Commentary

Yes, We Needed Another Modern Orthodox Prayer Book: A Review of the RCA Siddur

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Yosef Lindell

Introduction and History of the RCA Siddur

If anyone had asked me a year ago whether the Modern Orthodox community in the United States needed a new siddur, I would have said no. The turquoise covers of Koren Publishers’ siddur with the translation and commentary of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks stand out on many a synagogue bookshelf these days. Next to the Koren Sacks, one might find the Koren Mesorat ha-Rav Siddur with a commentary based on the thought of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was the twentieth century’s foremost Modern Orthodox leader. There’s even a Koren Rav Kook Siddur, with a digest of the thought of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hakohen Kook. If none of these speak to the individual, there’s also Nehalel beShabbat, a siddur chock full of pictures meant to inspire kavannah, which has been endorsed by several progressive Modern Orthodox figures. And finally, the ArtScroll Siddur is still going strong. After more than thirty years, it remains the mainstay of Orthodox English-speaking synagogues worldwide, Modern Orthodox included.

And yet, last October, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA)—a rabbinical group with strong ties to Yeshiva University and Modern Orthodoxy—released Siddur Avodat ha-Lev, a new daily, Shabbat, and festival prayer book. Edited by Rabbis Basil Herring, Leonard Matanky, and Heshie Billet, among others, and distributed by Koren, it is the culmination of years of collaborative effort among RCA member rabbis and others. It positions itself as a “siddur for the twenty-first century,” (xxi)[1] with a new translation and commentary, a carefully researched text, and prayers that reflect the Modern Orthodox experience in particular.

Siddur Avodat ha-Lev is actually the third in a line of RCA siddurim. The first is the 1960 Traditional Prayer Book for Sabbath and Festivals, edited and translated by Rabbi David de Sola Pool of Congregation Shearith Israel, the well-known Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan. This siddur does not include weekday services and contains little commentary other than brief introductions about the structure of particular services. Although the siddur is now largely forgotten, it generated controversy in its day because some found Rabbi de Sola Pool’s translation to have taken too much poetic license.[2]

A generation later, in 1984, the RCA simply adopted the then-new ArtScroll siddur with a few minor modifications for its next edition. The ArtScroll RCA edition, still widely used by Modern Orthodox congregations around the country, is identical to the regular ArtScroll siddur except for an introduction by Rabbi Saul Berman that replaces the introduction of Rabbi Nosson Scherman, and an additional page with prayers for the government of the United States and for the State of Israel.

The newest edition of the RCA siddur has been a long time coming. In 2009, the RCA announced that it was preparing a new edition of its siddur for publication that would be ready in time for its 75th anniversary in 2010. The siddur was to again be published by ArtScroll, but the RCA promised several innovations in its layout and content. But by 2013, the new siddur still had not been released, and the announcement vanished from the RCA’s website. The siddur resurfaced in 2018, but is published by Koren now, not ArtScroll.

Although like its two prior editions, the newest RCA siddur sports an all-black cover with gold lettering, it is little like its predecessors. For one thing, the text and layout are different. Also, although it hearkens back to the de Sola Pool siddur because, as noted on the copyright page, the translation is based on his, the translation has been thoroughly updated and modernized. Its extensive commentary has a Modern Orthodox bent, addressing issues such as women’s prayer and the State of Israel. As I discuss each of these points below, it may become clearer why ArtScroll, a publisher known for its ties to the haredi and yeshiva world, might not have wanted to publish this siddur.

This review will focus on what makes the RCA siddur different from the Koren Sacks or the ArtScroll and how it is more consciously Modern Orthodox than prior siddurim. And although I believe that the new RCA siddur is a worthwhile addition despite the many siddurim already available, I will conclude with some logistical challenges to the siddur’s widespread adoption.

Text and Layout

The new RCA siddur is distributed by Koren, but unlike the Koren Sacks and the other Koren siddurim I mentioned above, it uses its own distinctive text, font, and layout instead of adopting that of the Hebrew Koren siddur. Although some aspects of its design reflect past Koren editions, not all of them do.

Unlike the Koren Sacks, which departed from a more than one-hundred-year-old tradition by placing the Hebrew text on the left hand page and the English on the right, the RCA retains the Hebrew on the right and the English on the left. Honestly, I’ve always found the Koren’s decision to switch the Hebrew and the English hard to get used to. Further, the RCA siddur’s fonts are plainer and less stylized than Koren’s, making them easier to read. Also aiding readability is the fact that the RCA, unlike the Koren, arranges the prayers as paragraphs instead of formatting many of them as poetic verse.

