Review: The Koren Sacks Siddur

Warning: This review I’m about to dive into is going to be way more intense (read: more nitpicky) than just about any book review you’ve ever read. That’s just the breaks, kid. A prayerbook isn’t like any other book. For one thing, some people read it every day of their lives. For another, it’s a book that a lot of people already know by heart — or, at least, many parts of it. That’s why choosing a prayerbook is no small matter…and the introduction of a new prayerbook into the narrow market is really an open invitation to get intense and micro-detail-oriented.

koren sacks siddur(This begs the question, why use a prayerbook in the first place? As one of the subjects of our film series says, It’s not like God doesn’t already know what we’re going to say when we pray. But prayer is as much for us as it is for God — maybe even more so. It’s to connect us with something higher, or something transcendent. And even when you know what you’re going to say, it still helps to have a script. It’s like acting, except what you’re saying is true.)

That’s one of the concerns that Rabbi Sir Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the translator and elucidator of the new Koren Sacks Siddur, addressed. The siddur (official site here) is not a radical reworking of the Jewish prayerbook in the traditional sense of the word — but, in everything from its design to its politics, the Koren Sacks Siddur puts its money on the table and shows its hand…and it’s a solid one.

The red-and-gray cover has a cool, retro look, a bit like a stylish car manual and a bit like a volume from the Library at Alexandria. The Hebrew quote on the cover, “Know before whom you stand,” is both intimidating and thrilling — Oh yeah, we’re supposed to be praying to GOD.

The interior has a cool font, more stylized than the squared-off letters in most prayerbooks. These are probably closer to the look of the original stone-cut letters than those in other prayerbooks — a daled looks like a daled, and not at all like a resh. (I haven’t actually studied this, but I would warrant that the reason that the masses might resist the Koren font is that, visually, it’s less similar to English.) In any case, the font might not be everybody’s thing, but it’s mine.

The pages are thin but firm. They’re hard to turn, which will get easier with time, but for now it’s a bit annoying. A few months ago, when my daughter was really young, she routinely tried to make a grab for the pages, and the stiff paper of my Israeli siddur was just about the only thing that kept that prayerbook intact.

Back to the weight, though: these pages really are incredibly thin, like one of those hotel-room Christian bibles. Over 1200 pages altogether, including some back-of-the-book bonuses, like prayers before death, after childbirth, and after recovering from a serious illness. There are also psalms for special occasions, a halakhic guide to praying for visitors to Israel, and a calendar of Jewish leap years that goes well into the new century.

Not every siddur can fit in the entirety of Jewish thought and texts, and a few handy things to have around are missing. The Book of Psalms is a cool extra feature inside a lot of siddurim, but not this one. “Kavei El Chazak,” that odd little prayer that comes right before Ein Kelokenu on Shabbat morning, is conspicuously absent. A lot of people skip over the prayer, drawn, I’m sure, to the pop melodic goodness of a good Ein Kelokenu — but for those few nerds like me, it’s missed. Also, I’ve complained to high heaven about ArtScroll’s translation of Song of Songs, but at least ArtScroll included it in the first place.

Koren’s arrangement of the text on the page — the official website has a neat graphical interface to show you — takes a bit of getting used to. There’s Hebrew where you expect the English to be, and where your eye expects to find English, there’s Hebrew. It’s not just the linguistic juxtaposition — the actual words go in the opposite directions, too.

This part, I’m totally sold on. The English and Hebrew are both laid out like poetry, both starting at the margin, which works really well when you know a little bit of Hebrew, and you want to flip back and forth between the languages. My Hebrew is pretty good, but a lot of the time I’m not totally sure what I’m saying, and I never really want to stop the momentum, find my place in the English, and then figure out what I just said.

Perhaps the biggest grace of this siddur is Rabbi Sir Dr. Jonathan Sacks’s commentary. With all those titles, you might expect it to be dry or unwieldy or even long-winded, but Sacks’s is none of these. He writes about the prayers in an easy, conversational way that is sparse, functional and to-the-point. For the Shema, he says this:

The Shema contains no human requests, no praise, no plea. It is a set of biblical readings. It is less a prayer than a prelude to prayer. In prayer, we speak to God. In the Shema, God, through the Torah, speaks to us. The word Shema itself means “listen,” and the recital of the Shema is a supreme act of faith-as-listening: to the voice that brought the universe into being, created us in love and guides us through our lives.

Like the text itself, the commentary flows from the left page to the right page, even though the book goes from right to left. So, when there’s a 4-page commentary, it flows in the order of page 203, 202, 205, 204 — which also doesn’t make sense when you’re reading it here, but it’s quick to get accustomed to, and immensely helpful once you do.

I suppose that could be construed as a nutshell review of the entire siddur. It’s not what we expect. We’ve been conditioned — by ArtScroll, or by Sim Shalom or Birnbaum or whatever other book we’re used to praying with — to expect a certain thing, and to pray a certain way. That’s kind of what saying the same words every day does, too. It leads you to expect things.

But if there’s one thing about prayers that you can’t dismiss, it’s that they aren’t supposed to become routine. We’re always supposed to find something new about those words, and every time we speak them aloud, we should be able to find a new meaning in them. And maybe that’s what the Koren Sacks siddur is really supposed to do. Not to replace ArtScroll or Siddur Sim Shalom — or any other prayerbook, for that matter — but to shake up the status quo a little, and to give us a new way to read those same words.

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