Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Book Review: The Koren Sacks Bilingual Edition of the Siddur

Book Review: The Koren Sacks Siddur

by Elli Fischer


        Rabbi Elli Fischer is a freelance translator living in Modiin, Israel.  He maintains the "On the Contrary: Judasim with Comments Enabled " blog.  This is his first contribution to the TraditionOnline Seforim blog.


I was recently given the opportunity to preview The Koren Sacks Siddur. This work, due to be released in 2009, is the first major bilingual Orthodox synagogue prayer book to be released since the ArtScroll Siddur in 1984. It goes without saying that this siddur will present the first serious challenge to ArtScroll's steadily increasing hegemony over the bilingual siddur market, and, as such, this review will often note differences between the two siddurim.


The present volume features a translation and commentary by Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth (based on his 2006 Authorised Daily Prayer Book). His comments tend to be thematic and introductory, and do not explain or comment on the meaning of individual phrases. Taken together, Rabbi Sacks' comments would constitute a monograph on the basic structure, function, and themes of Jewish prayer. He does not anthologize from various commentaries on the siddur, rarely citing any sources later than the Talmud.


The issue of translation is near and dear to my heart, as a professional translator. Translating the siddur is no easy task. It is fraught with the same tensions that characterize regimented prayer in general – the tension between spontaneity and regularity, the difficulty in giving expression to the longings of the human heart through a formal and formulaic recitation. Rabbi Sacks manages to capture the poetry and power of the prayers without sounding overbearing, highfalutin, archaic, or mechanical. Below I will compare the original Hebrew with the ArtScroll and Koren translations for several passages (The lines are broken up as they are broken up in the Koren siddur; the ArtScroll does not break lines up based on phrasing):





את צמח דוד עבדך מהרה תצמיח וקרנו תרום בישועתך

May the offshoot of Your servant David soon flower, and may his pride be raised high by Your salvation,

The offspring of Your servant David may you speedily cause to flourish, and enhance his pride through Your salvation

כי לישועתך קווינו כל היום

For we wait for Your salvation all day.

For we hope for your salvation all day long.






שים שלום טובה וברכה

Grant peace, goodness, and blessing

Establish peace, goodness, blessing

חן וחסד ורחמים עלינו ועל כל ישראל עמך

Grace, loving-kindness and compassion

To us and all Israel your people.


Graciousness, kindness, and compassion upon us and upon all of Your people Israel

ברכנו אבינו כלנו כאחד באור פניך

Bless us, our Father, all as one, with the light of Your face


Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance

כי באור פניך נתת לנו ה' אלוקינו


For by the light of your face You have given us, LORD our God

For with the light of Your countenance You gave us, HASHEM, our God

תורת חיים ואהבת חסד


The Torah of life and love of kindness,

The Torah of life and a love of kindness

וצדקה וברכבה ורחמים וחיים ושלום

Righteousness, blessing, compassion, life and peace.

Righteousness, blessing, compassion, life, and peace.

וטוב בעיניך לברך את עמך ישראל


May it be good in your eyes to bless Your people Israel

And may it be good in Your eyes to bless Your people Israel,

בכל עת ובכל שעה בשלומך

At every time, in every hour, with Your peace.

In every season and in every hour with Your peace


Another, blatant example comes from the first line of the second blessing of the morning Shema, which begins with the words "Ahava Rabba". ArtScroll renders it: "With abundant love you have loved us, HASHEM, our God; with exceedingly great pity have you pitied us." Koren, on the other hand, translates: "You have loved us with great love, LORD our God, and with surpassing compassion have You had compassion on us."


These examples should suffice to bear out my contention that the Koren translation has a much more intuitive feel – that it is formulated as an English rendition of the Hebrew prayer and not simply as a mechanical translation. It is hard to quantify why "surpassing compassion" resonates better than "exceedingly great pity", but the eye and ear notice the difference all the same (as Prof. Moshe J. Bernstein is fond of noting: "My toilet overflows; my cup runneth over").


The layout of The Koren Siddur is innovative in several respects. Contrary to the convention of nearly all bilingual siddurim, the Hebrew appears on the left page and the English on the right. This format can be a bit disconcerting at first, but the adjustment period can be counted in minutes. The advantage of this innovation is both aesthetic and functional. From the aesthetic perspective, both languages seem to have a common "origin" in the binding instead of facing each other jaggedly. Functionally, this layout makes it easier to locate corresponding words and phrases.


As I alluded earlier, Koren characteristically breaks lines up thematically, as in poetic verse. This results in an abundance of white space, but makes the prayers more intelligible. This convention is characteristic of Koren's all-Hebrew siddurim as well, and its efficacy transfers to the bilingual edition.


Koren's liturgical publications (siddurim, machzorim, and chumashim) have long been known for their precise typesetting, and the present volume is no exception. In this siddur, there is a subtle distinction between the Hebrew fonts used for biblical passages and later liturgical compositions. The "dikduk-geeks" will be happy that the shva na is distinguished from the shva nach and the kamatz gadol from the kamatz katan. Its transliteration conventions are much more precise, making extensive use of apostrophes, hyphens, and underdots. Its transliterations of the various Kaddishin do not use awkward phonetic representations (e.g., "rabbaw").


