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Introduction [to the Siddur], by Rabbi Dr. Israel Wolf Slotki (1964)

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INTRODUCTION [TO THE SIDDUR] 
by Rabbi Dr. Israel Wolf Slotki, M.A., LITT.D., F.R.S.L.

I.

Composition of Prayers

At first, prayers were recited from memory and expressed in the worshipper’s own words. Later, however, consideration was given to the fact that most people were unable to compose their prayers or adequately to give expression to their feelings and desires. Statutory evening, morning, and afternoon prayers were, therefore, composed for weekdays, Sabbaths, and festivals, and special prayers for all forms of joyful and mournful occasions. Many additions to these were made in the course of the centuries. Thus the authoritative Siddur came into existence.

The First Siddurim

The main structure of our Prayer Books is attributed to Rav Amram Gaon whose Siddur is the earliest known. It contains prayers that have their origin in the Holy Scriptures, the Talmud, later Jewish sources and many later additions. Compiled in Babylon, the authority of this Siddur was also acknowledged by the Jewish communities in Spain from where it found its way to the Jews [in] Italy.

About seventy years later a Siddur was compiled by Rav Saadiah Gaon, principal of the Sura academy in Babylon (882-942), and this was followed by that of Rashi (1040-1105), but neither of these succeeded in gaining the status or popularity of the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon. A disciple of Rashi, Rabbi Simchah ben Rabbi Samuel of Vitry in France (d. 1105) has to his credit the most important early Siddur, the basis of the Ashkenazic form of the prayers. It quotes extensively from the Siddurim of Rav Amram, Rav Saadiah and others and is ten times the size of the Siddurim that preceded it.

II.

Beginnings of Prayer

Prayers are found to have been in use as early as Bible times, having been recorded in the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Hagiorgrapha. Abraham, to quote a few examples, prayed on behalf of the men of Sodom (Genesis 18:23-33) and Abimelech Gen. 20:17). Jacob prayed for delivery from his brother Esau (Gen 32:9-12). Joshua turned to God in prayer after the defeat at Ai (Jos. 7:6); Samuel, when the people insisted on the appointment of a king (I Sam 12:23); Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jon. 2:1-9); Daniel, for the restoration from exile (Dan. 9:3-19); and Nehemiah, for the salvation of the returned exiles (Ezra 9:6-15).

Congregational Prayer

Public or congregational prayer may be traced from the time of the First Temple when king Solomon offered in public his prayer of the dedication of the Temple and included in it thanksgiving, supplication, and confession (I Kings 8:12-23).

It is difficult, however, to decide when exactly congregational prayer, in the form now used, was first instituted, but there can hardly be any doubt that our liturgy began to take shape while the Second Temple still flourished in Jerusalem.

We know that the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21; and Numbers 15:37-41), which we now read twice daily, and the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-18) were recited in the Temple every morning (Tamid 5.1) and that, while the priests offered the sacrifices, the Levites sang psalms and other songs, penitent sinners made confession, and the other worshippers joined in prayers.

The Eighteen Benedictions (Shemoneh Esreh) or, at least, their first three and last three were composed in the second century B.C.E., i.e. before the Maccabean era, while the benedictions of Ahavah Rabbah (“With abounding love”), which precedes the morning Shema, and Emeth veyateiv (“True and firm”), which follows it, have also a very early origin.

Voluntary and Obligatory Prayers

In the days of the First Temple prayer was a voluntary act. The only obligatory parts of it were the Psalms of David sung by the Levites, and the vows of repentance that accompanied the burning of the sin-offerings. According to Maimonides, it was obligatory upon every Israelite, from the days of Moses to those of Ezra, to offer no less than one prayer every day (Mishneh Torah, Prayer and the Priestly Blessing 1.3).

III.

After the destruction of the First Temple, when the offering of sacrifices had ceased, daily prayers were instituted in their place, in accordance with the prophet Hosea’s declaration, “And we shall render as bullocks the offering of our lips” (Hos. 14:2).

Authorship of the Prayers

There is a tradition that the three statutory daily prayers were instituted by the three patriarchs: Abraham offered the morning prayer, Isaac the afternoon prayer, while Jacob established the evening one (Berachoth 26b). No details, however, are available of the contents of these prayers in the versions of the patriarchs.

More specific information is forthcoming on the authorship of the Men of the Great Synagogue. This august assembly, according to tradition, was composed of a hundred and twenty elders, including eighty prophets, sages and teachers. It is they, we are told, that were the authors of the benedictions, prayers, sanctifications and distinctions in our Prayer Book (Berachoth 33a) including the Eighteen Benedictions (Megillah 17b).

Praying with the Congregation

Prayers may be read in the privacy of the home or with the congregation. There are, however, certain prayers or eulogies that may be said in congregational worship only, when there is a quorum of no less than ten males above the age of thirteen. Praying with a congregation is, consequently, always to be preferred.

Statutory prayers, furthermore, almost invariably use the plural form. We say, for instance, “Our father, our king,” “Forgive us, O our father for we have sinned,” “We give thanks.” Every individual Jew does not pray for himself alone but for all the community and, in fact, for all humanity. Prayer for individual needs only is a rare occurence in the Jewish Prayer Book.

