The Siddur (prayerbook) used to be an object of novelty. There was a time when only the wealthy members of a Jewish community owned siddurim, and even a time before that where no prayers were fixed in writing. They were often elaborate works of art with colorful illustrations or perhaps gold trimmed pages. For a number of reasons, the siddur was not available to every person, leaving those without a siddur to recite the t’fillot from memory or fulfill their obligation through the shaliach tzibbur (public emissary). Among the reasons for low siddur ownership were low literacy and the high cost of producing books. However, as literacy increased, and following the invention of the printing press, siddurim for all became a reality.
In his book A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz notes that Jews have long been called the People of The Book. Usually The Book referred to the Torah or by extension the Talmud. Steinsaltz proposes that there is another book that is just as critical, the siddur. Steinsaltz explains that the relationship that a Jew has to the siddur is what makes it unique. He continues by reminding the reader that the siddur is often one of the first texts that a Jewish child learns, and that it accompanies every Jew throughout his or her life, to be used daily, in times of joy, sadness, for holidays, and assorted blessings. Thus, I would put forward that the prayer book itself is just as important to the davener(one who prays) as the words contained within.
Today, there are a multitude of siddurim available. Movements of Judaism have published their own versions, including changes in the liturgy where they feel such changes are necessary and appropriate. Some congregations have created siddurim tailored specifically to the needs of that particular community. The logic behind undertaking such projects can be boiled down to the desire to have a prayerbook that expresses the ideals and embodies the sentiments of those using the book. For some, a siddur whose content does not match is a problem for effective and meaningful prayer.
With the seemingly countless siddurim that are available, the davener must make a choice as to which siddur to purchase and ultimately use on a regular basis. Artscroll/The Rabbinical Council of America, Koren Sacks, United Synagogue of Conservative Judiasm, The Union for Reform Judaism, and the Reconstructionist Press are just a few of the options. But the davner also must consider Hebrew/English, translation, explanatory notes, gender sensitivity, Ashkenaz (Eastern Europe) or Sepharad/Mizrachi(Spanish/Middle Eastern) rites. With all the options, the davener must make sense of the maze of siddurim to maximize his or her prayer.
To emphasize my point, I want to share the thoughts of David Gerskoff whom I met during my year at Yeshivat Hadar. About selecting a siddur he writes the following:
“1) Complete traditional Hebrew/Aramaic text for Shabbat, holidays, and weekdays, with no deletions, abbreviations or substitutions (except for #5 below)
2) Literal English translation of all Hebrew/Aramaic
3) Indication of shva na and shva nah and kamatzim katanim
4) Small, lightweight size, for easy portability
5) Egalitarian textual changes (e.g. Silverman birchot hashachar, imahot, nahem on Tisha B'av)
6) Minor, non dogmatic (e.g. "say with emphasis) choreography directions (e.g. "say this standing")
7) Attractive layout of text, including placement of Hebrew/Aramaic/English, fonts, size
8) Descriptive endnotes for particular special days (i.e. Hanuka, minor fasts)
9) Descriptive footnotes for specific tefilot
I think that an idea siddur enhances prayer in numerous ways. It should never be a struggle to find where a particular tefila is in a siddur, nor to look up the English meaning of a particular word or phrase, nor answer a quick reference/gabbai question.
I find the Koren Sacks pocket siddur to be a beautiful siddur that meets almost all of my (except #5). My previous siddurim were the pocket complete ArtScroll (which met 1-2, 4, and 8-9) and the pocket Sim Shalom (which met 4-6 and 9). For the Yamim Noraim, I use ArtScroll's interlinear mahzorim, since much of the Hebrew in the piyutim is unfamiliar to me. If there were Koren Sacks mahzor with English I would likely switch to that.”
So you see, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to selecting the appropriate siddur. David’s list may or may not be your list. Regardless, I encourage everybody to think about what their list would look like and to find a siddur with the best fit. If we are truly the People of The Book, in view of Steinzaltz, then it is to our benefit to find the best siddur. The book should not be a stumbling block toward reaching prayer that is deep and heartfelt.
Good luck, I’d love to hear about others’ quest for the perfect siddur.