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Don't Forget Your Prayers
In the Jewish tradition, the Siddur, or Book of Prayers, is a vital collection of religious text, ranking next in importance to the Bible. Yet it is also largely undervalued, which is why Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a respected scholar best known for his English translation of the Talmud, feels it necessary to fill a gap. "No book is closer to the heart of the Jew than the Siddur, and none has such profound influence," says Steinsaltz, who has brought together an engaging overview of Jewish prayer -- its history and meaning -- to prove his point.
If history and law are the foundations of Judaism, prayer acts as the glue that holds hold it together. Jewish prayer, Steinsaltz tells us, is essentially communal -- "Its structure, contents and wording are geared to the needs, hopes and sense of gratitude of the community," he writes -- although the communal aspect is not meant to negate the importance of the individual. With the destruction of the Temple in 587 B.C.E., the nature of Judaism began to change. Some of the Psalms originally sung by an enthusiastic group of worshipers on their way to services in the great Temple are now recited by Jews the world over. However, as Judaism transformed itself through the ages, the prayers, too, evolved. Unlike the unchanging Bible, there is no one Siddur. Just as there are various styles of Judaism, each Jewish sect (and that number is growing!) collects its own combination of prayers, although much of the basic content is the same for all.
"Tradition!," the answer that placated Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof," no longer satisfies; people want to know more about what brings them to participate in their faith. This book blends history with theological explanations, providing interesting background for many of the liturgical aspects (there is even a chapter on the music of prayer). This contribution to Jewish scholarship will be appreciated both by readers engaging in Jewish prayer for the first time and by longtime practitioners. A Guide to Jewish Prayer addresses the basic need for meaning that sits at the heart of contemporary discussions about maintaining and transforming ritual practices. It should be read by anyone looking to learn about what it means to practice Judaism through prayer, as told by a respected teacher who is also a clear, enjoyable writer.
Royce Froehlich is an audio engineer by trade and a drummer by inclination> He is currently completing a dual degree in divinity and social work at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. In his spare time he is working on a Ph.D. in communications at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.