Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Theological Dialectics: Balancing Competing Values in Mishkan HaNefesh

Creating a new prayer book requires managing competing priorities. Should translations reflect the literal meaning of the Hebrew, or evoke its more poetic and idiomatic features? Should the historic machzor text take priority, or should newer voices enter the conversation? Should the liturgy emphasize personal transformation, or communal complicity?

These questions capture the essential challenge of dialectics: balancing competing values in pursuit of progress. Consider tradition and innovation, the quintessential question of Reform Judaism. These values are not mutually exclusive; rather, they co-exist in dynamic tension. It’s like steering a canoe: if you only paddle on one side, you’ll just go in circles. Only by alternating strokes on both sides will the boat move forward. Similarly, dialectics requires thoughtful attention to a small universe of values.  To paraphrase Hegel, it is by interrogating — but not necessarily resolving — apparent contradictions in values that we can arrive at a higher truth.

The editorial team of Mishkan HaNefesh confronted this small universe of values at every step throughout its seven-year process. The ultimate goal? To guide each worshipper along the path to t’shuvah and to invite the community into a space of sacred transformation.

That is easier said than done. It is easy to get lost in the machzor’s wealth of content and creative possibilities. It can be difficult to even know where to begin! Recently I started reading the forthcoming Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. It is a sort of “midrash on the machzor,” a guidebook for community leaders and sh’lichei tzibbur, and it is incredibly usefuI. I love this book because it opens a window into the editorial process. It explains decisions and indexes content in a way that contextualizes this vast project, making it much more accessible. I may not personally agree with every decision, but understanding its grounding philosophies will allow me to use the new machzor more skillfully. In particular, its editorial essays suggest myriad ways the machzor can serve as an invitation into some of Judaism’s most worthy conversations.

And that brings me back to dialectics. Consider the ‘right side/left side’ layout, which, according to the editorial vision statement, “encourages diversity, choice, and inclusion of many ‘voices’; the use of counter-text; and a stimulating balance of keva and kavanah.” Those familiar with Mishkan Tefilah will recognize the format immediately, but the machzor takes the philosophy even further by including many surprisingly subversive texts opposite the more traditional versions.

The most dramatic example is the depiction of God. The God of the High Holy Day liturgy can seem distant and punishing; even terrifying. But that is not the whole story. Avinu Malkeinu, a sort of anthem of the High Holy Days, voices the dialectical dilemma of divinity. Even when we speak in hierarchical terms, we conceive of God as both a sovereign and a parent. Both roles evoke accountability and intimidation in their power differential, but they also draw a contrast: the political ruler is distant and largely theoretical. The parent is intimate; a bedrock of our immediate reality. But we hope that both will exercise compassion and patience even though they must govern and discipline. If these concepts all inhere in one terse phrase from our liturgy, how much more nuanced are the many Jewish conceptions of God! By inhabiting the richly-layered world of Jewish dialectics, Mishkan HaNefesh presents a challenging and complex theological atlas. In subsequent entries of Ravblog I will examine a few specific ways the editors approached their work, highlighting their own words from Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh. Ultimately, wrestling with these values both honors our multi-vocal tradition and opens doors that many in our communities might otherwise find locked and barred.

Order Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh

Danny is a CCAR rabbinical intern and a rising fifth-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR.


Bringing In Mishkan HaNefesh

Two years ago, Temple Beth Sholom had a fire that forced us to rebuild. Along with the destruction of our building, our prayer books, including our Gates of Repentance, were deemed unfit and we buried them in genizah, under the foundation of our new chapel.

This tragedy afforded us a very unique opportunity; without any committees or genizalengthy conversations with the congregation, we chose to immediately purchase Mishkan HaNefesh. The congregation was not totally unfamiliar with Mishkan HaNefesh as we piloted the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service the year before. The Afternoon Service was unique, so it did not give us the full flavor of what Mishkan HaNefesh had to offer.

I spent the three months leading up to the High Holy Days sharing personal articles about transitioning to our new machzor, along with articles from colleagues. My hope was to build anticipation and excitement within the congregation.

Our congregation’s practice is for every person to purchase and bring their personal copy of the machzor for the High Holy Days. We have some available, but ideally we hope our congregants will Mishkan HaNefesh Cover Picture (Light) 10_14_2014invest in their own copy. Many pre-purchased the book and we provided personalized bookplates. We had a number of copies for congregants to borrow and on Rosh HaShanah, all of the books had a card inside. I invited the congregation once again to purchase their own copy. I asked them to fill out the card that evening, give it to a greeter, and then take the book home. The next week, we had the Yom Kippur edition and personalized book plates waiting for all those who purchased them on Rosh HaShanah and the days between. The response was greater than we expected and we had boxes of books waiting for pick up on Yom Kippur. The personalized plates allowed us to then confirm which books were ours and which belonged to congregants.