Like the Koren and unlike the ArtScroll, the RCA notes the sources of biblical passages on the side of the page instead of in footnotes, which is helpful. But one design choice lifted from the Koren is less salutary: the use of razor-thin bible paper instead of thicker pages like the ArtScroll’s which are easier to turn.

Unlike either the Koren or the ArtScroll, the RCA includes the full text of all five megillot (in Hebrew only), which allows one to use the siddur without needing another book on days when the megillot are read.

Another welcome change from the Koren and the ArtScroll is that the RCA places relevant laws of prayer on the page instead of in the back of the siddur. Some of the halakhot speak to useful matters that I have not seen addressed in a siddur before, such as how to pray on an airplane (avoid disturbing other passengers and daven in your seat if necessary) (236). As others have already noted, the influence of the Rav looms large in the halakhic sections as it does elsewhere in the siddur.

Perhaps surprisingly, the RCA siddur makes minor changes to some familiar texts based on manuscript evidence or academic scholarship. For example, based on early medieval manuscripts, it considers, like the Birnbaum siddur, the words “le-dor va-dor” in Modim the beginning of a sentence: “From generation to generation we will thank You…” instead of the end of the prior sentence as in the ArtScroll and Koren siddurim: “You are the . . . Shield of our deliverance from generation to generation” (400). And in the poem Kah Keli preceding Musaf for festivals, the RCA changes the words “ve-todah ve-la-olah” to “ve-torah la-olah” on the grounds that the received text is probably corrupt (826). (The commentary, quoting Dr. Bernard Septimus, a noted Jewish historian, explains that in the traditional text, the list of sacrifices in the poem—todah, olah, etc.—are a non-sequitur. The word “torah” on the other hand connotes that we hope that our recitation of “the torah of the sacrifices”—or in other words the sacrificial order—will be as pleasing to God as if we had offered the sacrifices in Jerusalem).

Translation

In its translation, the RCA siddur tries to balance fidelity to the Hebrew with common English usage (xxiv-xxv). While its translation is based on Rabbi de Sola Pool’s, which is one of the less literal translations available, the RCA thoroughly revises it to favor plain meaning over poetry.

For example, in Adon Olam, Rabbi de Sola Pool translates the words “ve-hu nisi u-manos li menat kosi be-yom ekra,” as “My banner, refuge, portion true, / My guide to whom my prayer is prayed” (de Sola Pool, 104) but the new RCA instead says “My banner and my refuge, / to Whom I will raise a cup on the day I proclaim my salvation,” which is more literal but less poetic (19). (Of note, Rabbi Sacks has perhaps the most poignant rendering: “My banner and my safe retreat, / my cup, my portion when I cry” (Koren Sacks, 22)). Despite the fact that the RCA’s approach to translation differs from Rabbi de Sola Pool’s, it presumably used the de Sola Pool translation in order to maintain continuity with its original siddur and because it already had the rights to it.[3]

Yet, despite its tendency toward literal translation, the RCA is also more functional and less formal than ArtScroll in many instances. ArtScroll often slavishly preserves the Hebrew syntax, or word order, in its translations.[4] One simple example: ArtScroll translates “retzon yereav yaaseh ve-et shavatam yishmah ve-yoshe’em” in Ashrei as “The will of those who fear Him He will do; and their cry He will hear, and save them” (ArtScroll, 69). This tracks the Hebrew precisely, but leaves something to be desired in English. RCA has, “He does the will of those who fear Him, and He hears their cry and saves them,” (71) which in my opinion is superior. (Although, again, the Koren Sacks translation is perhaps a tad more elegant and appropriately regal, rendering the first half of the verse as, “He fulfills the will of those who revere Him” (Koren Sacks, 72).)

In translating biblical passages, the RCA siddur uses a lightly edited version of the 1917 Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation. The use of this classic translation may simply reflect the fact that the 1917 JPS is in the public domain. The 1917 JPS is also known to be quite literal; it only slightly modifies the early seventeenth century King James Bible translation,[5] which itself is one of the more literal translations available. In any event, the RCA siddur’s use of the 1917 JPS is an interesting example of how the King James continues to wield an outsize influence. However, when translating Psalms that occur in the tefillot, and for its translation of the entire Book of Psalms in the back (also a first for a daily and Shabbat siddur and a very good idea), the RCA uses Mosad HaRav Kook’s Daat Mikra Koschitzky Hebrew-English edition.