Enumeration of Needs

Specifying of human wants in prayer is permitted, but this must not be regarded as a means of acquainting our creator of our needs. God is omniscient and is fully aware of the suppliants’ wishes even before they have been uttered. The enumeration is rather a declaration of our complete helplessness and total dependence on our maker in each and every one of our numerous requirements and needs.

IV.

Preparation for Prayer

Prayer requires the preparation of the mind and the body of the worshipper. R. Chiyya bar Ashi in the name of Rav (219-247) said, “Any one who is not in a settled state of mind must not pray” (Erubin 65a). Prayer must not be treated as a set task but as petition and supplication to the omnipresent (Aboth 2.18). “Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel” (Amos 4:12) was the origin of the custom of the “pious of ancient times” who spent one hour in preparation for prayer (Berachoth 5.1). One of Ezra’s ordinances was the scrupulous washing of the body immediately before prayer (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 3.4). Attention must be paid to the clothing one wears during prayer. One Talmudic sage, accordingly, put a mantle over his shoulders and crossed his hands in reverence “like a servant in the presence of his master” (Shabbath 10a). Another sage wore red garters whenever he offered his prayers.

Efficacy of Prayer

Throughout Scripture the Efficacy of prayer is taken for granted. Moses, for instance, by his prayer removed plagues from Egypt (Exodus 8:29, 31) and healed the leprosy of his sister Miriam (Numbers 12:13-14). Elijah’s prayer revived an apparently dead child (I Kings 17:20) and so did the prayer of his disciple Elisha in a similar emergency (I Kings 4:33). When the people of Nineveh were doomed to destruction, they were saved by their prayers, fasting and repentance (Jonah 3:10). Similar examples of the efficacy of prayer are scattered all over the pages of the Talmudic literature.

Equality of Rich and Poor

Although the prayers are a substitute for the Temple sacrifices, they are esteemed to be not only of equal, but of higher value (Berachoth 60a). All men are equal in the sight of God and, therefore, the prayer of the poor is as precious as that of the great Moses and even more efficacious (Zohar Vayishlach 168b). Psalm 90 describes the prayer of Moses as “Tefillah leMosheh” (Prayer of Moses), and the same description is used for the prayer of the poor man, “Tefillah leani” (Prayer of the poor man) in Psalm 102, on which the Midrash (Shemoth Rabbah 21.4) comments, “Zu tefillah vezu tefillah” (This is prayer and the other is equally prayer).

V.

Content and Aim

Our present Prayer Book embraces supplications and praise, confession and thanksgiving, hymns and psalms, besides many selections from Holy Scripture, the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Jew turns to God in prayer when he rises up in the morning, when he goes to bed at night, and frequently during other parts of the day when he washes his hands, eats his food or enjoys any of the numerous good things of life.

In sorrow and grief, too, God’s judgment is humbly accepted with resignation and his name is blessed and extolled.

Our prayers breathe the spirit of invincible loyalty and faith, revive memories of our glorious past, and recall the pious deeds of our illustrious forefathers.

Faith and Harmony

Expression is given to our ardent desire to be in harmony with God, to our confidence in the divine promise of the redemption of his people, to Israel’s eternal existence, and to the assurance of our prophets that a time will come when all mankind will achieve the highest standards of justice and morality, eternal truth and universal peace, all striving to understand and do the will of our God.

Our prayers reflect every mood of the human soul, and through them we commune with our creator and offer him the true homage of our hearts.

I.W. Slotki

This short introduction to prayer in the Siddur by the scholar and translator Israel Wolf Slotki (1884–1973) can be found as an appended preface to a combined edition of Prayers of Israel vol. 1 (first edition 1937) and vol. 2 (third revised edition 1937), the prayerbooks of Rabbi Jacob Bosniak (1887-1963). These two volumes were re-published soon after Rabbi Bosniak’s death by Pardes Publishing House Inc., in 1964. In addition to this introduction, Pardes also included translations made by Dr. Slotki of Pirkei Avot and of the hymn, Anim Zemirot, as well as some liturgical commentary. With this material included, Pardes revised the page numbers in their eprinting).

I was unaware that Dr. Slotki had written anything on the Siddur or Jewish liturgy beyond Key to the Siddur (1947), a grammar book for liturgical Hebrew published alongside Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz’s annotated Authorised Daily Prayer Book (Revised edition, 1942-1945/1948). It may very well be the case that this introduction was originally written for but not included in the aforementioned Key to the Siddur.

Because this work of a major scholar is so obscure, and the heir to the estate of Dr. Slotki so difficult to determine, I have reprinted his concise “Introduction [to the Siddur]” here under my Fair Use Right so that other’s may benefit from it. (Without explicit permission from Slotki’s heirs the work will remain under copyright in the United States until 2043, seventy years after the author’s death.) The actual text seems to me to have been edited from a larger manuscript almost certainly written before 1964. If you are familiar with any additional writing by Dr. Slotki on Jewish liturgy (besides his grammar book, Key to the Siddur) please let us know. –Aharon Varady

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