On Erev Rosh HaShanah, I used the sermon as an opportunity for us to explore our High Holy Days liturgy, its history and in it’s present form. I encouraged the congregation to make the prayer experience their personal experience. “Explore the text, get lost in the readings, don’t worry, we will call out the page numbers and let you know where we are when you’re ready to rejoin the communal prayer. There are no italics, therefore, if you want to read along, then please, read along!” This meant I needed to be aware of my pacing and not only have the congregation follow me, but allow me to follow the congregation.

My goal was to not be the leader of the service, but a participant along with them—to be a guide as we trekked through our High Holy Days experience together. “Guest readers” were not included in the service in order to maintain the flow. Instead, people were invited to participate in the Torah and Haftarah service. And my Cantor, David Reinwald and Cantor Shannon McGrady Bane took us on a completely different journey with Jonah on Yom Kippur Afternoon. They chanted the book of Jonah in English!

The experience of these first High Holy Days with Mishkan HaNefesh was greater than I expected! The congregation was grateful for the opportunity to pray at their pace and to be active participants. I appreciated hearing all the voices from the congregation throughout all the services. The prep work leading up to the services was greater as I needed to maintain the momentum of the service and not go on automatic pilot. The exploration of the text was well worth it and enhanced my personal preparations.

If you can, take the plunge into Mishkan HaNefesh. It will be worth the investment of money, time, and the heart.


Rabbi Heidi Cohen serves Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, California.

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

Taking Mishkan HaNefesh Off the Page and Into Our Hearts

As we prepared to lead Yizkor from Mishkan HaNefesh we were challenged with how to make a large space feel intimate.  Our High Holiday services take place at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY Purchase, an intimate concert hall that seats 1500 replete with a stage large enough for any philharmonic orchestra.  Our plan was to use the ritual of the seven candles as outlined in Mishkan HaNefesh but in such a large space, we were concerned that the significance of these candles may lose its meaning for those sitting in the upper balcony.

Two things serendipitously came together.  The first is a page in Mishkan HaNefesh that is set apart from the others.  In the midst of the Yizkor service one finds a two-page spread that is different in color, whose words simply say, “Yizkor Elohim” and then a variety of words, randomly spaced (although nothing in Mishkan HaNefesh appears random) across the page describing different relations and the emotions one might feel having them gone.  Verbs like, “I miss…  I remember… I think of…I mourn… i promise,” and relations like, “my mother… my father… my uncle… my friend… my companion.”  Amidst the plethora of amazing readings and poems, I personally find it to be one of the most powerful set of pages in the entire set.  I wanted our congregants to be able to spend some time meditating on those pages.

The second “aha” moment was a Facebook posting (thanks CCAR Facebook page) of Rosh HaShanah services at Denise Eger’s congregation in Los Angeles.  Student Rabbi Jeremy Gimbel led a rousing noggin with everyone standing and dancing and clapping.  Up, above all those on the bima, projected on a screen was a piece of the artwork found in Mishkan HaNefesh.  “This is how we are going to bring that page from the Yizkor services to our congregants!” I thought.yizkor

I quickly sent an email to Hara Person and Dan Medwin asking how we could get a jpeg or PDF of those pages from the Yizkor service to project on our large stage.  For years we have projected the stained glass windows from our sanctuary on the scrim behind our portable aron kodesh.  Now was an opportunity to transform that moment of worship.

During the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, Dan and Hara quickly sent us a JPEG of that page.  Our projectionist jumped on it, transforming a static JPEG into move-able text where one word appeared, then another and another.  He also played with the background colors to a project a reddish hue, bringing it more in-line with the coloring of the concert hall.  In this small (albeit complicated by my standards) act, we were able to move Mishkan HaNefesh off the page and into people’s hearts.  I have no idea how others felt about it (no one complained which I take as a compliment).  It was for me, one of the most moving moments of our chagim.

So once again, hats off to the editorial team of Mishkan HaNefesh for their creativity in worship and to our staff at the CCAR for being agents instead of gatekeepers, of saying yes when they could have said no, and for being so responsive to one rabbi’s request.


