Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.
I’ll begin by being up front about the fact that I’m far less a bencher aficionado than I am a siddur aficionado. But I was asked if I’d review this new entrance into the bencher market and I said yes. I hope I do it justice.
You could pretty easily divide the world of benchers into two categories. On the one hand, there are totally perfunctory versions that exist as a mere vehicle for what their editors consider a fixed collection of blessings and prayers and a smattering of songs. On the other hand, there are a few benchers that are not mere vehicles for your embossed name and the date of your wedding, bris, bar mitzvah, or whatever. These are generally more liberal in their attitude toward the content and tend to contain some amount of commentary.Yedid Nefesh, a new bencher from Joshua Cahan, a rabbi coming out of the Conservative tradition, falls into the latter category.
The bencher itself has a larger page size and ends up a tad thicker than your average bencher, but not so big that it becomes useless as a highly portable collection of songs and blessings. The page size is larger to accommodate Hebrew text, translation, transliterations and a lot of original commentary from Cahan himself, which far exceeds the bits of commentary and functional instructions that normally permeate a bencher.
Most interesting to me, as a self-proclaimed cataloguer of liberal liturgies, is that the bencher proclaims itself to be egalitarian. According to the YN website, this means that “in some places additions or alternatives are provided that counter some of the gender imbalance of the traditional texts.” Unfortunately, these attempts are marred by the usual Conservative discomfort with doing that. For instance, on page 15, in the middle of the Birkat Hamazon, we get this:
…our ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The parenthetical formulation repeats in the Hebrew and in the transliteration. If you want to include the mothers, fine. If not, fine. But if you’re going to do it, why leave them as some sort of parenthetical afterthought?
On the other hand, the bencher does call the section for a brit milah “For a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat,” reflecting the increasingly common contemporary practice of having a celebration eight days after the birth a baby girl and, where appropriate, offers alternative Hebrew that correctly addresses the gender of the girl.
At the other end of gender equalizing, the bencher includes Eshet Chayil as well as an alternative for a wife to read to her husband, Ashrei Ish (Psalm 112).
The bencher also includes the order of blessings etc for Erev Shabbat in the home, all sorts of simchas, kiddush for every occasion, ushpizin, a wide selection of Shabbat songs, and a few other sections.
And then, of course, there’s Birkat Hamazon. There is the usual absurdly long version of BH as well as an abridged version. As the commentary in the bencher notes:
The Talmud does not present a fixed text for Birkat Hamazon. Rather, it describes the basic themes of the four blessings and notes key terms that must be included in each. The length of the text that developed around those themes has led scholars in many generations to compose shortened versions which pare back the text to its original components.
Though the commentary doesn’t say whose shortened BH it is presenting, the shortened version is considerably shorter. But that means it’s got less shtick, so who wants that?
In all, I like the bencher. I like how many different blessings and prayers and songs it include while remaining compact, if larger than most benchers. It’s got a great, elegant layout. If you like siddurim like Siddur Eit Ratzon, as I do, you’ll like this bencher as well.
YN’s editor, Joshua Cahan will be at Limmud NY next month. Will you? Registration was just extended through Monday, so what are you waiting for? See what he’ll be teaching about at the conference here.