How to Annotate Your Siddur by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner

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Why use a siddur


נתפלל ומצא עצמו בשומע תפילה חזקה כוין… א”ר חייא רובא אנא מן יומיי לא כיונית אלא חד זמן בעי מכוונה והרהרית בלבי ואמרית מאן עליל קומי מלכא קדמי ארקבסה אי ריש גלותא שמואל אמר אנא מנית אפרוחיא רבי בון בר חייא אמר אנא מנית דימוסיא א”ר מתניה אנא מחזק טיבו לראשי דכד הוה מטי מודים הוא כרע מגרמיה
Talmud Yerushalmi,[1]circa 350-400 CE Berakhot 2:4

One who prays [the Amidah] and finds himself at shomeia tefillah may assume he had proper intent… Rabi Ḥiyya the Great said: I never concentrated properly; once I tried to concentrate, and then I began to wonder who goes before the king first, the officer or the exilarch. Shmuel said: I count clouds [other manuscripts: birds]. Rabi Bun bar Ḥiyya said: I count bricks. Rabi Matniyah said: I am grateful to my head, for when I reach Modim it bows on its own!


הברכות אע”פ שיש בהן מאותות השם ומענינות הרבה שבתורה אין מצילין אותן אבל נשרפין במקומן מכן אמרו כותבי ברכות כשורפי תורה
Tosefta[2]circa 220 CE Shabbat 13:4

Even though blessings contain the letters of the Name and many matters of Torah, one may not save them; they are burned where they are. Therefore they said: Those who write blessings are as those who burn Torah.


תפלות הפרקים כגון תפלת מוסף ראש חדש ותפלת מועדות צריך להסדיר תפלתו ואחר כך עומד ומתפלל כדי שלא יכשל בה
Rambam, Mishneh Torah (c. 1180 CE), Hilkhot Tefilah 4:19

One must arrange his prayer for special occasions, such as Musaf for Rosh Ḥodesh and prayers of holidays, and then stand and pray, so that he will not stumble.


ויש קהלות כותבין על קלף סידור מיוחד לש”ץ להתפלל מתוכו ונכון הוא, וראוי אף ליחיד להתפלל מתוך הסידור…‏
Pri Megadim,[3]Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim (1727–1792) on Orakh Chaim 53 Mishbetzot Zahav 15

In some communities they write a special siddur for the ḥazan to use, and this is appropriate; it is appropriate even for individuals to pray from a siddur…


מותר לאחוז מחזור תפלות בידו בשעה שמתפלל הואיל ותופס לצורך תפלה עצמה לא טריד…‏
Shulḥan Arukh: Oraḥ Ḥayim 96:2

One may hold a book of prayers in his hand when praying; he will not be distracted since he holds it for prayer…

Our problems: Fixed text; Blob of text; Familiarity


רבי אליעזר אומר העושה תפלתו קבע אין תפלתו תחנונים
Mishnah[4]circa 220 CE Berakhot 4:4

Rabi Eliezer said: One who makes his prayer ‘fixed’ – his prayer is not a proper plea.


שלש עבירות אין אדם ניצול מהן בכל יום הרהור עבירה ועיון תפלה ולשון הרע. לשון הרע סלקא דעתך אלא אבק לשון הרע
Talmud Bavli, Bava Batra 164b-165a

One is not saved from three sins daily: Thoughts of immorality, examination of prayer, and [almost] harmful speech.


אם תתפלל בהנעת שפתיך ופניך אל הכותל ואתה חושב במקחך וממכרך… תהיה אז קרוב ממי שנאמר בהם, קרוב אתה בפיהם ורחוק מכליותיהם.‏
Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:51

Should you pray with movement of your lips and your face to the wall but think about your commerce… you will be close to those regarding whom it is written, ‘You are close to their mouths, but far from their innards.’

Writing in a siddur?


ונמצא באחרונים שאף בחזרת הש”ץ נכון הוא שיהיה הסידור פתוח לפניו להיות אזניו פקוחות על מה שאומר הש”ץ
Mishnah Berurah[5]Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (aka the Chofetz Chaim, Poland, 1838–1933) 96:9

The Aḥaronim wrote that it is also appropriate to hold an open siddur during repetition of the Amidah, so that one’s ears will be open to that which the ḥazan says.


