How to Choose a Siddur
Jewish prayerbooks today are easier on the eye--but they challenge the heart and mind in diverse ways
Whether you're buying a prayerbook for yourself or for a synagogue or other group, it helps to know what lies behind the muted bindings and the denominational labels of today's wide array of possibilities. Choosing a siddur (prayerbook) requires balancing several considerations. How traditional or radical a text do you want? How literal a translation? How much transliteration? Do you want a siddur that offers commentary to study, or one with devotional texts to deepen the basic prayer experience? How important will it be for sections to be labeled and the contents clearly arranged and indexed? While many buyers will be guided in large part by ideological considerations, it pays to consider just what you get with each alternative.
The ArtScroll Phenomenon
A person looking for the traditional received text of the liturgy without adjustment to modern ideologies will enjoy the ArtScroll siddurim (plural of siddur). ArtScroll is a publisher whose siddurim are closest to ubiquitous in North America, found even outside their natural home in the Orthodox world. They are available in many editions that vary by size, binding, and rite.
ArtScroll siddurim are characterized by their sharply-defined layouts which manage to maintain remarkable readability, despite the crowding of each page with directions and extensive comments. The name of God is translated always as "HASHEM" ("the Name," a substitute epithet for the ineffable divine name). No apologies are made for such linguistic archaisms as calling God "King" or "father", and the extensive commentary to the liturgy is unabashedly supernaturalist, messianist, and in every way the work of an unreconstructed traditionalist.
The Artscroll is an Orthodox publication, and proudly so, but it has quite a few fans outside the Orthodox world. A full-service siddur with clear directions, brief explanations, and complete and direct translations, the Artscroll is a mighty learning tool for anyone looking to expand his or her knowledge of traditional Judaism.
One common siddur largely displaced by the ArtScroll siddurim is Philip Birnbaum's Daily Prayer Book (Hasiddur Hashalem), still in print. It is comprehensive, with a straightforward translation, useful annotation, and copious additional readings.