Rabbi Daniel Gropper serves the Community Synagogue of Rye, New York. 

Books High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

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.


Rabbi Larry Milder serves Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, CA.
High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Rabbis Reform Judaism

We All Have Rivers to Cross: Learning Prayer from our Ancestors

This piece is from a summer sermon series at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, exploring Mishkan HaNefesh, the new Reform machzor. 

When Roberta began to prepare for her Adult B’nei Mitzvah earlier this year, she felt especially draw to chanting Torah. It was then that her mother reminded her: Roberta’s great-grandfather was a hazzan–a traditional cantor. This powerful link to her roots — spanning time and space — deepened Roberta’s Torah experience all the more so.

This summer, as we encounter Mishkan HaNefesh, our new High Holy Day Machzor, we are posting a weekly question for your response. This week, we asked: From what person or event in Jewish history or in Jewish tradition do you draw inspiration? In other words, what are the lessons you learn from Jews of the past?

In Roberta’s case, a teacher of Jewish ritual who was a relative from her own family touched her. For many, teachers from Jewish history offer connection. We are not alone in our Jewish quest for meaning.

In several of your responses online this week, you reached far into Jewish textual history. One of you was inspired by Abraham and Sarah and the way they welcomed strangers into their home. One of you was moved by bold women in the Torah, such as Miriam, and by courageous women in modern history, such as Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel, and Hannah Senesh, who was killed saving Jews in the Holocaust. Responses included admiration for the Torah scholars of Jewish history such as Yochonon Ben Zakkai, Rashi,. And there was admiration for the people who have not made the history books, but have devoted themselves to Jewish identity and Jewish living.

Mindful of the question: “From whom in the Jewish past do we draw inspiration?” consider this text from our new High Holy Day prayerbook, Mishkan Hanefesh. This prayer introduces the Yom Kippur Amidah (p. 198):

In the depths of the night, by the edge of the river,

Jacob was left alone.

In heartfelt longing, in the temple of God,

Channah uttered her prayer alone.

In the barren wilderness, in doubt and despair,

Elijah found God alone.

On the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies,

the High Priest entered alone.

We are bound to one another in myriad ways,

but each soul needs time to itself.

In solitude we meet the solitary One;

silence makes space for the still small voice.

For the Psalmist says: “Deep calls unto deep.”

For the depths of our soul, we seek what is most profound.

Glendasan River, Wicklow Mountains“In the depths of the night, by the edge of the river, Jacob was left alone:” This scene recalls Genesis Chapter 32 when the night before Jacob is to meet his brother Esau, with whom he shares great conflict, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious being–perhaps it was with God, with an angel, a man or himself. When we in our lives face conflict, or when we toss and turn with our demons, or when we have rivers to cross, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Jacob that struggle with the divine is sacred.

Next verse: “In heartfelt longing, in the temple of God, Channah uttered her prayer alone:” …In this scene, Channah, in deep despair because she has not been able to conceive a child, prays to God for a child. When the priest sees her lips quietly move, he is so unaccustomed to seeing a woman pray spontaneously, that he mistakes her for a drunk woman. When we in our lives feel devastated and long for a new way to arise from our desperation, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Channah that our cries to God are sacred.

Next verse: “In the barren wilderness, in doubt and despair, Elijah found God alone:” In a dramatic story in the Book of Kings, Elijah sees a powerful wind tear apart the mountain, but God is not in the wind. He sees an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, a fire, but God is not in the fire. And after the fire, there was a still small voice. Elijah encounters God in the still, small voice. When we in our lives feel overwhelmed by the noise, drama and pace of this world, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from Elijah that stillness is sacred.

Next verse: “On the holiest day, in the Holy of Holies, the High Priest entered alone:” When the ancient Temple stood in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur, only the High priest could enter the the secret and holy center of the sacred space. When we in our lives feel conflicted between the Jewish calendar and the rest of the world’s schedule — when there’s a school program on Rosh Hashanah or a Pope’s visit that creates obstacles for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat (for instance!), we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from the High Priest that sometimes it is lonely to be a Jew, but also, that our Jewish holy days cannot be rescheduled; they are sacred.

Final verse: “For the Psalmist says: ‘Deep calls unto deep.”: That term deep is the very same word used to describe the primordial depths over which God’s spirit hovered in the creation story. When we in our lives, struggling just to keep pace with the routine, aren’t sure we have the time to focus on the deepest truths of our soul, we are a part of a Jewish people who learns from the Psalmist that heeding the call from the depths, is sacred.