Commentary

The crown jewel of the RCA siddur is its commentary. Although the quality of the prose never approaches that of Rabbi Sacks in the Koren, the RCA’s commentary is more comprehensive than his, as well as both broader and more academically inclined than ArtScroll’s.

Rabbi Sacks’ brilliant introduction to the Koren siddur focuses on the function of prayer and its literary structure. The commentary throughout the siddur often introduces prayers by using ideas from the introduction to explain their placement in the siddur. But aside from the introduction, the commentary in the Koren Sacks is very short.

The RCA siddur has no overarching literary thesis about prayer. Its commentary, like the one in the ArtScroll, is an anthology drawing on disparate ideas and sources. But it’s a remarkable anthology, with far more discussion than Koren and far more diversity than ArtScroll. The breadth of who it quotes is unparalleled; Nehama Leibowitz might be cited in one paragraph and Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev in the next. Rav Moshe Feinstein’s and Rav Eliyahu Dessler’s ideas share space with the thoughts of literary Tanakh teachers like Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and academics like Dr. Shai Secunda. There is a good balance between the traditional and the academic, the old and the new. The range of ideas is likewise vast and eclectic; the siddur tells inspirational Holocaust stories and quibbles over whether the word for rain in the second blessing of the Amidah should be pronounced geshem or gashem—and it does both well. Perhaps such diversity is particularly appropriate for the siddur, which is itself an anthology echoing the voices of authors living in different places and at different times.

It’s in the commentary more than anywhere else that the siddur’s Modern Orthodox character is apparent. First, the commentary highlights peshat and literary approaches to Tanakh, which have become widespread in Modern Orthodox educational settings in recent years. In particular, in explaining the many Psalms that are part of tefillah, it makes extensive use of the work of Rav Amos Hakham (1921-2012), the editor of the Daat Mikra Psalms. The siddur’s concise explanation of the relationship between the five seemingly unconnected verses of mizmor le-todah is a good example. According to Rav Hakham, the Psalm begins with a feeling of joy, moves to the recognition of God, and closes with concrete actions acknowledging God’s salvation (64).

Second, the RCA does not shy away from academic work, particularly when discussing the origins of particular prayers. For example, the commentary notes that Yekum Purkan in Shabbat Musaf first appears in medieval times, long after the office of the Babylonian Exilarch it references had ceased to exist, but suggests that medieval Jews were showing respect to traditional centers of leadership by using old terms to refer to their new communal organizations (550-51).

Third, the siddur has a rationalist bent. To give one example: when discussing Psalm 29, the commentary quotes Ibn Ezra, who suggests that the reference to mountain ranges skipping like wild animals is a metaphor for an earthquake (367). Beyond the commentary, the RCA moves kabbalistic le-shem yihud invocations often recited before performing mitzvot to the back of the siddur because they are Hasidic innovations not favored by all halakhic authorities (765).

The siddur is concerned with broader issues of communal life beyond prayer alone, and weighs-in on matters of religious and ethical significance. It recommends performing kapparot before Yom Kippur with money instead of live fowl out of concern for the prohibition of inflicting pain on animals and to ensure that local laws relating to the handling of livestock are followed (938). It urges that no marriages take place without first signing an RCA prenuptial agreement (1048). It contains extensive guidelines for visiting a sick person so that it is done respectfully and compassionately (1087-1091). It even makes suggestions for how to conduct one’s self when death is approaching, and has an extensive and moving deathbed confession ceremony (1092-1094).

