of that prayer to al ha-aretz hatovah), was, to many, irresistible.

As the common saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Since 1999, a number of other photographically rich birkhonim have hit the market, including the Toby Birkon (by The Toby Press) and the Praise the Land of Israel Birkon (by Koren). At a recent wedding it became clear just how far the genre had penetrated the psyche, when the family of the groom put together their own, personalized, photographic birkhon which they distributed to their guests.

In 2011, Koren moved beyond the birkhon, publishing the Koren Shabbat Evening Siddur. This slim volume is built on the foundations of the Koren Sacks Siddur, with the elegant translation and commentary of Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. It adds comments from a number of younger rabbinical figures as well as an entire section it calls “œLimmud Shabbat.” The innovation here is not so much in the selection of texts, most of which already appear in many siddurim (KeGavna, from the Sefardic tradition, Bameh Madlikin, from the Ashkenazic tradition, and Shir Hashirim, often recited by Oriental Jews), but in their classification as texts to study rather than to recite. This presentation is not only true to the origins of those texts in the siddur, but is probably linked to the siddur’s target audience: œtraditional and progressive minyanim in many contexts, from standard denominational to experimental services, from community service to Birthright trips, from classroom settings to weekend retreats (from promotional materials provided by the publisher).

Although the text of this siddur is clearly Orthodox, it seems to be designed for an audience seeking not to discharge of their religious obligation on Friday night but to participate in a meaningful religious experience. As Rabbi Yehudah Sarna (University Chaplain of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University) writes in his introduction: “œThe object you hold is not a Reader or a Prayerbook: it is a propeller of movements upward, outward, and inward. It is designed to be utilized by those navigating for the community to maximize the prayer experience.”

Which, of course, brings us to the other defining feature of the book, the photographs which accompany the text. The Kabbalat Shabbat section of the tefillah is accompanied by 12 full-page photographs designed to serve as a visual commentary, and the text of Shir Hashirim has another dozen pages adorned by smaller photos. The specific line of the text being commented on by the photo is highlighted in a matching color, so that there is little guesswork about the connection between the textual and the visual.

All in all this siddur is designed to be easy to use, easy to read, easy to hold, pleasant on the eyes, and inspiring during those portions of the prayer that are often slowed down or receive special focus in synagogue or Friday evening group prayer services.

If the Koren Friday Night Siddur is the equivalent of dipping one’s toes into a pool, then the Nehalel siddur could be described as leaping into that pool. At the end of 2012, the producer of the Nevarech bencher took the approach a quantum leap forward, publishing the Nehalel siddur for Shabbat (all Shabbat, not just Friday night). This is a hefty volume with nearly 650 pages, most of which are adorned with full-page photographs. The paper is glossy, bringing out the beauty of the photographs. While in the Koren Friday Night Siddur the photos sit on the side and offer a commentary, in the Nehalel siddur the text often appears as part of the photo itself. One cannot read the text without seeing the image. The text and the photos are woven seamlessly (here too the photo and the text are linked by shifting the color of the line being highlighted), and the effect is truly dramatic. My six-year old daughter, looking at Birkhot Hashahar,could not stop marveling at the juxtaposition of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon with a baby’s first steps as an illustration/commentary on the blessing of hameikhin mitzadei gaver.

While the Koren Friday Night Siddur seems to be geared at an audience of youth groups, college campuses, Birthright trips, or other communal prayer groups both within and dancing around traditional Orthodox prayer, the Nehalel siddur is clearly oriented to Orthodox prayer (although I am sure that others will appreciate its artistic interpretations). This is a serious tome designed to assist regular shul-goers in enhancing their tefillah. It introduces an entirely new English translation designed to convey not just the meaning of the text but its feel as well; people who want to pray from the English will not feel like they are reciting from something foreign, but, as Micahel Haruni (who is the man behind this volume) writes in his introduction, “œ a sense of speaking to God in a more distinctly Jewish voice.” The siddur is also meticulous in its typography, including distinguishing between sheva na and sheva nach (sic), kamatz katan and kamatz gadol, and accent notes to ensure proper pronunciation. Orthodox Jews will feel comfortable with the transliterated names as well, so that this siddur has Avraham not Abraham, Moshe not Moses, Rivkah and not Rebecca. (Full disclosure: I wrote an introduction to the Nehalel siddur, but have no financial interest in it.)

There is much to say about each of the above books individually and together, and I am sure that other reviewers will comment on issues of layout, choice of images, typography, the translations, the propriety of using images in a siddur, and a host of other issues. I would like, instead, to focus on two issues: the experience of using these siddurim and the educational implication of the medium.

One thing that all these books have in common is the desire to use images as commentary on the prayers, and as inspiration for prayer. The inspiration happens in two ways. First, the images themselves are often evocative and moving, and they are apparently chosen precisely for that effect. Second, the effect is intensified by the fact that the page layout, with eye-catching photos and relatively few words on a two-page spread (often a single chapter or even less), forces whoever uses the siddur to slow down. It is difficult to race through the tefillah, and for people who need an extra push to focus on their prayers that is welcome. (I have heard some people say that they need to find a new place to daven when they use these siddurim, since their current shuls move too fast.) Regardless of whether a particular image resonates with us or not, the time and energy invested contemplating the question already deepens the experience of tefillah.

On the educational level these siddurim open up new possibilities. One theme which keeps emerging in educational conventions, online discussions, private conversations, and the literature is the challenge of tefillah in day schools. Non-Orthodox schools, who are not bound as tightly by halakhic requirements, have found multiple ways to explore making tefillah more meaningful. Orthodox schools, by contrast, are far more challenged. They feel an obligation for daily prayer, and one in which minimal requirements for saying the words limits the opportunities for creative meaning-making in tefillah.

Imagine that the image-rich siddur is presented to the students as a model, one form of connecting the words with inspiration (indeed, with different kinds of learners, we should not be surprised that non-verbal learners should find tefillah from a standard siddur a significant challenge). Students are then tasked to find their own images, whether from photos they’ve taken, from what they found in image banks, or from what they create, and connect those to the words in their own ways. Each student, in effect, is writing his own visual commentary on the tefillah. Those images could be collected and posted on a blog or a website to share. Or imagine that a class takes a particular tefillah, such as barekhi nafshi, and divides its verses amongst the students, so that each student is responsible for one visual image for one verse. Putting it together in to a slideshow, the result could be not only visually stunning, but could provide a medium through which students will have connected personally and communally to a prayer which they will all think about differently when they encounter it.

The new genre of siddur opens possibilities both for tefillah and for tefillah education. The Jewish community, and the educational community, are better off for their introduction to the Jewish bookshelf.

This review first appeared in Lookstein Announcements

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