Friday, May 2, 2014

Which Siddur Should I Choose?

As we discussed earlier this week, a siddur is one of the first purchases you should make on your Jewish journey. But there are a lot of siddurim on the market, so how do you choose one?

1) Get a paper one. Don't rely on a phone app for all your davening needs. For one, you'll want a prayer book you can use on Shabbat and holidays when your phone would not be allowed. And there's just something about a physical prayer book. Your intention, your kavanah, will suffer if you daven regularly from your phone. An app or website should only be used when necessary. You and this book will forge a relationship through good times and bad. Or maybe I'm the only person weird enough to think you can form relationships with books.

2) Ideally, use the same siddur your synagogue uses. It's easier to learn one format, one order, one translation. Different nusachs have slightly different orders and translation. Even within a type of siddur (especially Artscroll), each edition may have a slightly different translation. That probably doesn't matter to your average Frum-from-Birther, but if you daven regularly in English, you will eventually memorize that English, and a slightly different translation will trip you up and slow you down. You may prefer a different siddur than your synagogue's, but I believe your life will be easier (and you will learn faster) if you use the same one as your synagogue. YMMV. As you become more fluent in Hebrew prayer, you'll be able to move between siddurim with ease. My advice: wait on that siddur with the slightly better translation or prettier font. Your needs and desires for your siddur may change over time as you improve.

But what are your options? Here are the ones I know; please comment below to let me know if I missed any! 
Don't know the difference between Ashkenaz, Sefardi, and Sfard? Start here!

Artscroll: Let's not fool ourselves. If you're an English speaker, you're probably going to end up with an Artscroll Ashkenaz edition. Artscroll is the PC of the siddur world, for good or for bad. Most shuls have the older (but totally usable) edition, but you may want the new Wasserman edition. The only practical difference between the two is slight differences in translation and the Wasserman has slightly easier-to-read font. Nothing major is different in the translation, but it can give you pause when you have the English of one memorized. 

It comes in Pocket Size. Let's take a minute to talk about pocket size siddurs. They're great for carrying in your purse or backpack, but you will want to consider how to minimize the damage from frequent travel. I prefer the hardcover edition, and a friend suggests placing the pocket size in a plastic sandwich bag to prevent the book accidentally opening and damaging pages. Also remember that the pagination (page numbers) of a pocket edition are the same as the standard edition. That is helpful for following along in shul, but it means that the pocket edition has significantly smaller print. If your eye sight isn't great, I would check out the print size in person first.

Koren: The Koren is the most popular siddur among my friends, and it's gaining a foothold in synagogues. However, not many shuls can afford to switch over all their siddurim. The biggest difference in the Koren is that the English text is on the right and the Hebrew on the left; that is the opposite of other siddurs. Also comes in Sepharad (Sephardi), Pocket Size, and its older edition. The Koren is particularly popular among religious Zionists because it includes many Israel-specific instructions and prayers. I bought my first Koren specifically for my first trip to Israel so I could take advantage of that information.

As you become comfortable davening entirely in Hebrew, I suggest the Koren Talpiot edition. It is only the Hebrew text, but with instructions in English. I don't know of any other siddur with that format, and I find it much easier to use Hebrew when the instructions are in English. It's easy to pronounce Hebrew when you don't have to understand what it says! (Of course, knowing what you're saying is always preferable and may sometimes be halachically required. Let's talk about that another day.)

Birnbaum: Boo hiss... stay away from the Birnbaum, English daveners! The Birnbaum edition is the old-school "Thou Makest Thine Face Shine Upon Thee" edition. (I just made up that phrase and in no way guarantee it is readable.) Every shul has a few Birnbaums laying around, and if you're really late, you may get stuck with one. If you daven in Hebrew, it's not a big deal to use the Birnbaum. But if you daven in English, you will fall into a bog of language. I didn't know it, but the Birnbaum has a fascinating history: it was originally intended to be used by both orthodox and conservative congregations!

Tehillat Hashem: This is the Chabad siddur. Since many Ashkenazim (also?) attend Chabad, note that there are slight liturgical differences from nusach Ashkenaz. If you attend a Chabad regularly, you should definitely buy this version. If you use an Artscroll at home and the Tehillat Hashem at shul, it'll be difficult to get an intuitive feel for the service. Also comes in Compact Size.

