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New Israeli reform prayerbook is powerful and personal

Israel’s Reform Movement has published its first new siddur in nearly 40 years, Tefilat Ha-Adam.  

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The new prayerbook, edited by Rabbi Dalia Marx, PhD and Rabbi Alona Lisitsa, PhD, has been poignantly compared to a diary. 

"Prayerbooks are diaries of a people's trek through time. . . summaries of all we ever were and all we aim to be squeezed between two covers." said Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College.  In this collection, the pages of prayers, songs, poems and piyyutim (liturgical poems), prayerful philosophical ponderings, and meditations are as dense and personal as confessionals in a diary.

The title of the prayerbook comes from the well-known poem by Hannah Senesh.  She, like Reform Judaism itself, was a European transplant who claimed her home in the universal beauty of this particular land as she wrote:

Eli, Eli

she lo yigamer l'olam

My God, my God, may these things never end

hachol v'hayam - the sand and the sea

rishrush shel hamayim - the rush of the water

barak hashamayim - the thunder of the heavens

tefilat ha-adam - a human being's prayer.

This siddur invites the essence of universal prayer through all the varied, particular ways Jewish prayers have evolved through millennia.  This is a diary of all Jews throughout our history, bearing the signature of a people who has wandered the globe and has now found a home, from ancient Israeli poetry to post-WWII Jewish philosophy; from passages in the earliest prayerbooks to contemporary Eurovision song entries; from an Ethiopian Yizkor to Debbie Friedman's Mi Shebeirach .

The siddur starts with Psalm 134, followed by a poem, Tefilah Hi Kir Netui ( Prayer is a Leaning Wall ), by contemporary Mizrahi poet Almog Behar.  The "leaning wall" to which he refers is one made by human hands and on the verge of collapse (Psalm 62:3 and Berachot 55a). Only God's creations are eternal.  Due to the mortal manufacture of our prayers, they are both fallible and pliable. Behar advises us on how to both guide and be guided by prayer: Understand that sometimes prayer is a salve against sadness and sometimes it is sadness itself. When praying in a group, hide yourself in communal prayer.  When praying alone, let the words of traditional prayer show you the way.  Turn to the "authority" of the male language until it changes its gender and addresses you in female language.  Let prayer become a thing of your dreams.

With this opening, the editors tip their hand: Instead of engaging in gender experiments with language, this siddur abides by Hebrew's binary gender constraints.  Hence, the editors challenge the prayer participant: "Don't like what you find on the pages?  Make the prayer your own."  They model how to do this, providing alternative texts alongside traditional prayers.   

Some of the prayers are unchanged from the previous siddur, published in 1982, but include alternatives beside the original.  Yet, there are notable exceptions, including their version of the Aleinu.  No option is given to pray the traditional words that praise God for not making us like other nations. Instead, the editors highlight how we must become partners with all of humanity in repairing this world. They have added many traditional prayers as well, including Tachanun, daily psalms, and even Shir HaShirim ( Song of Songs ) before Kabbalat Shabbat .

Like all diaries, this siddur ends in a cliffhanger.  On its last page, a passage from Exodus references Moses's response to Pharaoh, when he told Moses that he and his people could go out to pray to their God as long as they went empty-handed. Moses would not accept this condition, telling Pharaoh that the Israelites must bring much with them because, "we shall not know with what we are to offer prayers to Adonai until we arrive there" (Exodus 10:26).

What shall we bring with us when we go out to meet the Divine?  I suggest we take this magnificent siddur Tefilat Ha-Adam , one of the finest publications the Reform movement has ever produced.

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