In addition to the translation and commentary, the Koren Siddur includes italicized English instructions on both sides of the page. In general, they are longer at critical turning points of the service (beginning of the Amida, before Barkhu at Shacharit) but otherwise fairly concise. In general, these instructions contain more background and are less preachy than ArtScroll's instructions. For example, compare the following instructions that appear prior to the silent Shemoneh Esrei:



Moses advanced through three levels of holiness when he went up to Sinai. Therefore we take three steps forward as we 'approach' God in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer.

Remain standing with the feet together while reciting Shemoneh Esrei. Recite it with quiet devotion and without any interruption, verbal or otherwise. Although it should not be audible to others, one must pray loudly enough to hear himself, See Laws #61-90 for a brief summary of its laws, including how to rectify the omission of phrases or paragraphs that are added at particular times of the year.


The following prayer, until "in former years," on page 134, is said standing with feet together in imitation of the angels in Ezekiel's vision (Ezek. 1:7). The Amida is said silently, following the precedent of Hanna when she prayed for a child (I Sam. 1:13). If there is a minyan, it is repeated aloud by the Leader. Take three steps forward, as if formally entering the place of Divine Presence. At the points indicated by ^, bend the knees at the first word, bow at the second, and stand straight before saying God's name.


The Koren Siddur, presumably because it is a bilingual edition of an Israeli siddur, is much more Israel-conscious than the ArtScroll. I refer not only to the fact that the Koren contains prayer services and laws for Yom ha-Zikaron, Yom ha-Atzma'ut, and Yom Yerushalayim and that it transliterates using generic Israeli pronunciation. I also refer to halakhic and liturgical differences that pertain to the Land of Israel, for example: adding the word "kadisha" in the Kaddish de-Rabbanan, differences regarding when one begins reciting "ve-ten tal u-matar", the procedures for Birkat Kohanim in the daily prayer, the inclusion of a note to omit "Barukh Hashem le-Olam" from Ma'ariv in the Land of Israel, and even the inclusion of the special prayer for rain in the Land of Israel as a footnote to the regular prayer. Although this siddur was produced specifically for American congregations, its inclusion of the laws and customs of the Land of Israel seems entirely right. The absence of these latter elements from the ArtScroll Siddur, for whatever reason, seems like an egregious omission.


The Koren Siddur is more inclusive of women both in terms of its content and in terms of its instructions. The content includes the liturgy (imported from the Sephardic rite and increasingly prevalent in Israel) of the "Zeved ha-Bat" celebration upon the birth of a daughter (it appears in the excellent "Life Cycle" section of the siddur). It furthermore includes the thanksgiving prayer recited by a women after childbirth, which includes "Birkat ha-Gomel". The ArtScroll Siddur makes no mention of this obligation (and the practice is even discouraged in the ArtScroll Women's Siddur, which follows the minority opinion of the Mishna Berura on this matter without recording dissent). With regard to zimmun, the ArtScroll Siddur applies the practice to "three or more males, aged thirteen or older". The Koren Siddur, on the other hand, states that "when three or more women say Birkat ha-Mazon with no men present, then substitute "Friends" for Gentlemen".

A final element of the Koren Siddur's treatment of women pertains to the commentary on the brakha of "she-asani kirtzono". As noted, this siddur does not generally comment on specific phrases and lines from individual prayers. The brakhot that use the "who has not made me" formula, as well as "she-asani kirtzono", are an exception to that rule. Here, Rabbi Sacks goes out of his way to explain these ostensibly problematic benedictions. Methinks he doth protest too much. His apology does little more than call attention to the problematicity of these passages.


The present edition includes several introductions and appendices. The original preface to the Hebrew edition, from 1981, has been translated into English, and has been joined by prefaces written by the publisher and by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union (the OU is a sponsor of this publication). There is also a guide to pronunciation and transliteration penned by the editor of the volume. The most extensive introductory essay, however, is Rabbi Sacks' 42-page introduction to Jewish prayer. A perusal of it shows that it addresses elements of the history, philosophy, language, and structure of Jewish prayer, on the macro- and micro- levels. He characteristically weaves together Jewish sources from ancient to modern, as well as a sprinkling of references to British poets and critics.


I have not read all 487 paragraphs of the halakhic section, but it goes well beyond the laws of prayer narrowly defined and includes discussions of the laws of tefillin and tzitzit, an overview of the entire Jewish year, and more. It even includes a section on issues that arise when traveling back and forth between Israel and the Diaspora. It also resurrects the very handy "Table of Permitted Responses", which provides an easy reference guide to what types of interruptions are permitted during the various parts of the prayer.


The Talmud (Brakhot 32b) asks rhetorically: "Without knowledge, whence prayer?" Thus, understanding prayer – the simple meaning of the words and the underlying structure of how it all fits together – is a prerequisite for true prayer. The Koren Sacks Siddur has succeeded, through its nearly 1300 pages, in being informative and erudite without losing sight of the forest for the trees. It is, quite simply, a comprehensive guide book for Jewish prayer, introducing its users to the full gamut of experiences necessary to truly enter into the world of tefilla. It has set a new standard for English-language siddurim.



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