Metsudah: From what I can tell, the Metsudah is just a kind of interlinear siddur (see below). I don't believe it is attached to any particular group, but it is an orthodox siddur. There is an older version.

Non-orthodox siddurim:
Siddur Sim Shalom: The siddur of the conservative movement.

Mishkan T'Filah: The siddur of the reform movement. Previously, they used The Gates of Prayer.

Kol Haneshamah: The siddur of the reconstructionist movement. 

Hillel: Even the student group Hillel has a siddur! I don't actually know whether this siddur is appropriate for the orthodox, but I'm told it's a great learning tool and an excellent choice for a "learners' minyan." 

Bonus reading: The U.S. Military just came out with a new siddur that seeks to incorporate all the movements into one siddur: U.S. Soldiers Getting First New Siddur Since World War II.

But wait...there's more! You not only have to choose among the "brands" of siddurim, keep in mind that there are special editions you may want to add to your collection, now or later.

Interlinear: An interlinear siddur helps you learn what you're saying as you daven in Hebrew. It can be formatted in two ways: a) English words are printed directly below the Hebrew word (Artscroll) or b) short Hebrew phrases written beside their English translations on the same page (Metsudah). To my knowledge, every prayer text (siddur, Tehillim, etc) by Artscroll is available in an interlinear version. 

Transliterated: This is when the Hebrew text is written in English letters, making it easier for an English speaker to daven in Hebrew. For example: "Shema Yisrael." Beware: transliteration has its place and can be incredibly useful, but it can also become a crutch. A transliterated siddur may also include an interlinear translation. 

Weekday: For a smaller siddur to carry during the week, consider a weekday edition. Also comes in interlinear and transliterated. Koren has just released an English-Hebrew weekday siddur that includes commentary from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Personally, I daven most often with an Artscroll Pocket Size Weekday siddur that I keep in my purse. I would buy a Koren, but I hope my next weekday siddur will be Hebrew only, so I'm waiting for now.

Shabbat and Festivals: As you can imagine, this siddur is limited to Shabbat and holidays. Also comes in interlinear and transliterated.

Machzor: A machzor is just a holiday-specific siddur. You can buy a machzor set that includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach, and Shavuot. Koren has recently released machzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and people rave about them. While you can buy them separately, you can save some money by buying sets of two (RH and YK) or five. Available in different nusachs and interlinear, and all those in pocket size. They also come in many colors and cover materials. Additionally, there are other machzorim-like editions such as Tisha B'Av/Kinnot (Artscoll and Koren) and Slichot.

The Ohel Sarah: This siddur is for women and published by Artscroll. I do not like it, and I do not recommend it. It was my first siddur. But this siddur belongs in the idealized 1950s, where all a woman did was care for children and pray for more. I am particularly bothered that I didn't know what Tachanun was for over a year because it's Do you have any idea how weird Tachanun is when your siddur says nothing about what's going on around you?? The page where Tachanun should appear has an annotation at the bottom: "The practice of saying Tachanun after the Shemoneh Esrei was never established as obligatory. Since it is based on minhag (customary practice), there are numerous exemptions to saying Tachanun on many days [what a poor way to say that]. Without a clear indication that women accepted this practice, it is presumed that they never did." So...we won't even bother printing it. Heck, let's stop printing Ma'ariv while we're at it! Don't waste your money. /rant.

Tehillim: While technically a book of the Tanach rather than a siddur, people often daven Tehillim from a dedicated Tehillim book (Artscroll and Chabad). Tehillim also come in interlinear, transliterated, and English-only editions. (My favorite is The Book of Psalms in Plain English.) Of course, Tehillim come in all sizes, including pocket size. There are literally dozens of editions of Tehillim with English translations; go to a Judaica store to browse them in person to find one that speaks to you. There is no shortage of Tehillim apps, but most are Hebrew-only. 

