What Should a Prayer Book Look Like?

Aug 21, 2015 by

What Should a Prayer Book Look Like?
I grew up using a Holy Day prayer book called The Union Prayer Book II, Revised Edition. It was small, black, and either dull or appropriately understated in appearance, depending on your perspective. Even its name was remarkably prosaic. It didn’t tell you that it was a High Holy Day prayer book, only that it was the other prayer book, the UPB I being the edition for Shabbat.

If it’s what you grow up with, it is what you think is right, the way things should be. The English was a bit flowery, there wasn’t a lot of Hebrew, and it included instructions to the congregation of when to stand and when to sit, like stage directions in a script.

Holding a new prayer book in your hands is a revelation. After years of reading out of the same book, it starts to feel like an old friend. We encounter the new prayer book and think, “Are prayer books supposed to/allowed to look like that?”

Prayer books are a snapshot of the Jewish community: its theology, its social dynamics, its aesthetics; each prayer book is a portrait of our people in a different place and time. None are the same, because we, as a people, are an evolving religious community.

Sometimes we forget that prayer books themselves were once an innovation. There were no prayer books before the Middle Ages. In the early rabbinic period, there was much greater fluidity and spontaneity in the language of prayer than we have today. Prayer books helped to freeze the language of prayer.

The printing press changed everything. Jews were among the best customers of these new printed books, and by the late Middle Ages, Jews everywhere could pray with a book in their hands.

Even today, it is the publisher who decides what goes into a prayer book, and what it should look like. Which brings us to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform movement, and the aesthetics of Mishkan Hanefesh.

The first thing you will notice is that Mishkan Hanefesh is not one prayer book, it is two. The Rosh Hashanah book has a gold cover, and the Yom Kippur book has a silver cover. I think the gold represents the theme of God’s sovereignty, which is reaffirmed on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world. Silver suggests the white of Yom Kippur, the cleansing of sins, the purification of the soul.

Inside, the pages themselves are set off by colors. Traditional texts and translations appear on white pages, usually on the right side of a two-page spread. Grey pages (on the left side) offer alternative prayers, sometimes creative meditations on the theme of the traditional text, sometimes poetry that speaks to the theme, even “counter-texts” that speak for those who struggle with the traditional text.

Then there are the blue pages, meant for study and reflection. These pages, interspersed throughout the prayer book, invite the worshipper to take detours, to go deeper, to spend time in thought, not in recitation.

Of course, technological advances make all of this possible, but the application of publishing tools is done in a way to invite a more spiritual, and a more flexible experience both for the worshipper and for the worshipping community. No two congregations are likely to have identical experiences with Mishkan Hanefesh, and from year to year, we will find new riches in its pages.

Mishkan Hanefesh has done away with stage directions. Every congregation has its own customs, and the prayer book no longer tells us what to do. That can be unsettling, but also liberating. It empowers us to think about our ritual more consciously.

Finally, Mishkan Hanefesh just looks different. The Hebrew typeface is original, and was created expressly for this Machzor. It is elegant but not ornate; it rests easy on the eyes.

And, then, there is the art work. Yes, this prayer book has art! Clearly, representational art would be a distraction from the deeper themes of prayer. The art is abstract, suggestive, inspired by the prayers it accompanies, but not explicitly interpreting them. That is left up to us. The artist, Joel Shapiro, worked in the medium of woodcuts. You can see the grain of the wood, the rough edges of the cut, the simple primal shapes, all of which direct us back to a confrontation with our own raw self.

Welcome to Mishkan Hanefesh, your new sanctuary of the soul.

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Rabbi Larry Milder serves Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, CA.

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