Siddur: Jewish Prayer Book

Is the siddur a holy text or crib notes for a conversation with God?


Rabbi Eliezer said, “One who makes one’s prayers fixed, that person’s prayers are not sincere petitions” (Mishnah Berakhot 4:4)

Heedless of Rabbi Eliezer’s comments, or perhaps chastened by the difficulty of regularly drafting new prayers, Jews created fixed texts and structures for prayer that were ultimately drawn together in the siddur, or Jewish prayer book. The word siddur means order; the particular order of Jewish worship was established largely during the first four or five centuries CE, although the components of that worship were drawn from earlier periods and have continued to develop until modern times.
The structure for Jewish worship was developed during the Talmudic period. The morning service, which is the most complex of the three daily services, has two main foci:

1) The Shema, a selection of three paragraphs from the Bible (from Deuteronomy 6 and 11 and Numbers 15) affirming God’s unity and surrounded by thematically associated blessings before and after, and

2) The Amidah, a series of 7 blessings (on the Sabbath) or 19 blessings (on weekdays) dealing with themes of repentance, sustenance, and the restoration of a messianic, Israelite kingship.Extra blessings are added when celebrating the beginning of a new month and other holidays.

Most of the other materials fit into structures that emulate these two central pieces; either they are passages from the Bible surrounded by blessings (like the Shema), or series of blessings (like the Amidah). In the first category is the Torah service, the verses of song (P’sukei d’Zimrah), and the Hallel (psalms recited on holidays). The second category includes the morning blessings. Other materials in different forms serve to punctuate and supplement the various services, but these two formats cover most of the structure of the prayer services included in the siddur.

Although the basic format for the prayer services was worked out during the Talmudic period, the siddur continued to grow incrementally as new materials were added into the earlier structure. This conservatism begins with the one, overwhelmingly consistent stylistic aspect of Jewish prayer?the use and adaptation of Biblical language. Another aspects of this conservatism is the reliance on precedents for opportunities to change the established structure.

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