Religion, Sex & Gender

The Koren Siddur. Thank God.

Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle
Koren, Israeli publishers renowned for Eliyahu Koren’s gorgeous fonts and refreshing layouts, have finally given us a sidur for the English-speaking world. And it’s everything I hoped it would be.

I’ll start with my personal impressions of this siddur and move on to it’s significance on the world’s liturgical stage second.

I’ve never opened a new sidur before and immediately felt its beauty above all else. As a font nerd, I’m still going nuts for Koren’s two similar fonts, used throughout the siddur for the Hebrew text. Parts of the liturgy that are direct biblical quotes are in Koren’s original tanach font and the rest of the text is presented in the similar, but sublty different sidur font. Both are elegant and totally readable.

Better than just having great fonts, the sidur is laid out with all the elegance we expect from Koren. See this opening page from Minchah for example. Rather than having Hebrew on the right and English on the left, with lines of text terminating in the center of the spread, the Hebrew is on the left and the English is on the right, with lines of text originating in the middle of the page.

Combine this with Koren’s sensical and elegant line breaks and blocks of text, and each two-page spread of the sidur is symmetrical, with the blocks of English and the blocks of Hebrew mirroring each other in shape like a rorschach ink blot test.

As part of their attempt to keep the page as uncrowded as possible, rather than frequent stage directions, this sidur has an innivative way of telling you when to bow and when the rise, etc. Next to words on which one is supposed to bow, there is a small equilateral triangle pointing down. In K’dushah, each instance of the word Kadosh gets a similar triangle pointing up to indicate that one should rise up on one’s toes.

According to one of the sidur’s several prefaces, “The prayers are presented in a style that does not spur habit and hurry, but rather encourages the worshiper to engross his mind and heart in prayer.” They have done that.

Now on to the significance of this sidur in the wider world. For all of my lifetime, the most popular orthodox sidur has been the family of ArtScroll sidurim. This is a family of sidurim with a very conservative agenda to push. They are ornate, over-designed and full of crowded pages, excessive instructions, and suggestive translations. (For more on ArtScroll and its agenda, see What’s Bothering ArtScroll?) Further, ArtScroll is under the impression that women need a seperate sidur.

At every turn, The Koren Siddur is ArtScroll’s opposite. Rather than being ornate and gilded, Koren is subdued. ArtScroll has crowded pages, where Koren has elegant pages without wasting any paper with excessive white space. Where ArtScroll beats you over the head with stage directions and choreography, Koren makes subtle suggestion with its innovative triangles. And where ArtScroll believes women need their own sidur, Koren offers, in an equal font, the word Modah alongside the word Modeh. The sidur has even been endorsed by JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance.

The Orthodox Union gets it and they like this sidur, which even has a little OU stamp of approval on the spine. There have also been reports of large Modern Orthodox congregation placing orders for complete sets of the Koren Siddur.

Goodbye, ArtScroll sidurim. Welcome, Koren. You’ve been a long time coming.

34 thoughts on “The Koren Siddur. Thank God.

  1. I was so thrilled to say goodbye to Artscroll (well, I’m not getting rid of mine, it’s still the most familiar to me so I’ll use it now and then) and get in line to get a Hebrew/English Koren siddur as soon as they came out. And I love it! From the zeved bat ceremony to the clean and beautiful pages, it is just so pleasing. The compact version just came out, which I can’t wait to get since it’s about the same size as the pocket sized Artscroll I think. This siddur is lovely, less insulting to women and to our intelligence, and is a pleasure to look at and to use.

  2. What exciting news! I carry a small edition of the Koren (all-Hebrew) siddur with me, as my standard siddur, and I’ve long wished I could introduce it to my friends who want English translations alongside. Now I can. Shabbat shalom!

  3. I was intrigued by the fact that the commentary in the new siddur is by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who I think is solid. How does the commentary in the Koren Siddur compare to Artscroll?

  4. Too bad the Koren siddur didn’t include transliteration. The Artscrool transliterated siddur is clunky and uses Ashkenazi pronunciation, and of course comes with all the other Artscroll baggage described above. I’d been hoping for a widely available and widely accepted alternative for some time.
    As someone often involved in community-wide outreach events, I’m a big transliteration advocate. The math is simple. With transliteration, there is at least a chance of engaging a far larger audience of Jews who currently have limited Hebrew literacy skills. Without it, folks who can’t follow the Hebrew feel awkward, embarrassed or confused and give up on traditional variants of Jewish prayer services.
    I find the lack of interest in transliteration among Orthodox, traditional, and many Conservative communities and institutions frequently frustrating.

  5. I agree with your Gregg. As someone that has taken some hebrew classes but is just a slow reader with hebrew because i’m unskilled I really appreciate transliteration. that way I can read along and also refer back and forth to help me recognize the characters to the sounds quicker. transliteration has helped me so much that i always miss it when it’s gone.

  6. Come *on*. Translation is one thing, transliteration just means you can’t make the time to read a bit of Hebrew every day without understanding it.

