Wave of new holiday prayer books changing ways to worship

The Koren and "Lev Shalem" machzors are among the many High Holidays prayer books that have been published in the past year.

September 22, 2011 15:32
4 minute read.

Machzor 311 JTA. (photo credit: David A.M. Wilensky, JTA)


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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ- New Jewish prayer books typically come in waves, the rarest of which bring new High Holidays prayer books, or machzors.

The current wave has seen five new machzorim in a one-year span. Following on the heels of last year's release of the official Conservative machzor and a popular chavurah machzor, is the first Hebrew-English machzor from the Israeli publisher Koren, a revision to Hillel’s "On Wings of Awe" and pilot tests of services from the forthcoming Reform machzor.

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The Conservative movement's "Mahzor Lev Shalem" was a surprise hit - as much as a prayer book can be such a thing - selling more than 120,000 copies. More congregations are expected to adopt it for the High Holidays this year.

The chavurah "Machzor Eit Ratzon" from Joseph Rosenstein, a math professor at Rutgers University and a founding member of the Highland Park Minyan in Highland Park, New Jersey, is a companion to his "Siddur Eit Ratzon." Though "Machzor Eit Ratzon" is not in use on the same scale as "Lev Shalem," it merits inclusion here as a popular new independently published machzor.

Both are heavy on commentary. "Lev Shalem" includes diverse commentaries and readings from sources ranging from Chasidic masters to Abraham Joshua Heschel to contemporary poets. Though not entirely transliterated, "Lev Shalem" includes more transliteration than previous Conservative efforts.

In "Machzor Eit Ratzon," each two-page spread is laid out in a strict four-column format, with one column each devoted to the Hebrew, Rosenstein’s translation, a robust commentary and a full transliteration.

This year the wave continues with Koren Publishers releasing a Rosh HaShanah-only volume. Its Yom Kippur companion will follow next year.


The venerable Israeli publisher built its reputation on the elegant fonts and layouts of legendary designer Eliyahu Koren. The machzor emphasizes type size and arrangement most strikingly in the machzor with the giant type used at one point for the word "melech", king, to impart the seasonal liturgy’s stress on the theme of God’s kingship.

Commentary by British Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks is featured, as it was in Koren's first Hebrew-English siddur that propelled the publisher onto the English-language siddur market in 2009.

In cooperation with Hillel, Ktav has published a major revision of the 1985 release "On Wings of Awe." The original was released with a number of transliterations, which was rare at the time. The new version includes a complete transliteration in keeping with the trend outside the Orthodox world toward increasingly extensive transliteration.

Perhaps the most anticipated material of the wave, the drafts of new Reform Rosh Hashanah services, will not be a true release at all.

According to Rabbi Hara Person, the publisher and director of CCAR Press - the largest publisher of Reform movement liturgy - some 70 to 100 Reform congregations will test the draft services. It's a considerable sample size considering the Union for Reform Judaism’s membership of 800 congregations.

Person noted that it would be the first new American Reform machzor since "The Union Prayer Book II" was published in 1925. The Reform movement’s current machzor, "Gates of Repentance," was adapted from the High Holidays prayer book of its counterparts in Britain’s Liberal movement.

Work on the new Reform machzor began in 2008 following the success of the movement’s new siddur, "Mishkan T’filah," in 2007. Like the latter, the new machzor will feature a layout that includes Hebrew, translation and transliteration on the right side of each spread, while the left side is devoted to commentary and a range of interpretative readings connected with the prayer to the right.

“One of the challenges is how do you do a machzor that’s a companion to 'Mishkan T’filah' for people who aren’t really familiar with 'Mishkan T’filah' because they only come (to synagogue) on High Holidays,” Person said.

The Rosh Hashanah morning service was piloted earlier this year in some congregations. Person called the response "very positive."

"People were really excited that we’re doing this and that they can be part of the feedback process,” she said.

One challenge faced by Reform liturgists is that the most evocative Rosh Hashanah prayers are in musaf - a section the Reform movement did away with long ago. In the draft, these sections of the musaf service - shofarot, malchuyot and zichronot - have been distributed throughout the service.

“When people heard about that, a lot of them were aghast at it,” Person said, adding however that the approach proved popular among the groups that tested the service.

“By breaking it up, there’s this sort of ongoing crescendo, different peaks throughout the service, and that makes it more meaningful,” she said.

Person emphasized that the project is still in an early stage.

“The Torah service isn’t even in the morning service yet because we haven’t really touched it at all,” she said.

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