When this Mishkan HaNefesh passage turns to our ancestors for lessons about prayers, this particular teaching emphasizes moments of solitude. This passage introduces the Amidah, a series of blessings meant for quiet contemplation. Interesting then, even in such personal moments, to find deep connection to the Jewish people and the Jewish past.

Even with all of this emphasis on solitude, and at this time of solitude, we are not alone. We are a part of the Jewish people and the Jewish story; so we list those on whose shoulders we stand in our spiritual search.

Prayer is hard. We don’t always know the words on the page, if we believe what we are saying, or if the sounds are really just mantras after all. We might not be sure if anyone is listening, or if prayer makes an impact. Yet, we can learn from the spiritual seekers who came before us. We can learn from their uncertainty, their loss for words, their doubts. We learn that there are some things that we share in common:

We have rivers to cross. We have longings for which there are no words. We seek to discover truth in the quiet. We discover the sacred when we interrupt our lives for holy time. We are connected; even when we are alone.

Even with all of this emphasis on solitude, we recall all of those from history who keep us company. Our tradition’s roots span time and space. In our quest for Jewish meaning and prayer, when we seek to connect to that which is greater than ourselves, may we never be alone.

Rabbi Jill Maderer serves Congregation Rodeph Shalom, in Philadelphia, PA.

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

The Book With No Music

In September of 2014 a children’s book was published called “The Book with No Pictures.” At first glance, the book probably should have been a flop, but it certainly wasn’t. From the time that publishers could mass produce books with artwork, there probably hasn’t been a book for young children on the market that hasn’t had some kind of pictures. Walk into a children’s bookstore today and it is hard to find anything that in addition to colorful artwork, does not feature some accompanying CD, sound effect buttons, pop-ups, textures, toys, celebrity characters, or other gimmicks to help entice children to engage with books and their families to purchase them. But this book, in addition to having no pictures or characters whatsoever, has no story line and is simply a bunch of hilarious nonsense words and phrases for the reader to say: words like “Blork,” “Bluuurf,” and “Glibbity Globbity.” So how could it have been possible for a silly children’s book of this kind to become a New York Times #1 bestseller?

A video was circulated on the internet featuring the author of the book, B.J. Novak, an actor and stand-up comedian, reading his book to a group of children. The video featured their hilarious reactions to his reading, thereby proving that a children’s book does not need any pictures at all to be successful. The video went viral, garnering millions of views and the book became an instant bestseller. So what was the key to B.J. Novak’s remarkable success? Was it a clever viral marketing campaign? That surely didn’t hurt. Was it B.J. Novak’s celebrity status? I don’t think so. Was it the content? Probably not. Or could it have been because the book was developed to highlight the relationship between the reader of the book and the audience, and the storytelling, rather than placing too much emphasis upon the contents of the book? Now we could be on to something.

The CCAR’s new High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, took countless hours of time, thought, and resources to develop. The process involved many of our leading rabbinical minds, cantorial voices, and lay leaders collaborating over the course of many years. Because of this, many of us believe that these books have the capacity to shape an entire era of worship and religious thought, so it is particularly important what content is ultimately included in the book. And yet for the large percentage of Jews that only attends a Reform worship service once or twice upon the High Holidays, regardless of what language is used, what commentary is offered, or how the fonts or paginations appear, the prayers on the page may often seem nearly as foreign and nonsensical to the average Jew as the words in B.J. Novak’s book. This is similar to the idea in Dr. Ron Wolfson’s premise of Relational Judaism, where he argues that instead of investing in programming, congregations should strive to invest in building lasting relationships with congregants. We now have an opportunity to highlight the relationship between the readers of the machzor and their congregations. Now that Mishkan HaNefesh is published, we can focus more upon the relationships that are forged between congregants, clergy, and liturgy through the telling of the story.

Just as we publish new prayer books with new language to relate to each generation of worshippers, so too is music for worship continually evolving. This is why the making of new music for Mishkan HaNefesh is so important and why Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh, the musical companion to Mishkan HaNefeshis such a timely publication. Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh is a compilation of High Holy Day music assembled by the American Conference of Cantors from a wide variety of styles and sources that allows for contemporary Jewish composers to give voice to liturgy from our new machzor in innovative, rich, and meaningful ways. The book includes twenty-five exciting new musical settings of liturgy for Mishkan HaNefesh from the Reform movement’s greatest musical artists, including many accomplished cantors and singer-songwriters.