  7. T – Right on and totally understandable. A comfortable sidur can be easier to use than a good sidur. For instance, I’m still totally comfortable using the Gates of Prayer I grew up with.
    Itamar – There are three levels of commentary in this sidur. There are extensive prefaces and pieces about prayer at the beginning. Throughout, there is a deep, but accessible, commentary along the bottom of the pages. It is not only descriptive and full of interesting facts, but it’s also very poetic and was clearly written by someone who loves prayer. The commentary refers often to “Law 345” or “Law 74” or whatever, which refer you to a list of meticulously compiled laws about prayer listed in the back of the sidur.
    Gregg – Transliteration is something I feel highly conflicted about. On the one hand, it’s a wonderful thing in terms of inclusion. On the other hand, I’m afraid (as are the Orthodox and the Conservatives) that it will encourage people not to read Hebrew. At the end of the day, it’s probably good for the Jews to have sidurim of both varieties in the world.
    Amit – I don’t what Ohel Sarah (ArtScroll’s women’s sidur) says, but I’m looking at a copy of The Complete ArtScroll Siddur Ashkenaz right now and it lacks Modah.
    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  8. Gregg, I understand your concerns. FWIW, my Artscroll doesn’t mention the option for “modah”, last I checked. And I do feel that transliteration is a great way to help make people lazy and encouraging people to not learn how to read Hebrew better. I am not a quick Hebrew reader at all (to say the least) but when I can’t follow I… *insert ghasp here* read the English. A lot of people who find they can’t follow a prayer book at their shul actually decide to learn how to read Hebrew. I know several of those people. I totally support separate siddurim with transliteration in them (it would be great if Koren comes out with one) for people who really don’t read Hebrew to have as an option but I like having mine be sans transliteration because it helps me improve my Hebrew reading skills by forcing me to read the Hebrew (and when I want to move faster, I read the English – Which contrary to what some of us have been taught is a *totally fine language to daven in*!). Transliteration is like a crutch for a lot of beginning/intermediate Hebrew readers – if it’s there, it’s too convenient to resist. There’s no need to make every siddur extra bulky by adding full transliteration, but there is a need for separate transliterated siddurim and the encouragement for people to practice their Hebrew skills (and learn it if they don’t know it). My mom has talked for years about going to the beginners’ Hebrew reading class at her shul, yet because their siddur has full transliteration she’s never been given the motivation to actually go. She would have gone long ago if she hadn’t had that option. I’m not saying she should be denied access to a transliterated siddur, but if Hebrew or hebrew/english siddurim were the standard at her shul in any way, she’d be a proficient Hebrew reader by now.

  9. On the other hand, I’m afraid (as are the Orthodox and the Conservatives) that it will encourage people not to read Hebrew.
    Or encourage people to focus on pronouncing words that they don’t understand rather than reading words that they do understand. It’s one thing to have transliteration for prayers that are said out loud, so that people can sing along with the rest of the community, but I believe that the Amidah (in milieux where it is said silently) should not be transliterated — if you don’t understand Hebrew, say the Amidah in a language you understand.

  10. Amit I never said that I can’t understand hebrew or that I don’t practice reading it. I said I was slow and that transliteration helps me to become faster. why is that even a problem?

  11. If you can’t read Hebrew, keep practicing until you can. When I started becoming more observant in 2002, I could not read Hebrew. But I said the prayers at home or at shul every day and now I can at least read the Hebrew in my siddur well enough that I can actually lead services now. It takes about a year of constant study and prayer, but if I can do it, so can anyone else. It’s worth the hard work it takes.

  12. @r
    The Authorised Daily Prayer Book is a revised version of the old british Singer Siddur with a new translation and new commentary, both by Raw Jonathan Sacks. Right now I don’t have access to both Siddurim, but Translation and Commentary should be the same. The Hebrew Font used in the Singer Siddur is Hadassah. The main difference is the Nussach. The Singer Siddur expresses the Nussach Angli resp. the western-ashkenas Nussach. Less Kabbalah, less offending words like Nochri instead of Goi or in Aleinu, not so much Korbanot phrases. Let’s say if you ever go in a conservative synagogue, the Singer Siddur would be more suitable. The Koren Siddur reflects Nussach Ashkenas in Israel.

  13. Coming back to the transliteration question, which is obviously only a side-note to the focus of this original post, does anyone know of any research or evaluation that has ever been done on the impact of transliteration? Do we know that it makes people “lazy”? Do we know if it draws in those who would otherwise avoid traditional services? Any number? Metrics? Qualitative evaluation?

  14. Until this post, I had a total knee-jerk reaction against the Koren, but now I really have to check it out.
    Oh, Ohel Sarah. I picked that up once, and like an idiot went to their morning seder to see what they did about tefillin and tzitzit. Half an hour of confused searching later, I was like “Oh, right.” That should have been obvious, but in general, the whole thing just feels so… amputated. An Orthodox women’s siddur could theoretically be awesome, but it for sure wasn’t this one.

