Although Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are familiar times for most Jews, the machzor, or High Holy Days prayer book, is terra incognita. The Hebrew words, even when rendered into English or any other language, present a barrier: the pray-ers don’t know the prayers.
For a Jewish community that largely has embraced the precept of tzedakah, or giving charity, and respects the concept of teshuvah, or making spiritual amends this time of year, tefillah is largely unknown territory.
For years, book-length analyses of philosophy and technique of prayer was largely the province of the Orthodox community. In recent years, with a burgeoning return-to-tradition movement in the wider Jewish community, experts from non-Orthodox streams have joined in.
Outstanding examples are Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Spiritual Voices on Why Prayer is Difficult and What to Do About It (Rabbi Mike Comins, Jewish Lights Publishing, 2010) and Pray Tell: A Hadassah Guide to Jewish Prayer (Rabbi Jules Harlow, 2003).
It is no surprise that both are imprints of Jewish Lights, which has assumed the mantle of issuing the most eclectic, most interesting publications in American Jewish life.
With contributions from some four dozen rabbis and thinkers across the religious spectrum, Rabbi Comins, who was ordained by the Jerusalem branch of Hebrew Union College, examines in a traditional but New Agey way the role prayer plays in a Jew’s life both inside and outside the synagogue.
Rabbi Harlow, for several decades a prominent member of the Conservative movement, compiled a tome in the spirit of The Jewish Catalog series, with practical advice and relevant outside references, questions and commentaries.
Also from Jewish Lights: The Way Into Jewish Prayer by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman (2000).
Part of Jewish Lights’ “The Way Into” … series of books for a largely non-traditional readership, Rabbi Hoffman’s provides a historical-philosophical perspective on a theological issue that serves as a foundation for Jews who grapple with the meaning and efficacy of prayer.
“Does God answer prayer?” Rabbi Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, asks. “I truly do not know,” he answers.
An answer that probably resonates with many American Jews.
“Even if God does, however, the sole — or even the most important — reason for praying can not be that we hear back from a friend whom we have contacted by phone or letter, or (to update the political analogy of God as king) the way we get a response to some petition that we have made to our political representative in government,” Rabbi Hoffman writes. “Jewish prayer is an act of personal piety. It is a response to my life of faith and an affirmation of my membership first in the Jewish People and more broadly in the human community as a whole.”
Some other books on prayer:
The Hafetz Hayyim on the Siddur (Feldheim, 1977). Based on the words of Rabbi Israel Meier Kagan, the early 20th-century sage and communal leader in Poland, this features little stories and parables and explanations, on each prayer book word and verse we recite.
Praise My Soul: Ideology of the Morning Prayers by Rabbi Avidgor Miller (Bais Yisroel of Rugby, 1982). An exhaustive work, it offers concise explanations and commentary on every phrase in the weekday Shacharit, including the preliminary blessings.
To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service by Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (Basic Books, 1980). An exhaustive roadmap to the whys (why do we pray?) and whens (when we stand and sit, etc.), it covers the entire landscape of tefilah.
The World of Prayer, by Rabbi Dr. Elie Munk (Feldheim) The two parts of this series — daily prayers, Sabbath and festival prayers — were written a decade apart from 1953 to 1963, offering an introduction, with traditional commentaries, to the entire siddur.
As For Me — My Prayer: A Commentary on the Daily Prayers, Nissan Mindel (Kehot Publication Society, 1972). The author, a Lubavitch scholar, writes an introduction to prayer geared for the serious pray-er, assuming the reader’s knowledge and belief.
A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 1998, Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth (J. Robinson) A native of Germany who taught for decades at the Maimonides School in Boston, Rabbi Wohlgemuth combines erudition with intriguing references to Christian and non-Jewish culture.
Touched by a Prayer by Rabbi Yechiel Spero (Mesorah Publications, 2007 and 2008). Part of the author’s “Touched by a” … series of books offering inspirational stories, these two illustrate how prayer, arranged around individual verses, changed people’s lives.
Towards Meaningful Prayer: Inspiring Thoughts and Stories on Tefilah from Classic Sources (I and II) by S. Feldbrand (Lishmoa Lilmod U’Lelamed, 2003 and 2007). Scores of vignettes on topics like the power of prayer and “Knowing What to Ask.”
The Modern Crop
On Changes in Jewish Liturgy: Options and Limitations by Daniel Sperber (Urim Publications, 2010) The Israeli scholar approaches tefillah prayer from the direction of essays on grammar and history, Talmudic thought and halachic perspectives.
A Window to the Siddur by Rabbi Walter Orenstein (Urim Publications, 2009). A husband-and-wife dialogue on the meaning and structure and philosophy of the daily and Shabbat tefillah. Informed by knowledge, but more accessible than standard, learned essays.
Shemoneh Esrei: The Depth and Beauty of Our Daily Tefillah by Rabbi Zev Leff (Targum Press, 2008). A step-by-step discussion, with learned commentary, on the contents of the Amidah (standing prayer) that constitutes the heart of the weekday prayer service.
Praying With Fire: Igniting the Power of Your Tefilah by Rabbi Heshy Kleinman (Mesorah Publications, 2005). In a practical, hands-on “5-minute lesson-a-day” format, Rabbi Kleinman presents advice, rabbinical insights, illustrative stories and discussion questions.
Twerski on Prayer: Creating the bond between man and his maker by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski (Shaar Press, 2004). An accessible insight into the daily, Shabbat and yom tov liturgy, complete with his standard chasidic stories and personal vignettes.
Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (Ktav and Toras HaRav Foundation, 2003). Culled from the decades of writings and lectures of the late philosophical leader of Modern Orthodoxy. Profound; not easy reading.
Rav Schwab on Prayer: The Teachings of Rabbi Shimon Schwab on the Siddur (Mesorah Publications, 2001). Scholarly and thorough, similar in style to Rabbi Twerski’s work. Rabbi Schwab was the longtime leader of Washington Heights’ Orthodox community.
A Guide to Jewish Prayer by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (Schocken Books, 2000). From the Israeli author and teacher who brought Talmud study to the masses, the text for the beginner: features the essence of prayer, the music of prayer and historical notes.