Even Avinu Malkeinu by Max Janowski was met with skepticism and resistance by discerning musical directors of congregations during Janowski’s generation who preferred a more sophisticated musical approach. Yet hardly anyone today could imagine his beautiful and timeless melody being controversial at all. Some of today’s musical innovators have the potential to become standard repertoire for congregations across all movements, but the music needs to be published, shared, and experienced at congregations in order to stand the test of time. Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh offers congregations the opportunity to give new voices a chance to make their way into the lexicon of High Holiday worship. We have read many of the same prayers again and again for generations. Today we have the opportunity to try to retell the same story, only with new voices.

The Torah provides thirteen chapters of vivid detail on the physical description and construction of the Mishkan, and yet there is no account of the kind of music that might have accompanied its sacred rites – not until the Mishnah was published many generations later. We can only imagine what the worship might have sounded like. The Torah, like all ancient oral traditions, was passed down musically, and yet we did not bother to write down the musical patterns until centuries afterwards when cantillation systems were eventually codified and notated. The Torah is our most sacred book, but like Mishkan HaNefesh, it is a book with no music.

This image reminds me of when I met the head of the cantorial school at Hebrew Union College for the first time. On his ornate music stand in his office I found a very distinguished-looking book titled, “All I Know About Cantoring – By Cantor Israel Goldstein.” I opened the book and laughed out loud when I discovered that every single page of it was blank – a gag gift given to him by a friend. It was hilarious and memorable gift, but upon reflection, music can function a bit like that – it can be the sounds that can fill the pages of a blank book, the midrashic stories that can fill in the gaps between the story lines of Torah, or the images that can be evoked in the minds of children who hear a book read to them that has no pictures.

With the publication of Shirei Mishkan HaNefesh, the American Conference of Cantors tries to help us hear how we can retell our same age-old story in new and engaging ways. Not all books need to have pictures or music in them, but many congregations may wish to use this beautiful book as another useful tool for forging relationships between congregants, clergy, and liturgy for this generation and generations to come.


Cantor Dan Singer is the Senior Cantor at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. 

General CCAR High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Rabbis

Opening the Sacred Envelope: The Joy of Seeing Mishkan HaNefesh Being Used

Some weeks ago I was sitting in a synagogue in the Upper East Side of New York on a beautiful May morning, listening to the beautiful words of Rosh HaShanah liturgy set to music during the Hava T’filah seminar for rabbis and cantors. Even the sound of the shofar pierced the air as a clergy team shared their model service with the group. In the very capable hands of the clergy and musicians of Temple Israel, eighty rabbis and cantors had gathered to pray the Rosh Hashanah Evening Service from the new CCAR Machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh. Yes, it was artificial by design. But it was real worship and so it was gratifying to see the book come to life.

Temple IsraelAs has been stated many times, Mishkan HaNefesh calls upon worship leaders to omit much of the service (there is enough material for many years) so that every choice you  make is important. I call this the Trader Joe’s method. If you walk into Whole Foods in Lincoln Park, Chicago, you can get lost – there are way too many choices. Trader Joe’s, on the other hand, has just a few items in every category. By design, Mishkan HaNefesh is Whole Foods, offering you many options, but the worship service itself has to be Trader Joe’s. (Do not use this analogy on Yom Kippur).

The experience of the Rosh HaShanah service at Hava T’filah reminded me that the worship experience is very different than just the machzor itself. By all means embrace the machzor when preparing for the Days of Awe. But focus on the experience of the Days of Awe, allowing the machzor to be a sacred implement in your creation of the experience.

The great Bible scholar Uriel Simon once taught, in connection with Joseph, that a dream not interpreted is like an envelope not opened and a letter unread. I would argue that a machzor not employed in worship is the same.

What a pleasure it was to witness this sacred envelope being opened!


Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

The Hebrew Types of Mishkan HaNefesh

Ismar David in his New York studio, 1980s.
Ismar David in his New York studio, 1980s.

We are pleased to share a post from guest-blogger Scott-Martin Kosofsky, who was the designer of Mishkan HaNefesh.

Type design in the 20th century has often been a tug-of-war between two graphic impulses: the typographic style, based upon letterforms that grew out of the metal-casting tradition, and the more freewheeling calligraphic style, based in the ways of the pen. In no script is this more evident than in Hebrew, especially during the years following the founding of the State of Israel.

The original Hadassah type by Henri Friedlaender.
The original Hadassah type by Henri Friedlaender.