  15. I just bought the Koren Siddur. There is a Prayer for the Safety of American Military Forces on page 520. It reads in part “Give them strength and courage to thwart the plans of the enemy and end the rule of evil.” I much prefer the blessing for the Czar from Fiddler on the Roof.
    This prayer for the military replaces messianic redemption with human organized state sanctioned violence. It defines the enemy and the rule of evil as something that humanity is capable of identifying in other groups of people and eradicating by killing them. It is hubris and idolatry.
    It is contrary to basic themes of the siddur. For example, after the Megila is read on Purim, in which Jewish violence against non-Jews is described. The siddur, explains that this was wrong and that vengeance is the Lord’s alone. “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who pleads our cause, judges our claim, avenges our wrong, brings retribution to our enemies, and punishes our foes.”

  16. r – well said. the prayer for the military (the wording of it, not the idea of praying for soldiers’ safety) is one of the things that makes me most uncomfortable at zionist modern orthodox shuls, as opposed to chabad or more old-school MO shuls. i didn’t even read the prayer in the koren siddur because i know i won’t say it in my own davening. and nearly every MO shul i’ve been to says prayers for the israeli and/or US military even if it’s not in their edition of the artscroll, so i’m just used to ignoring it or using that time to meditate on my own prayers for peace, safety and justice.

  17. Chalk one up for Chabad shuls – never have to hear contemporary military prayers there. It’s ironic that I would feel more comfortable at a Chabad shul than a Modern Orthodox one (given, well, everything about who I am). But I do. Can’t wait to daven from Koren at Chabad House – LOL. apikores!

  18. Desh- How did I miss that post? I just looked through the 60-some-odd comments on it and was blown away by that discussion.
    r, et al.- I’m not a fan of prayer for this state or that state or for this army or that army. I tend to ignore them, so I didn’t even really look at Koren’s. Thanks for pointing it out though, y’all.

  19. With regards to the difference between the UK version and the Koren version, as Yonatan correctly points out the UK version is Nusach Anglia which is the official nusach of the UK.
    For this edition of the siddur, Koren took the Koren Israeli nusach and for this edition changed it for “Minhag America”. Throughout the siddur the practice of American congregations (which is often different from Israeli practice) is prescribed noting differences for when one is visiting/or living in Israel. So, no, this siddur doesn’t reflect nusach Ashkenaz in Israel although you can comfortably use it in Israel (and I do 🙂 )
    There are also many more prayers in the Koren Siddur that simply don’t appear in the UK siddur (known for nearly 130 years as the Singer’s) so of course the Chief Rabbi translated and wrote commentary for these texts, not to mention when the actual nusach tefilla is different in the Hebrew and the English translation and occasionally commentary had to be rewritten accordingly.

  20. I am baffled by the discussion on transliteration…but maybe that’s because I don’t have a handle on how it is actually used. (Note that I read Hebrew with reasonable fluency, and even some degree of comprehension; and I find it easier to follow than transliteration.)
    I see transliteration as an aid to vocal participation by people who can’t read Hebrew. I just don’t believe that anyone reads it silently — during silent prayer, the choice is the Hebrew or the English.
    Nor do I believe that the availability of transliteration demotivates learning Hebrew nearly as much as it motivates participation in community worship.
    Since almost all of my worship is with Mishkan T’fila — I recently had my first encounter with ArtScroll — I’m unlikely to find myself using Koren. But based on David’s description, I’m sure it will have some influence on the next edition of MT (or whatever the name will be for the new Reform machzor).

  21. I love the Koren siddur, both the classic Hebrew edition and the new Sacks siddur. R. Sacks’ intro is also a great stand-alone reflection on Jewish prayer, chock full of gems. (He says, for example, that Jews’ relationship with God is not “theological” but direct: We don’t talk about God, we talk to God. I love that.)
    Re: prayers for armed forces or the state — I’m for them. As Rabbi Hanina says in Pirkei Avot,
    ??? ????? ?????? ?? ?????–?????? ?????, ??? ?? ????? ???? ???? – “Pray for the welfare of government; but for the fear of it, each man would devour his fellow alive.” I mean, sure, governments haven’t always been so good for the Jews, but we’ve generally been in favor of law and order. (I have a soft spot for Sim Shalom’s “May citizens of all races and creeds forge a common bond . . . to safeguard the ideals and free institutions which are the pride and glory of our country.” Now that was written for a generation of Jewish law-school grads.)

  22. Oh, hey, Hebrew comments aren’t supported? Ok, well here’s a transliteration for the peanut gallery: Hevi mitpallel bishlomah shel malchut – sheilmelei mora’ah, ish et r’eihu hayyim bila’o
    (M. Avot 3:2)

  23. I am in complete agreement about transliteration being a crutch for many. It does however make those with certain learning disabilities able to be included fully in the services and the community. For that reason, I still think it is needed and important to have.

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