For someone as book-addicted as I am, choosing a High Holidays prayerbook is a big commitment, not unlike asking someone to the junior prom. Like a prom, you’re going to get dressed up really swanky beforehand, and like the prom, tickets will probably set you back a few hundred dollars. Unlike prom, however, you’re putting yourself before a divine tribunal that decides whether you live or die, and where you’re never quite sure you’re going to make it out of there alive. Okay, maybe that’s what my prom was like — but I was a nervous type, and my date ended up making secret weapons for the government.
So: How to choose the appropriate prayerbook to shuttle you into this mode of thinking? I was impressed enough with the Koren Siddur, with its commentary by Rabbi/Dr./British Lord Jonathan Sacks, to check out their collection of Tisha B’Av prayers. And, though it’s weird that that particular volume, meant for a minor Jewish holiday that most people don’t really know what it’s about, was released before the Rosh Hashanah Machzor, it makes sense in a way — the Tisha B’Av Kinot was an appetizer before this, the main course.*
Here’s the deal: If you’re going to Rosh Hashanah services, and you’re planning on staying the entire time, they’re going to last a while. (Our synagogue’s services frequently go till 2:00 or so. Even the early-retreat people don’t usually run out until noon or so, leaving two or three hours ) You want something that’s meaty, with a lot of commentary (well, interesting commentary). But you also want to be able to dip into and out of the text without paying too much attention. (Hey, you’re in services. Your mind wanders. It’s okay.)
One of the nice things about this machzor is the layout of the text. It’s broken up line by line, not in paragraphs, but like poems. It’s easy to switch back and forth between English and Hebrew, if that’s your thing, or listening to the Hebrew and following along in English. The translation is meaningful, if it sometimes falls flat — there’s just so much “He who lives in the shelter of the Most High” we can read before it all starts to blur together.
That’s where the commentary comes in. Those little guides at the bottom of the page (sometimes a line or two, sometimes a short essay) are Sacks’s strong suit — no one in the contemporary Jewish world comes close to Sacks in bare terms of taking these weird, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes un-understandable prayer verses and making them hit home. Drawing from history, his own insights, and sources from left-wing and right-wing, classical and new, Sacks gives us ways to connect with the text and re-invigorate it…even when we’re not really following along. Which is, if you think about it, kind of the ideal rabbi to have in your pocket.
* — Plus, the advent of modern prayer only came when the Temple was destroyed, and each of us were tasked to become a Temple of our own.