The two greatest exemplars of this dichotomy, Henri Friedlaender (1904–1996) and Ismar David (1910–1996), each contributed landmark designs for types, each modern but in different ways, that have been part of our daily Hebraic lives ever since their creation. These are the types “Hadassah” (1959, .named for the Hadassah-Brandeis School of Printing, in Jerusalem, where Friedlaender taught) and the eponymous “David” (1954). Both men were Europeans, David born in Breslau and Friedlaender in Lyon, both were trained calligraphers, and both worked as book designers. Friedlaender’s work experience was, however, more in the direction of typefounding than was David’s, working for a time for the Haag-Drugulin foundry (whose offerings included some very popular Hebrew designs of the 19th century), in Leipzig, and at the Klingspor foundry, in Offenbach, where he came under the influence of the renowned craftsman type designer Rudolf Koch, whose Jewish disciples included the renowned designer Berthold Wolpe.

The David type appeared first in a 12 pt. metal version for the Intertype Corporation, American makers of a linecasting machine that was the rival of Linotype. Several years later it became available on the Photon, the earliest commercially viable phototypesetting system. The design did not include diacritics (the vowels and trope), but it did have a very special feature: a left-slanting “italic” of a singularly gracious design. The idea of a companion italic had ever existed before in Hebrew, though many medieval Ashkenazic scripts were left-leaning. (David also drew a monoline “sans serif” version, though it was not issued commercially in his lifeteime.) For a version of the David types released by Stempel in 1984, for one of its early digital typesetting machines, Ismar David created a limited set of diacritics.

Title page by Ismar David.
Title page by Ismar David.
The original Intertype version of Ismar David’s font “David.” Note the “italic” in the running head.
The original Intertype version of Ismar David’s font “David.” Note the “italic” in the running head.

David, the type, marked a radical break from any Hebrew font that had ever been made before. It is highly calligraphic, light in weight, with finely nuanced strokes. Israeli designers took to it slowly, but one event gave it a hechsher that propelled it into extraordinary popularity: its use by Dr. Moshe Spitzer for the 1960 Tarshish edition of S.Y. Agnon’s Kelev Chutzot (“A Stray Dog”), one of the most beautiful books ever made in the State of Israel. Overnight it became the choice for belletristic works and, especially, poetry. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, David would become available in a variety of digital forms, of varying degrees of fidelity to the design. What made it truly universal was its inclusion, for free, with Microsoft’s Windows software, making it a default choice for many uses. Sadly, the italic was not included with these versions; Israelis have preferred, instead (and oddly), to use the automatic “italic” button on various applications to create an artificially inclined letter—to the right, the default setting for the Latin alphabet. The Microsoft version (which is licensed from Monotype) includes all the nikkudot and taamim, though their positioning does not function properly. Moreover, the design of David, which was conceived for Modern Hebrew, has some particularly narrow letters (typical of Modern Hebrew), such as gimel and nun, which make the fitting of biblical diacritics very difficult. The design isn’t well-suited to setting very small type. Where the electronic versions of the David types often fail is in overly tight, poorly balanced spacing, with word spaces that are far larger than they need to be.

David was the type used by the CCAR for its Mishkan T’filah siddur. When I was approached by the CCAR to design the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, one of the first discussions was about the Hebrew type. The CCAR wanted something distinctive, something its own, but a type that would relate somehow to the David type, so that the new machzor would retain a familial similarity with the siddur. Two other facets of the Mishkan T’filah design were to be retained, as well: the navigation bars on the outside margins and the fundamental layout of Hebrew texts and translations in mirror columns. The narrow gimel and nun aside, the David font is too wide for this kind of setting—it needs space to work well A narrower type, one with fewer idiosyncrasies, would be preferable, though it would have to be wide enough to accommodate the full battery of diacritics, as there would be Tanakh segments in the book.

David, as it appears in CCAR's Mishkan T'filah
David, as it appears in CCAR’s Mishkan T’filah
The six weights of Shlomo
The six weights of Shlomo

No such type existed, so I would have to make a new one, as I had done for the Conservative Mahzor Lev Shalem, which I also designed and produced. (It was published in 2010.) Beginning with some of the letter shapes of David, it occurred to me right away that the new type should be called “Shlomo,” the Hebrew name of Solomon, son of King David. As often happens with such inspirations, the new work quickly took a form of its own. The majority of Hebrew letters are square and it is for that reason that its print form (i.e., non-cursive) is called m’ruba (“square”).