הבגדים המצויירים.. אין נכון להתפלל כנגדם, ואם יקרה לו להתפלל כנגד בגד או כותל מצויר, יעלים עיניו. הגה: ולכן אסור ג”כ לצייר ציורים בספרים שמתפללין בהן, שלא תתבטל הכוונה
Shulḥan Arukh: Oraḥ Ḥayim 90:23

One should not pray opposite clothes with designs… and if one happens to pray opposite a garment or wall with a picture, he should close his eyes.
Rema[6]Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (1520-1572): Therefore, one may not draw pictures in the books from which we pray, lest that prevent concentration.

[On suggestions for writing in siddurim, Rabbi Torczyner adds]

Alternatives: http://lauramiller.typepad.com/lauramiller/2009/03/how-to-write-in-a-book.html

Practical tips
1. Mark phrases for special concentration
2. Mark structural/poetic elements that provide greater meaning
3. Add wake-up calls
4. Mark lines requiring explanation
5. Write in food for thought

Writing notes
1. Pencil, small marks, change them regularly
2. Spread marks throughout the various prayers
3. Be ready to replace your siddur
4. Don’t distract from the davening

In lieu of the Workshop, here are some examples of items I have marked in my current siddur:
* Words and phrases for special concentration –ואהבת, באהבה, והשב את העבודה לדביר ביתך, ולעבדו בלבב שלם

* Poetic/structural elements – The imperatives in Mizmor l’Todah; The 3 types of Divine action requested in Al haTzaddikim; the theme-aligned sets of lines in Avinu Malkeinu; the two halves of Emes v’Emunah (across time / Yetzias Mitzrayim)

* Wake-up calls – Alerts for Shma, Morid haGeshem, Refa’einu

* Lines that require explanation – והושיענו למען שמך, שיבנה בית המקדש במהרה בימינו ותן חלקנו בתורתך

* Food for thought – Rav Kook’s explanation of בעל מלחמות זורע צדקות, the two roles of Avinu and Malkeinu, the difference between a shofar and a nes in T’ka b’shofar.


Thank you to Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner for graciously sharing his sourcesheet with translations of the source-texts above. These translations were originally published in a post, “Class: How to Write in Your Siddur” on Rabbi Torczyner’s blog, The Rebbetzin’s Husband, November 22, 2011. As an introduction Rabbi Torczyner explained,

On Wednesday night [November 23rd, 2011] I’m delivering a shiur for women on “How to write in your siddur”, a development based on the blog posts that appear here and here.

Here is the majority of my source sheet, excluding passages which I’ll use for a “Writing Workshop”. [UPDATE: The audio of the session is now available here.]

Notes   [ + ]

1. circa 350-400 CE
2, 4. circa 220 CE
3. Rabbi Joseph ben Meir Teomim (1727–1792)
5. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (aka the Chofetz Chaim, Poland, 1838–1933)
6. Rabbi Moses ben Israel Isserles (1520-1572)

2 comments to How to Annotate Your Siddur by Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner

  • The Hierophant

    Was Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (aka the Chofetz Chaim) a synaesthete? “The Acharonim wrote that it is also appropriate to hold an open siddur during repetition of the Amidah, so that one’s ears will be open to that which the ḥazan says.” The latter does not obviously follow from the former — in fact, I might assume the opposite. But it seems here that what R’ Kagan is saying is to use the siddur as a tool to focus attention away from the eyes (where it might stray) and back towards the liturgy for the ears to “read” what the ḥazzan is reciting.

  • The Hierophant

    I find the Rema’s statement on Shulḥan Arukh: Oraḥ Ḥayim 90:2 fascinating. Am I misunderstanding the Rema that he’s forbidding illustrations inside siddurim?

    Certainly there are siddurim from before this time that have illustrations in them – beautiful illuminated illustrations even. I wonder if the Rema is reacting to this or if he’s only talking about certain prayers in the siddur, (e.g. the Amidah). Personally, I find that illustrating the meaning of an idea helps me to better concentrate. There’s something to learn here from Gardner’s pedagogical Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Comments, Corrections, and Queries


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