In this context I must mention the more than one hundred pages of essays on prayer in the back of the siddur written by various leaders in the Modern Orthodox community and beyond covering issues of history, Halakhah, and kavannah. The section as a whole is reminiscent of the essays at the end of each book of the Torah in the Hertz Pentateuch, which explore ideas at greater length than a line-by-line commentary allows for. Not every essay in the RCA siddur is remarkable, but one standout is Rabbi Daniel Feldman’s guide to the interpersonal laws of prayer (E33-E47); if we know when to interrupt Shema’s blessings to answer “amen” but can’t speak civilly to the gabbai, perhaps we’ve missed the point of prayer. So too, Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s short meditation on how the foreignness and visceral nature of animal sacrifice can unlock a deeper understanding of prayer is thought-provoking (E95-E96).[6]

The State of Israel

Reflecting the contemporary practice of many Modern Orthodox congregations, this RCA siddur goes well beyond its prior ArtScroll adaptation in its recognition of the State of Israel. In addition to the prayer for the State of Israel, the Israeli Defense Forces, and Israeli soldiers held captive, the siddur contains the full services for Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim endorsed by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate, and even includes harahaman verses in birkat ha-mazon for Israel and its army (228). The siddur also discusses whether parts of Nahem recited in the Minha Amidah on Tisha Ba-Av should not be said nowadays because describing Jerusalem as desolate and uninhabited does not jive with the current reality (271).

Women’s Prayer

The RCA siddur “seeks to reflect a sensitivity to women’s prayer experiences” (xxiv), and this is a positive turn, as earlier siddurim do not appear to have made a conscious effort to think about how Orthodox women might experience prayer differently from men.

Still, as befitting a mainstream Orthodox siddur in current times, it addresses relatively minor matters: the gendering of prayer texts and inclusivity in a limited number of rituals. So you will find “modah ani” in addition to “modeh ani” (2), and a different congregational response when the ha-gomel blessing said after travel, illness, or childbirth is recited by a woman (162). Daughters may recite kaddish for deceased parents, but maybe not out loud or alone (52). The RCA contains the text of the zimmun for three or more women who share a meal together (220). There is also a mi sheberakh blessing for a girl turning bat mitzvah (540), and the commentary suggests that a father can recite the traditional bar mitzvah blessing for a bat mitzvah if God’s name is omitted (544). The RCA acknowledges the possibility that a woman may one day be elected President of the United States (554). And like the Koren Sacks, the RCA siddur contains the Sephardic zeved ha-bat service as a possible format for a celebratory meal upon the birth of a girl (1076-1079). Although basically all of the same changes were introduced in the Nehalel siddur in 2013, it is significant that they have now been adopted by the RCA, a mainstream rabbinic organization.

Women contributed to the siddur’s commentary, but the vast majority of contributors are male. And often (but not exclusively), women’s contributions concern women: a female professor, Dr. Devra Kay, wrote a section about tehinot, which are supplicatory prayers written by and for women (351-53), and Mrs. Shira Schechter wrote commentary on Eshet Hayyil (422-24). The only one of the eighteen essays in the back written by a woman is Rabbanit Rookie Billet’s discussion about achieving kavvanah. Although the essay is valuable to women and men, it alone among the essays addresses women in particular, encouraging them to pray (E99) and suggesting that parents divide childcare responsibilities so that mothers can attend shul on Shabbat (E101).

What I’m getting at here is that although the siddur makes a notable effort to be gender-inclusive, and the changes in it are novel, it is not fomenting a revolution. Women who want to recite certain prayers in a gender appropriate form will now have a text to guide them, and that is no small thing. Yet the changes adopted have already been sanctioned by rabbinic leaders and practiced in some Modern Orthodox communities for years. Thus, at the end of the day, the siddur may not satisfy women whose prayer is hampered by more than its gendered language or anyone who is hoping for more profound progress on women’s issues in Orthodoxy.

Impact and Conclusion

The RCA has created a truly fine siddur. It’s user-friendly and has a comprehensive and innovative commentary. It’s Modern Orthodox in its acceptance of academic approaches, and in the way it addresses women’s issues and the State of Israel. One can imagine why ArtScroll was uncomfortable with publishing it. But I’m glad it made it into print, for its perspective is welcome, and it will unquestionably add value to the synagogue bookshelf. [7]

But will anyone use it?

A few large congregations under RCA leadership have made a point of purchasing it, but a year on, I still haven’t seen it around much. Many people I’ve spoken with didn’t even know it existed.

One problem is over-saturation. Our Hebrew-English siddurim nowadays are already user friendly, and there are already a number of choices. Moreover, in America, we tend to pray with ArtScroll. In Modern Orthodox synagogues, where Hebrew-English siddurim have always been highly valued, ArtScroll was rapidly adopted and became a familiar favorite.

