Ruminations on the siddur

When someone makes a blessing, the one who hears it answers Amen to affirm the theological statement made by his friend and ties himself to the blessing just made.

A woman prays at the Western Wall (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A woman prays at the Western Wall
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The siddur is ironically Judaism’s most popular book and yet the least understood and least studied one.
While a synagogue might pride itself on having multiple copies of the Talmud, it must ensure that it has enough copies of the siddur for every congregant. If you multiply that by all the synagogues, educational institutions and Jewish homes, the number becomes too large to count and assures the siddur its place as the most popular book in Judaism.
The siddur is made up of prayers that were either taken directly from the Bible or composed in the Second Temple era, the Mishna, Talmud, Middle Ages and modern period. These prayers not only are placed side by side, but they are sometimes even interwoven within the same prayer itself. Although these prayers represent vastly different voices, they, like a choir, form one song.
The problem is that we are first introduced to the siddur in kindergarten and we are taught the prayers even before we are able to read them. While this is a great way to educate our children for a life of prayer and mitzvot, we need to sometimes go back to the basics as adults and relearn texts in order to give a new and mature meaning to it all.
EVERY SIDDUR in the world starts with “Modeh Ani.”
This most basic prayer is also one of the first prayers Jewish children learn in summer camp, Hebrew school and yeshiva.
“Modeh Ani” is the first statement of faith a Jew makes in the morning and comprises the very first words uttered upon waking.
With the words “modeh ani lefanecha” (I give thanks before You) the Jew makes the explicit theological statement that God can be and, in fact, should be addressed in the first person. The “Modeh Ani” follows the tradition set by the avot (patriarchs) in which God is addressed both in the first person and informally.
“Modeh Ani” is not said in the synagogue, nor even in a special place in the home. Rather, it is said in bed, often while still lying down, certainly before one has had the chance to wash one’s hands or brush one’s teeth. It is perhaps the very least formal prayer of all.
The rabbinic enactment of “Modeh Ani” informs the Jew that God is to be addressed anywhere and at any time. It makes the implicit statement that God is not to be confined to set places or times in one’s life, but is to be freely addressed at all times.
The explicit statement made by “Modeh Ani” is that one thanks God for returning one’s soul. This is an affirmation of the Jewish belief in the soul. But even more important is the final statement of “Modeh Ani”: “Great is Your faithfulness.” With these words, the Jew affirms that not only does he have faith in God, but that God has faith in us. The daily return of the soul to the Jew is a daily statement of faith made by God that He believes in us and our abilities to be the best we can be. The soul is given back to us each day as proof of His faithfulness. In the “Modeh Ani” we have the first use of the word “melech” (king) to refer to God. The epithet of “melech” means first and foremost that God is the ultimate King of Israel. We are told by God Himself that the people of Israel are both sons and servants to God. The second meaning, the one encountered often in prayer and blessings, is “melech ha’olam,” King of the universe. While this may in fact be true, it is not yet recognized as such. Thus, we make this point time and again to reinforce our belief in this truth, and hope and pray that His sovereignty will be universally recognized as His rule extends.
AFTER THE recitation of “Modeh Ani,” the siddur calls for the blessing made upon the ritual washing of the hands. This blessing takes the standard form given to it by the rabbis. “Blessed are You, O Lord, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us concerning....”
We start with the word “baruch,” which means blessed.
But it is not us blessing God per se, as much as we are making a theological statement that God is the source of all blessing.
Once again, God is addressed in the first person.
One could easily have imagined the blessing as being just as effective without the pronoun “You,” yet the rabbis inserted it as the standard form of all our blessings, to remind the Jew that God, who is King of the universe, is close at hand. “Without the word ‘You’ there can be meditation, but not prayer” (The Koren Siddur, Introduction, Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks). Thus, with all of our blessings, we declare both God’s immanence and transcendence.
This is also the very first blessing we recite in the morning. The traditional response Jews make to a blessing is the answering of Amen. So ubiquitous is the Amen response, that English borrowed it directly, without translation. The root of the Hebrew word “amen” denotes trust, faith, belief. Thus, when someone makes a blessing, the one who hears it answers “Amen” to affirm the theological statement made by his friend and ties himself to the blessing just made.
This blessing that is made over the washing of the hands is critical, as it puts into focus that even mundane things like washing the hands can be directed to the service of God. We wash our hands to consecrate our day to the service of God, like the priests in the Temple, who began their days with a ritual washing of the hands.
While we may pride ourselves on our knowledge of the Talmud and its commentaries, modern Jews might do well to spend some time studying the siddur as a source of Jewish practice and belief. It can help give content and form to the prayers and rituals we may already have been doing for years but never truly understood.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was once asked, “What is Judaism’s catechism?” He replied that the siddur is the catechism of Judaism. Let’s study it!
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.