Siddur Eit Ratzon vs. Mishkan T’filah, Part II – Comparative layout

Yesterday, I began my proof for why Siddur Eit Ratzon, without trying to be one, is a better Reform sidur than the official Reform movement sidur, Mishkan T’filah. I started with some definitions. Today I move onto the layout of the sidur.

I’ll begin with the layout of MT. Like SER, as we will see, MT features a layout based around two-page spread groupings. For instance (I recommend you open this PDF and look at as I describe it), on pages 206 and 207, we have, as is typical for a spread in MT, a single prayer, Eilu D’varim. (Okay, so it’s not really a prayer, it’s a text for study, but we’ll return to that issue later)

In the upper right corner of the spread we have the Hebrew text, accompanied by a transliteration. Below that, there is a straight translation. On the left side of the spread, we have interpretive readings, which are on theoretically related subjects. At the bottom of the right hand page (thought sometimes on the left hand page as well), we have some commentary. And on the margins of both sides of the spread, we have the little menu bar, which lists everything in the section of the service you are in, highlighting the prayer you are currently on.

SER has similar features, but they’re arrayed differently and more compactly, with less useless white space. Like MT, SER features a two-page spread layout. Unlike MT, it does not chunk the service out into individual prayers, one prayer per spread. It may have one or two or three things on it, depending on how long they all are. Check this image out while I explain.

The center of the spread, with the spine in between them, features the translation on the right and Hebrew on the left. On the far left, there is a transliteration and on the far right, there is commentary. Missing from SER’s complement of features that takes a prominent place in MT is MT’s sizable battery of “readings.”

In mainstream Reform liturgy, beginning to a large degree with Gates of Prayer (MT’s predecessor), readings became very important. They supplement and often replace entire prayers by bringing in a poetic vernacular piece on a similar topic. This come from what I see as the erroneous idea that the wording of the true wording of the prayers is incapable of moving us, even in translation. To combat this problem, the readings stick—often loosely—to the topic of prayer in attempt to move the pray-ers with something more modern.

SER, in using a scheme of highly translation that features an attempt to translate the intention of the Hebrew rather than always sticking to the letter of the Hebrew, does away with the need for this sort of thing. The page we’re looking at is a perfect example. The Hebrew features a list of over ten synonyms for truthfully good. The English, rather than list a dozen English synonyms for the same thing says simply, “Wow! This teaching is so amazing. I cannot find enough words to describe it.” It is both a translation and a reading and comes across as twice as poetic and inspiring as the sort of gibberish that tends to get printed on the left side of and MT spread.

In MT, as discussed, there is a small commentary section and there is the structure menu. SER takes both of these things and makes them much more prominent, giving them the entire far right hand column of the page. The commentary provided is usually far more insightful and complete in though than the little snippets of quotes MT tends to sprinkle the bottom of its pages with. MT prints its commentary so small and lightly that the impression is one of unimportance. SER, on the other hand puts the great tradition
of Jewish commentary front and center and puts it to much better use.

The content of the commentary bar uses a number of types of comments. On the page we’re looking at, page 54 (both pages of an SER spread have the same page number), we have a full thought about the intent of the author of the prayer, a section detailing the prayer’s place in the larger service (giving much more interesting information about structure than MT’s menu bar), and a comment on the translation that admits that the translation is not as literal as it could be and offers an alternatively translated line.

Across the bottom of the page, in the gray box, is the one feature of SER that surprises me. It surprises me because I fully expected it to appear in MT, but doesn’t. It’s not on every page in SER, but it’s on a fair number of them. It’s a meditative reading. They appear throughout the sidur to assuage those who love Liberal liturgy, one page even including a shiviti meditation illustration.

MT’s proudest achievement, I think, is its left hand page, full as it is of “readings.” The idea is that these readings are what will save our liturgy from irrelevance. Unfortunately, these readings are an outright admission of irrelevance, serving only to further push the true liturgy and meaning of the structure of these holy words into obscurity and increasing irrelevance.

SER makes no such admission, seeking to prop up the service with translations that point stick to the topic while pointing out, in poetic terms, the heart and meaning of each prayer. With commentary that truly enlightens the davener and explicates the intricate meanings of service structure, SER holds up the service and says, “This had modern meaning. And we don’t need to pump it full of pre-teen poetry to see that. All we need is a sense that serious engagement with this text will yield serious understanding of this text.”

3 Responses to Siddur Eit Ratzon vs. Mishkan T’filah, Part II – Comparative layout

  1. alex March 12, 2009 at 7:31 pm #

    interesting…I like the layout of SER, and I hate the idea of “readings,” so I guess I’m with you on this. But the translation, to me, seems at times a little juvenile. I mean, “wow?” that’s the best they could do? WOW! I don’t know, it just seems corny, makes me cringe a little bit.

    I’m a fan of the more literal translations, I feel like the “real” words have enough meaning for me without someone having to fluff it up. But then again, I see the right-hand sidebar has a “more literal translation,” and the snippet that is there seems much more to my liking.

    I guess what I’m saying is that, if I were designing the siddur, I’d put the literal translation where the “interpretive” one is, and relegate the interpretive one to the commentary bar where it belongs.

    Interesting post and interesting siddur. Looking forward to Part III.

    • David A.M. Wilensky March 13, 2009 at 8:03 am #

      That’s legitimate, alex. This particular page has probably the most out there translation in SER. Other pages are much closer to the literal meaning, but always sound fairly poetic anyway.

      See this page for example:

  2. Birch wind January 3, 2012 at 1:23 am #

    Very good writing. And an interesting comparison. I went to my first Synagogue service on New Years’ Eve morn. A Shabbat service and the SER is the book used. My friend and I were allowed to bring a copy home and I love it. Truly. My understanding of the service was very limited, but being able to read through slowly at my own pace, I am much more ready for the next Saturday that I attend. And quite excited, as it was one of the most beautiful experiences I have had.
    Blessings to you.