How much narrower could it be made and still have space for the diacritics? About 85% is what I determined after a series of experiments, though the nikkud and taamim would have to be on the small side if decent proportions were to kept. That seemed to be a reasonable compromise, as most people who read liturgical and biblical Hebrew use the diacritics as mnemonics. The key to making any typeface easy to read is its internal spacing, and in the case of Shlomo great attention was given to this important aspect of its reader-friendliness. I made Shlomo in several weights and in versions suited to specific sizes. This allows it to be read clearly in the small versions used in the notes at the bottom of the page and in the navigation bars at the right margin of right-hand pages.

The Hillel type by Scott-Martin Kosofsky, as used in Mishkan HaNefesh.
The Hillel type by Scott-Martin Kosofsky, as used in Mishkan HaNefesh.
Ashkenazic letterforms.
Ashkenazic letterforms.

Shlomo, like David, should be classified as a Sephardic design, the general typology that dominates the majority of Hebrew types, and has dominated it since the earliest Hebrew types were made in the 15th century. The Ashkenazic style, with its greater differentiation of thick and thin strokes (the result of its origin as a letter drawn with a quill pen as opposed to the Sephardic predilection for reed pens) came to the fore only in the 19th century, as exemplified by the types made for the Vilna publishing house of Romm, publishers of the editions of Talmud that are still regarded as the standard. But these were as much a product of the prevailing European fashion for Latin types with exaggerated thick and thin strokes (the so-called “Classical” style, as exemplified by the types of Giambattista Bodoni) as they were a reference to the Ashkenazic letters of old. It was during the late Middle Ages that Ashkenazic letterforms reached their apogee, when they were a Hebrew counterpart to the Gothic Latin letters of Europe. The Hadassah type and its offspring Milon, the type I made for the Rabbinical Assembly, are Ashkenazic designs, even though the lack the thick-thin characteristic. This lessening of contrast while keeping the basic Ashkenazic shapes was the essence of Henri Friedlaender’s contribution.

The Milon type by Scott-Martin Kosofsky, as in Siddur Lev Shalem.
The Milon type by Scott-Martin Kosofsky, as in Siddur Lev Shalem.

I have a great fondness for Ashkenazic letterforms, so when the CCAR was looking for a contrasting type for special headlines in the machzor, such as the recurrent Sh’ma and the shofar blasts and the section titles, I suggested that we use a type I made some years ago, a classic Ashkenazic letter based on 14th-century manuscripts. I called the type Hillel, in honor of Harvard Hillel, for whom I first made a version of it for use as titles in The Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook (1992). For Mishkan HaNefesh, I reworked the design considerably and made for it a full set of diacritics, including the cantillation trope. Not only is Hillel used for these

back cover of the Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook, which shows the earlier version of the Hillel type. (Note the odd form of bet.)
back cover of the Harvard Hillel Sabbath Songbook, which shows the earlier version of the Hillel type. (Note the odd form of bet.)special purposes within the machzor, it is also used on the cover. I hope to one day have the opportunity to make a text version of these noble letters.

special purposes within the machzor, it is also used on the cover. I hope to one day have the opportunity to make a text version of these noble letters.

Scott-Martin Kosofky designs, produces, edits, composes, writes, and makes types for books in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he is a partner in The Philidor Company. His specialties are complex typographic books, advanced typography for liturgical and biblical Hebrew, and interesting image-based books, with occasional forays into music, art, and graphic design.

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh

It Is Up to Us: An Alternative Aleinu in Mishkan HaNefesh

There I was, standing next to the Palestinian man when I said “Thank God I’m not like you.”  But it felt wrong and degrading.  While it was a part of the traditional Aleinu I had been saying for years, I had spent all day with this man and others, along with my fellow HUC students (back in 2004), trying to build bridges of understanding between our two peoples.  After a day of discussing and debating, and most importantly, just hanging out, we invited this group of interested but reserved Palestinians to join us in maariv (our evening prayer service).  The fact that many of them understood Hebrew gave me a new perspective when going through our prayers, especially when we got to Aleinu.

I’ve always had trouble with the traditional words of Aleinu.  And a look at Mishkan Tfilah, with the 3 other alternatives, suggests I’m not the only one.  It was written in a time when one of the few ways Jews could fight back against persecution and discrimination was liturgically.  It helped us to feel better about our lot by thanking God for not making us like them.  But times are different now.  We are one of the most successful minorities on the planet.  And while there are still trouble spots and incidents, the perspective and tone of the traditional Aleinu, even before it was acutely raised in my consciousness during services following our mock “peace talks”, troubled me.

