The Koren Sacks Siddur, with English Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Koren Publishers: Jerusalem, 2009.

The Koren Sacks Siddur, with English Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Koren Publishers: Jerusalem, 2009.

In 1981, Koren Publishers (Jerusalem), which was founded by the artist and typographer Eliyahu Koren, released its first siddur. This siddur is laid out in such a way as to stimulate visually a sense of the flow and dynamics that correspond to the content of the prayers themselves. Twenty-eight years later, the American Jewish community is taking significant note of the Koren Siddur through the publication of a Hebrew- English edition with a new translation and commentary by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Lord Jonathan Sacks.

The motivation for creating another Orthodox Hebrew-English siddur comes, in part, as a response to the dominance of the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox community, in the publication of traditional materials, most notably ArtScroll-Mesorah Publications. The compilers, translators, and commentators of these works have a tendency to leave out much of the sensibilities of the Modern Orthodox community and, more strikingly, the implications of prayer in the diaspora vis-à-vis the State of Israel. There are four main areas in which the Koren Siddur stands apart from its predecessors and contemporaries both qualitatively and quantitatively.

First, there are a number of features in the layout and typography of the Koren Siddur that assist the user while praying. The facing English translation on the righthand side of pages is a feature that may be unusual for some, as most siddurs have facing English translations on the left side. Nevertheless, this unique feature allows the Hebrew side to be the first side viewed while turning pages. For those who pray primarily in Hebrew, this small adjustment in translation placement can “smooth out” the praying experience.

The typography is ornamented in the original style of all of Eliyahu Koren’s work and succeeds masterfully at providing a visual cue to concentrate on the letters of the prayers. This may be distracting for some, a needed visual stimulus for others, and an opportunity to cause all to slow down enough to concentrate on the meaning of the prayers. The vocalization of the siddur reflects that of a tikkun korin (book of Torah/Haftarah portions used by Torah readers) in that it alters the shape and size of letters and vowels that have unique emphases and/or vocalizations. One example (of many) is the elongation of the qamatz katan, which is the form of the qamatz that is pronounced as “o” as opposed to the more common “ah.” These visual alterations encourage an excellence in the pronunciation of prayers for both those who may not know the distinctions and those who may forget.

The bolding of certain words and phrases such as Bareku and Ma Tovu helps to highlight the flow of the liturgy. Creative alignment and spacing also serve to emphasize meaning and flow. For example, in the concluding verses of the Shema section just following the recitation of the three paragraphs of the Shema, the word Emet “truth” is placed in the margin farther to the right of the rest of the text.1 This word stands out visually as a theme in this section. Impressively, the layout of the facing English translation is a mirror image of the formatting of the Hebrew. Scripture references are found on the margins of the lines in which they are found, as opposed to put as footnotes. This frees up space for commentary and keeps parenthetical notes out of the text of the prayers themselves.

All of these unique features are in addition to clear symbols for physical movements and the volume swells for the prayer leader that are found in most other siddurs. The Koren Sacks Siddur is simultaneously technically precise, creative, and artistic in the way it presents the prayers and their translations.

Second, there are many things in this siddur that other complete siddurs do not have. The Koren Sacks Siddur contains: the service for Zeved HaBat/Birth of a Daughter, the confession before death, the funeral service, prayers for recovery from and after illness, listings of psalms for special occasions and where to find them throughout the siddur, a chart of textual variants and permitted responses, a guide to the Jewish year and laws of daily and Shabbat prayer, services for Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Yom Yerushalayim, and Yom Hazikaron, translated selichot, and the three Atkinot Seudatot for Shabbat are translated. This siddur provides translations for material that is often considered too esoteric to be translated. It also provides resources for certain traditional prayers that many would need to look into the recesses of Talmud to uncover.2 Each of these features is indicative of a desire by Koren publishers to promote modern, halakically-centered, progressive liturgical variety. When put together, these features enable the Koren Sacks Siddur to embody that goal.

Third, Rabbi Sacks’ “Understanding Jewish Prayer” could easily have been a book of its own.3 To have this essay as an introduction makes this siddur an invaluable resource for Jewish prayer. Rabbi Sacks employs historical, halakic, textual, hasidic, and theological insights to form his overview. Two “stand-out” insights are that of the siddur being a joining of spontaneous prayer with the sacrificial order4 and the siddur being the perfect expression of Jewish theology.5 Rabbi Sacks’ commentary is as intellectually stimulating as it is spiritually insightful.

The translation of this siddur is not one merely of words or phrases but of genres of prayers. Some of the Jewish prayer in the siddur is Scripture, some of it is poetry, some of it is study material, etc. The ability to translate sections of prayers into genres is one of the more refreshing contributions of Rabbi Sacks’ translation. The translation of Adon Olam is one such example.6 The English rhymes in the same way the Hebrew does and yet the literal meanings remain intact. The English translation is poetic enough to be prayed but does not shift the focus away from its Hebrew origin.

Fourth, the birth of the State of Israel has impacted nearly all of Jewry around the world. It is interesting that, while much of Jewish literature addresses the Jewish State in one form or another, the American Jewish siddur did not fundamentally change. Occasionally prayers would by added in the Torah service, but it was not representative of the seriousness of the impact the State of Israel had on a global level. The Koren Sacks Siddur is the first Hebrew/English siddur to include all of the customs unique to synagogues in the State of Israel. The Koren Sacks Siddur is also the first to have a halakic guide for visitors to the Jewish State.7 A Jew in the diaspora can take this siddur to almost any community in Israel and use it to pray. These features are more than just an acknowledgment of the different customs in Israel; they express the reality that there is something fundamentally different in how a Jew prays when in exile than when in the land of his or her forefathers. It is a radical reminder to the one praying outside of the land that he or she is not in Israel. Through these additions, Koren Publishers makes the statement that the advent of the State of Israel should impact the way Jews outside of the Land pray.

The Messianic Jewish community is on a journey to find its own prayerful voice in the symphony of Jewish prayer. It is an endeavor in which we must be rooted in our tradition, responsive to modern Judaism, and unafraid to express our unique theological and experiential reality. The boldness, clarity, and intelligence with which the Koren Sacks Siddur does these things with its own unique voice can be a model for our community. Our liturgy should be as deeply faith-driven as it is beautifully and intelligently compiled. The Koren Sacks Siddur is an excellent siddur to pray with now and to inspire us to create something for our community that is just as responsive to the need for our people to deepen its connection with God through prayer.

Benjamin Ehrenfeld is the Director of Ritual Life and lay cantor for Congregation Ruach Israel, in Needham, MA. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Jewish Studies and Rabbinic Ordination through Messianc Jewish Theological Institute. He is a case manager and mental health counselor for a psychiatric group home.

  1. The Koren Sacks Siddur, with English Translation and Commentary by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks (Koren Publishers: Jerusalem, 2009), 102–5.
  2. E.g., the list of blessings; ibid., 998–1005.
  3. Ibid., xvii–xlix.
  4. Ibid., xxi–xxii.
  5. Ibid., xxxvi.
  6. Ibid., 22.
  7. Ibid., 1233–36.
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