Why don’t we modernise the prayer book?..ask the rabbi

May 26, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
Read on for article

Q. Why don’t we modernise the prayerbook?

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

A. A person was studying a page of the Talmud. A friend saw what he was doing and noticed which page it was. A week later the same friend came by and was astounded to find that it was still the same page that was open. “Haven’t you moved on?” he asked. “Moved on?” came the reply; “Why should I move on? I like it here!”

Now something which actually happened to me when I was a professional youth worker. When a group of teenagers objected to the conventional Shabbat services because they were boring, they said they wanted to create their own service. I said, “Go ahead!”

They sat and thought and planned and got busy. One suggested this change, another suggested that one. Eventually they were ready to conduct their service. I said nothing aloud but I grinned inwardly when the service they produced was identical to the standard Shabbat service!

Both stories show you get used to certain ways of doing things and in time they define who you are and what you stand for. Changing the Siddur has been tried in non-Orthodox movements but without dramatically better results than the prayerbook of tradition.

True, they have shortened the services and brought in more vernacular prayers, but if they had worked from within the halachah they could have found halachically sanctioned ways of addressing the same issues.

In some cases they have changed the theology, for instance by rejecting references to a personal Messiah, resurrection of the dead and the rebuilding of the Temple, but on most of these questions their own adherents are apathetic.

Recent attempts to rework the Siddur have tried to be gender inclusive, though I cannot see how it is an improvement to refer to God without Biblical terms like “Father” and “Lord”.

We are moulded by our history and tradition, and if this is how Jews have always spoken of God it is part of our identity.


Q. Is there anything wrong with being afraid of death?

A. We all know that the day of death will come. The Simchat Torah service says, “Moses died – who will not die?” A French writer says, “I want to die whilst planting my cabbages”.

For my part, if I am afraid it is of death coming before I have completed my task. Which means getting things tidy at the end of every stage of life, doing whatever I can whilst I have the power and the opportunity. There is a saying about making hay while the sun is shining. That’s me too – hoping the sun will shine long enough for my hay-making.

Another French writer says that being dead is not something to fear. We can only fear what we know. Maybe being dead is a joy. What we have reason to fear is suffering whilst dying. We should all pray and hope for what Judaism calls “mitah yaffah”, a “beautiful death”. In the meantime let’s make the most of life.


Q. What is se’udah sh’lishit?

A. The name means “third meal”. The sages made it an obligation to have three meals on Shabbat – Friday night, Shabbat morning and Shabbat afternoon.

The three meals symbolise the three main themes of Shabbat – creation, revelation and redemption. Friday night celebrates the creation of the world, Shabbat morning the giving of the Torah, and Shabbat afternoon the serenity and spirituality of the World to Come.

Hence the z’mirot sung on each occasion are different and this is even reflected in their melodies; the Shabbat afternoon tunes have more pathos and poignancy.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem


One Response to “Why don’t we modernise the prayer book?..ask the rabbi”
  1. Liat Nagar says:

    Rabbi Apple,
    Thank you for this kind of discussion. The language of the siddur, and that of the Torah, is rich with beauty. It resonates within when one prays or reads. It should not be modernized any more than it may already have been.

    It’s not just a question of understanding literally what the words say, it’s the poetry, or grandeur of suggestion, that makes reception of the words so powerful.

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

Got something to say about this?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.