Apps: As mentioned above, there is no shortage to Tehillim apps. Siddurim are harder to come by. The most popular seems to be the Siddur app by RustyBrick (maker of many other quality Jewish apps), but Chabad recently released Tehillat Hashem as an app. Amazingly, despite a great deal of effort, I can't find a website for the Chabad siddur app, even on their main website. Search for Siddur Tehillat Hashem directly in your app store of choice.

Websites: There are surprisingly few English translations of the siddur online. Most modern English translations are probably protected by copyright laws. However, you can check out The Open Siddur Project and The Transliterated Siddur (not a complete siddur). If you bentch after meals with transliteration, adding a bookmark on your phone to the bentching on The Transliterated Siddur is great on the go!

What do you daven with? How do you like it? What would you improve?


  1. I have Artscroll, Koren, Sim Shalom, a beginners siddur put out by a rabbi I am studying with (conservative), siddur eit ratzon, gates of prayer, and Mishkan Tfila (both "full" and traveler's).

    I use Mishkan T'fila for travelers at home. It's small. It's transliterated. It's well-organized. It's purple.

  2. What a pleasurable topic! I have to cook for שבת now, but I want to elaborate later on.
    I do want to say that the Birnbaum was the best *for its time*, and there are those of us who have very pleasant memories of using it in that time.
    I actually recommend collecting several types of siddurim; you will learn more about them as you compare and contrast, and that adds a level of delight unto itself.

    1. I'm mystified by the blogger's characterization of the Birnbaum Siddur-entirely wrong!! The translation is in beautiful, graceful, decidedly non-archaic English! You MUST be referring to another siddur, plainly translated by someone with a very incomplete grasp of English and its idioms (likely the siddur published by Ktav in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century)...please check again! Philip Birnbaum was a magnificent scholar and his siddur is my favorite, primarily for the English translation which faithfully conveys the poetry and beauty of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) texts, particularly his rendering of the Psalms contained in the Ashkenazic liturgy (his rendering of Ps 29 is my favorite). There is no "Thou" and "Thee" and "Thine" used anywhere in the text!!

    2. When my mother died, I inherited her Birnbaum (1977 edition). I can't speak for later editions (if there were any), but mine is certainly filled with thys, thees, and thous.

      For folks who are comfortable with archaic English, I agree it is a beautiful translation, but this edition (at least) is decidely archaic. And as the blogger points out, it really is better to understand what we daven. For someone who isn't used to archaic English and isn't comfortable reading Hebrew, better a less beautiful translation with modern language.

  3. This is so helpful. I could never really wrap my head around all the different kinds and editions, and you have just made it so easy, thank you! I was also disappointed in the Ohel Sara, for the same reasons. What I was looking for was a woman's Siddur that has *all* the content of a traditional Siddur, with special annotations or a section for mitzvoth and blessings of particular interest to women (ex. Rosh Hodesh, blessings for the Mikvah, etc.) I have not yet found it.

  4. This is a very useful list!
    Koren also has a beautiful Pesah Mahzor with translation and commentary by brilliant Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It includes a fascinating introduction called "Finding Freedom" that explains the history, themes and fundamental concepts of Pesah,and its significance as a central event around which most of Judaism revolves. It transformed Passover for me and my family.
    Koren is also planning a weekday siddur with translation by Rabbi Sacks which will be coming out in about 6 months.

  5. Regarding a siddur, there is a graphically interesting siddur called Nehalel. We have the Shabbat edition. The publisher uses photographs on every page to try and help the pray-er relate to that section of the prayer. I think it is interesting, but distracting. My wife likes it.

    For an edition of Tehillim with English, I like the Metzudah. The small softcover edition is convenient to carry around in a purse or backpack.

  6. The first siddur I ever bought was, indeed, an Artscroll, but the more I davened, the more I disliked it. Now I usually daven out of Siddur Sim Shalom or, when I feel like a change, out of my Koren Sacks. I really, really like the Koren- it includes all of the information you need with none of the pontificating of Artscroll's stuff. I also own several volumes of Koren's Talmud Bavli, which is also really excellent.

