Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007
This is the official liturgy of the Reform movement in the United States, probably the largest synagogue organisation in the world. Mishkan T’filah (MT) succeeds Gates of Prayer (1975) which itself replaced the Union Prayer Book (1940). American Reform Judaism is closer to the Liberal movement in the UK. When I was in the US in the early 90’s I attended a number of Reform congregations and experienced (alongside an exceptionally warm welcome) everything from ‘classical Reform’, a sort of Anglican Matins style of worship, to informal ‘chavurah’ type worship – a sort of 70’s folk Mass.
The 1975 Gates of Prayer had ten Shabbat evening and six Shabbat morning services to choose from, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman in an excellent essay on MT calls this a ‘service economy’ replaced now by an ‘experience economy’. It is worth reading the full interview with Hoffman here or another short essay here. The Gates of Prayer services were each designed to cater for a particular theological view.
Mishkan T’filah takes its name from Exodus 25:8, it means a tabernacle/abode/dwelling of prayer.
Blending the Contemporary and Traditional
In a post-modern sort of way there is more of the tradition in MT than in any previous US Reform prayer book. More Hebrew, Hebrew opening, a second paragraph of the Shema, even the prayer for the dead. But both in its layout and contents this is also the most innovative. Two sets of services are provided for Shabbat, the second is ‘linear’ a script that is followed from page to page. However, the first set of services use a fascinating technique in which each section of the service occupies a double page spread which contains the Hebrew prayer (top right), its transliteration alongside it, a translation below it and associated prayer texts, generally of a more contemporary nature, on the facing page. Each section ends with the Chatimah, a key concluding prayer line to indicate when the page should be turned. A side panel contains the full menu of the service with the current section in bold indicating, therefore, as the pages are turned the progress made through the structure of the liturgy.
Here’s a PDF of a double page spread with these sections indicated:
The Siddur as a work of art
The single most common criticism of MT is its size and weight. It’s certainly not an inconsiderable volume but it is beautifully done with elegant fonts in both the English and Hebrew, gentle use of blue print for opening phrases and headers and good spacing to avoid over-cluttering the pages. There is no visual art as such, except where the opening six words of the shema are arrayed across the double page
Worship beyond the Synagogue
This is definitely a book that needs to be inwardly digested beyond the confines of a formal service. Few references are given on the pages but there is an excellent list of ‘Source Citations’ that benefit from greater study.
Education: creating liturgical literacy
MT has no equivalent of the excellent Study Anthology in the British Reform Forms of Prayer (that is published separately) but it is educative. The liturgical structure/headings given at the side of each service page and the notes provided throughout are extremely helpful without being stodgy and clogging up the pages. The introductory material is helpful and informative, and of course the interpretative versions of the traditional material themselves enlighten the understanding.
Gates of Prayer deliberately provided a diversity of services to meet differing theological viewpoints but each service was itself univocal. MT provides variety on the double page spread.
All the language for God in MT is gender neutral and that for human beings inclusive. Much use is made of ‘Adonai’ to address God. The blessing formula adopted is:
Praise to You, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe
who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us …
I don’t especially like this frequent use of ‘Adonai’ which always feels like a rather masculine name for God (Master/Lord) and stands out rather inelegantly in my view in the otherwise good English.
This is a siddur that I have come to love, I often return to it for prayer and meditation. The English texts are very beautiful.
Here are some of my favourites from the Weekday Evening service:
Maariv Aravim – the evening blessing
Praised are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe,
who speaks the evening into being,
skilfully opens the gates,
thoughtfully alters the time and changes the seasons,
and arranges the stars in their heavenly courses according to plan.
You are Creator of day and night,
rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light,
transforming day and night and distinguishing one from the other.
Adonai Yz’vaot is Your Name.
Ever-living God, may You reign continually over us into eternity.
Praise to You, Adonai, who brings on evening.
MT page 6
Give us place to rest, Adonai, our God.
Bring us into shelter
in the soft, long, evening shadows of Your truth.
For with You are true protection and safety,
and in Your Presence are acceptance and gentle love.
Watch over us as we go forth.
Prepare for us as we return.
Spread over us Your shelter of peace,
over all we love – over our Jerusalem and Yours.
MT page 19