After all, there are a number of examples of Reform liturgists crafting or re-writing prayers to maintain their basic structure and context, but to reshape their phrasing.  For example, in nissim bchol yom, we no longer say “Thank you for not making me a slave” but “Thank you for making me free.”  We no longer say “Thank you for not making me a woman” but “Thank you for making me a man/woman.”  They are positive reframing of negative statements. Certainly the Aleinu could take this same approach: thank God for who we are as Jews, rather than for not being like everyone else.

The trouble with the existing alternative Aleinus was they were fairly awkward to say.  We instinctively wanted to use the traditional chanted melody (i.e. Sulzer), but the words didn’t quite fit.  Plus, there were times when the community was saying the traditional version, and I wanted to say an alternative, and the auditory dissonance was too much for me.  So, I set about writing a new alternative, which both fit to the traditional melody and proclaimed my thanks for our unique role in the world.

Medwin-Alternative-Aleinu-MhNAs I see it, two of the most important roles Jews play are: (1) as stewards and guardians of the Earth, as seen in the Garden of Eden and the midrash which has God giving Adam a tour of the whole world and ends with “take care of the Earth, for if it is destroyed, there is no one after you to repair it.”  And (2) as messengers of the teachings and morals of Torah to the world.  Additionally, while we are a unique people, the reality is that our destiny is intertwined with the other peoples of the world.  For example, global climate change doesn’t just effect some people; it effects all of us.  We live scattered around the world, our lives intertwined with others.

And so, when the editors of the new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, wanted to include my alternative Aleinu, paired with a new translation by Rabbi Shelly Marder, I was both honored and humbled. Symbolically it is very powerful, since Aleinu as a prayer began in High Holy Day liturgy, and from there made its way into the daily service.  To have my Aleinu be a part of something so powerful and reflective of the current state of Jewish life, is such a blessing.  In this new machzor there is truly something for everyone, and I pray that my alternative Aleinu can be that something for many Jews, for years to come.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the Publishing Technology Manager at CCAR. 

High Holy Days Machzor Mishkan haNefesh Rabbis

Inside Mishkan HaNefesh: Doing it Right or Doing it Well?

At one point in the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore lets Harry know that there will come a time when he has to choose between what is right and what looks easy.  The point he is making is that Voldemort chose the easy over the right; of course Harry should do the opposite.  The right choice is clearly the moral one.

When it comes to the creation of Mishkan HaNefesh, the editors were instructed by Rabbi Larry Hoffman to consider a different choice, but one that will have its detractors on either side.  In short, when it comes to relevant liturgy we have to choose between doing it right or doing it well.  As explained in his piece in the summer 2013 CCAR Journal, rightness is about following the rules.  Doing it well is responding to the experience of the worshiper.  Of course, the alterations from the rules need not be radical.  We don’t need to declare Et laasot l’adonai and for the sake of God overturn everything, but we must practice common sense.

I thought of this as I remembered looking at the traditional Yom Kippur liturgy and omitting countless repetitions of the Thirteen Midot.  Now, I think the Thirteen Midot are about as fundamental a text to the Days of Awe as anything.  I am just okay not having it repeat more than five or six times in a given day.

What are some more subtle examples of how the editors omitted sometimes important prayers in order to privilege more important pieces?  Understanding that there is a limit to how much any given volume can contain, as well as our commitment to an integrated theology along with two-page spreads, the choices were not easy but they were necessary.  So for instance, the Torah services in Mishkan HaNefesh omit some verses such as Ki Mitzion.  We have nothing against this declaration.  We just needed to cut somewhere.  The same was true of Gates of Repentance.  They cut out Genesis 21.  We were not prepared to lose that again.

We also don’t have the full traditional verses of the Sh’ma everytime.  There are many beautiful piyyutim that are not included.  The Torah and Haftarah portions feature very limited commentary.  We would like to offer more in a supplemental book.

Not including things is not easy.  We take comfort in knowing that many congregations will avail themselves of screen technology, if not today then in the future, and omissions can be corrected on the screens, or with the old standby, handouts.  It is not ideal but then we could only produce a sacred tool to help present effective and meaningful worship.  There will never be a “just add water” prayer book.

An old sermon title has a great name: “Steering or Drifting, Which?” The editors of Mishkan HaNefesh wrestled with a different but potent dilemma, “Doing it Right or Doing it Well, Which?”  It is an art, not a science, and we are humbled by the task.

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and is one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.