    For a transliterated siddur, there is one other option besides Artscroll, which is Siddur Eit Ratzon. This may or may not be acceptable for the Orthodox-inclined, but I used it a couple of times at a Masorti congregation in the UK and really liked it. I've been meaning to purchase my own copy just to have in my siddur collection, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. I've also heard that the Conservative movement is ultimately going to move from Sim Shalom to Siddur Lev Shalem, a siddur by the same crew that put together the Machzor Lev Shalem that they currently use for High Holy Days. I have a generally positive view of the machzor, although it can get a bit crunchy granola (including pages with the matriarchs, et cetera) for my tastes, but I'm curious to see if they actually make this move and, if so, what the siddur will look like.

  7. Thanks for another insightful and useful review, but to add to your list, Kehot, the Chabad Lubavitch publishing house, does publish it's siddur Tehillat HaShem in a Hebew only edition with English instructions:
    It's also available in a compact flex cover edition.

  8. One need note a point of order in all this, the source of which escapes me, but it rests on solid ground, as far as my wits are about me.

    If one davens Ashkenaz, and moves on to Sephardic, he can't go back. Similarly, although here my recollection fades, if one moves to Chabad, then too going back to Sephardic is not recommended. I suppose there are halachot regarding this; I know not.

  9. A note about Chabad's siddur, Tehillat Hashem, as I remember reading in its preface. The Alter Rebbe, who configured this siddur, had in his time some 60 versions of Nussach Ari, of which he melded them all into this one siddur. By the way, it is A LOT DIFFERENT than Nussach Ashkenaz!

    He configured the siddur as per the 13th gate. You se, back in the days of the Temple, there were 13 gates through which to enter the Temple mount. If you were of Tribe Reuven, then you could enter only through Reuven's Tribe's Gate. Shimon, for example, was forbidden to enter through this gate; He had to enter through Shimon's Gate; etc.

    However, there was a 13th Gate, one through which any tribe member could pass. Similarly, the Alter Rebbe configured the Tehillat Hashem siddur so anybody's prayers will go through the right gate - straight to heaven.

  10. Since several people have in passing mentioned my siddur, Siddur Eit Ratzon, I would like to post this description of the siddur taken from the website "Siddur Eit Ratzon is a traditional (non-Orthodox) but unconventional prayerbook. Each page has a four-column format, with the traditional Hebrew text, a complete transliteration, a new translation that focuses on conveying the meaning of the prayers (as well as the meaning of the words), and a column of commentaries designed to answer a variety of types of questions, from "what is going on in this part of the service?" to "what is the spiritual meaning of this prayer?" It has a spiritual focus, reflected in the many kavvanot, meditations, and new prayers that appear on its pages. Its pages will provide you both information and inspiration. Finally, here’s a book that will open your mind and heart to the wonderful spiritual treasures of the Jewish tradition of prayer."

  11. Nice review! I especially like that you mentioned the non-Orthodox ones, even without much comment. It is clear that you identify with Orthodoxy and yet respect that other streams exist and their Sidurim are useful in other ways or for other people. Would that we all expressed such a mix of loyalty to our own beliefs/community and respect for others'.

    One point to clarify: Nusah Sfard is not a Sefardic liturgy. Despite the name, it is an Ashkenazi liturgy developed by the early Hasidim. Its adoption was the source of much infighting and consternation, going as far as the excommunication of several Hasidic rebbes and groups. Now no one seems to mind much, though, and it is used by Hasidim and some other Ashkenazi communities.

  12. I believe it is also important to mention two other sources of excellent prayer books for Sephardim of the Spanish and Portuguese flavor. They are in Hebrew and English.

    From the London Sephardim:

    From the N.Y. Sephardim:

    Both of these sources offer better alternatives to the Koren Sephardic siddur, as it is a good attempt but falls short overall where the S&P are concerned.

    Personally I find that the prayers books from the Society of Heshaim are bound in a manner that they are meant to last and may even be passed down generationally. I have used the de Sola Pool siddur from N.Y. and have never found them to last past a couple of years. In my opinion the N.Y. prayer books are designed to be replaced periodically.

  13. Thank you. My US Army pocket siddur from my uncle has gone walkabout and I'm in a panic. I loved that siddur. So trying to find something similar I stumbled on your page. It looks like it's going to be the pocket Rabbi Sacks, despite my negative feelings towards him. Thanks again.