Additionally, I suspect that it takes more than ten years to turn over siddur stock. The Koren Sacks was released in 2009, and my synagogue only recently acquired a significant number of them to supplement its existing collection of ArtScroll RCA siddurim, which for the most part are still holding up just fine.

Thus, it may take some time for the RCA siddur to reach the shelf. Yet perhaps there is another way for its influence to be felt.

Since one of the greatest features of the new siddur is its commentary, here’s something for the RCA as an organization to consider: why not put the commentary online?

I’m not the first to make a suggestion along these lines; the RCA itself has contemplated it. In an advertisement for the siddur in 2010, the RCA announced “a regularly updated multi-media website” with commentary, “recordings of beloved and popular baalei tefilah,” and more to accompany the new edition. Perhaps it’s time to seriously consider this feature again.

The siddur itself suggests that it’s better to study its commentary outside of shul (E106). Imagine an interactive repository about prayer that could be accessed when one is not davening at a breakneck pace. Contemplate how it might deepen appreciation for prayer and have dividends for devotion. A website could teach not just about the words of prayer, but its music as well. Perhaps, greater access to the RCA siddur’s teachings will inspire new conversations about prayer—where it comes from, what it means, and how it can be a way for all of us to connect with God.


[1] Thank you to Rabbis Jonathan Hefter and Avi Narrow-Tilonsky and Dr. Ted Rosenbaum for their helpful feedback on this article. All in-text citations, unless otherwise noted, are to the RCA siddur.

[2] Dr. Philip Birnbaum, whose 1949 siddur was the ArtScroll of its day and captured much of the American market, penned a blistering critique of Rabbi de Sola Pool’s translation in the Hebrew weekly ha-Doar. Birnbaum felt that Rabbi de Sola Pool was insufficiently literal and made several egregious mistakes. Philip Birnbaum, “Siddur Hadash Ba le-Medinah,” ha-Doar 40:6 (Dec. 9, 1960), 85-86. Dr. Birnbaum’s essay elicited an equally forceful response by Rabbi Charles Chavel (ibid. pp. 87-90), and the virtuosic debate between the two men spanned several issues of ha-Doar. My thanks to Dr. Jesse Abelman for making me aware of this controversy.

[3] There are places, however, where the RCA very nearly retains the translations in its original 1960 siddur. Many of the translations of the hoshanot for Sukkot, for example, follow a “free-form poetic rhyming scheme” (881, 883) by Rabbi de Sola Pool. In some of these translations, a backwards English acrostic matches a backwards Hebrew acrostic, but the order of the verses in English are rearranged entirely (e.g., 896). Among these translations are also ones closely based on those by, among others, the cultural Zionist writer Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) and the noted Hebrew translator and poet Nina Salaman (1877-1925). It is interesting that the RCA chose to retain these translations—the very ones that were criticized by Dr. Birnbaum in his 1960 review as being “not translations, but free imitations infused with expressions from another world” (Birnbaum, “Siddur Hadash,” p. 85). But, as Rabbi Chavel pointed out in his response, they were only “used for piyyut, the saying of which is not halakhically significant” (Ibid., p. 88).

[4] In the introduction to the Gutnick Edition Chumash, a Chabad translation and commentary on the Torah, the editor Chaim Miller distinguishes his approach to translation from that of ArtScroll by noting, “We have also rejected the opposite extreme exemplified by Scherman, where the precise sequence of words within each verse is preserved, and loyalty to original Hebrew grammar has led to abnormal English usage” (xv).

[5] Leonard J. Greenspoon, “A Book ‘Without Blemish’: The Jewish Publication Society’s Bible Translation of 1917,” Jewish Quarterly Review 79:1 (1988), 17-18.

[6] Achieving kavannah, or the proper mindset and concentration, is perhaps one of prayer’s most elusive aspects, so I’m glad that the RCA siddur devotes many essays to the topic. Still, I can’t say that I found any of them as moving and relatable as either Hillel Halkin’s magisterial essay in the Jewish Review of Books from 2013 or Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s very recent piece for Vox. Perhaps the problem is that the siddur’s essays, while inspirational, are written by rabbis and established communal leaders, and don’t fully acknowledge how difficult prayer can be for the average person.

[7] In fact, I consider the RCA siddur something of a model for the Modern Orthodox Humash that I’ve advocated for before in these pages. The RCA’s commentary cites traditional sources, but also espouses literary and even academic approaches as long as they are within the bounds of Halakhah.