Culture, Religion

A Great New Bencher–Yedid Nefesh

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.

23 thoughts on “A Great New Bencher–Yedid Nefesh

  1. Another great new bencher, which we’ve reviewed at Jewschool, is L’chu N’ran’nah, now in its second printing! Mix and match!
    One reason for the parentheses may be to make this bencher more usable in a mixed-bencher environment — if someone is leading out of the many benchers that don’t have the imahot, then the parentheses make it easier for people using this bencher to follow along.
    Also, in fairness to Yedid Nefesh, the bencher doesn’t say “for a wife to read to her husband” (or anything heteronormative like that).

  2. As a recent ex-camper at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, I have known Rabbi Cahan (very informally – we never studied together or became friends, but we definitely talked a few times, and he led larger group sessions I was in) for many years. He always impresses me with hid depth and breadth of knowledge. I will definitely check out this Bencher as soon as I can.

  3. Ydid Nefesh? Lchu Neranana? Mizmor Shir?
    Is anyone at jewschool working on a bentcher called Lecha Dodi? Ana B’choach?

  4. A revolutionary new Siddur has been published in Israel (no English) and is being distributed by Yediot Achronot Press.
    It is Gender sensitive, includes Israeli poetry, less bellicose versions of Al HaNisim, and the Prayer for the IDF, Mi Shbeirach for a woman freed from being an Agunah, Mi ShBeirach for a single parent adoption, slight changes in Bikat HaMazon, and much more.

  5. BZ, right you are. Damn me and my heteronormative assumptions. Also, Cahan notes in the intro to YN that L’chu N’ran’nah was one of the two benchers that had the most influence on this one. I don’t own a copy, but I’d like to.
    arie, well said!
    Meir Eynaim, sounds fascinating! I’d love to get my hands on a copy.

  6. Meir Einaim – all it is the Masorti (Conservative) Movement’s official siddur in new type.
    (And for the record, the prayer for the IDF is horrid, although it specifically does not include the territories).

  7. “May God make our enemies who come onto us fall before them like before the plague…for it says: For the Lord your God walks before you to save you from all your enemies”.
    (there is no masorti version – it’s the standard ISraeli rabbanut version)

  8. Indeed, the trick of publishing a book is to make it work with a range of practices. So the textual alternates like imahot have to be in parentheses because some ppl say them and others don’t. It’s not intending to be liturgico-normative but flexible.

  9. Yet, I sense that those that don’t want to say imahot will simply look to another bencher or, when using YN, skip them. If you think that imahot are good to have, why call attention to them with them parentheses?

    1. Unlike denominational siddurim, which are a statement of a particular movement’s principles, commercially distributed benchers seek to market to as many customers as possible, i.e. people who include the imahot and people who don’t include the imahot.

  10. It’s not equivocation – it’s a simple note of differing practice. It’s not hannukah every day either. Doesn’t mean we’re equivocal about it.

  11. My Conservative siddur doesn’t include (אשי ישראל) in the Amida because the movement has decided to make its liturgical decisions and not look back. We don’t look forward to the restoration of animal sacrifice so we don’t include these words, not even in parenthesis. It’s not unreasonable to imagine that a segment of the population may feel the same way about the addition of matriarchs or other additions.

    1. “The one without the gannet? They’ve all got the gannet! It’s a standard British bird!”
      “Well, I don’t like them. They wet their nests.”

  12. BZ, that may be, but I doubt that the chief motivating factor in the creation of this sidur is profit.
    Amit, I’m not sure that comparison really holds up. Obviously, it’s not always Chanukah. Chanukah is bound to a particular part of the calendar. Women, however, go on existing all year.

    1. David-
      You and I have both gone on record favoring a maximalist approach to siddurim: include as much as possible, and let people decide what to skip. So I don’t see how that doesn’t apply here: other people can ignore everything in the parentheses, and you and I can ignore the parentheses themselves.

  13. Amit translated “fall before them like before the plague”. I’m not a fan of the language of the prayer for the IDF, but I think this overdoes it. ידבר yadber is the rare הפעיל of דבר – it’s found only twice in the Bible, in Psalms 18:48 and 47:4. It probably (from context) means something like “put to flight” or “subdue”-not plague–I think relating it to dever is fanciful.
    Meanwhile, the Yedid Nefesh Bencher looks terrific. Shkoyakh Josh!

  14. Chanukah is bound to a particular part of the calendar. Women, however, go on existing all year.
    You just won the internet with that line.
    (For the record, i don’t mention the matriarchs by name in my prayers most of the time….but just because they ran over my dog this one time.)

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