Observance of mitzvot and self conduct in accord with long established Jewish traditions have guided this writer’s life as long as he can remember. My siddur is well thumbed, from thousands of hours spent in prayer.
Tisha B’Av, Ninth of Av, is an interesting day. In the past, I chanted Eicha on the eve of the fast day, and have been privileged to lead worship for my congregation. Many summers I was a staff member at Camp Ramah. Today marked an abrupt change. I did not chant the megilla nor did I lead worship. Due to a medical situation, I was not even permitted to fast beyond mincha. The mind is still willing, the body is not. Halacha, Jewish traditional practice, sides with my body and demands that I eat to maintain life and health. Yet of all the changes this year, the hardest for me was davenen, worshipping, as a regular congregant.
When leading services I use a siddur, prayerbook, chosen by the congregation. When praying in private I grab my pocket siddur from my talit bag. In the past I used the Rinat Yisrael prayerbook. For the last ten or so years, I have relied on my Artscroll pocket prayerbook. Both the Artscroll and Rinat Yisrael are Orthodox prayerbooks. Not realizing changes had been made to the liturgy in my “work siddur“, I was taken aback by the text of the special Nachem prayer added on the Tisha B’Av. Doubting my fluent Hebrew, I checked the English translation to be certain that I had not erred in my understanding,. The first sentences of the Artscroll English translation follow:
“O Lord, our God, console the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city
that is mournful, ruined, scorned and desolute: mournful without her children, ruined without
her abodes, scorned without her glory and desolute without her inhabitants. She sits with co-
vered head like a barren woman who never gave birth.”
The prayer continues with a description of the destruction process in 586 BCE and later in 71 CE; an established perception of why the Ninth of Av has been observed as a mournful, fast-day for generations.
A siddur is neither a historical treatise nor a formal text on the purpose of Jewish living. However, how dare it present Jerusalem as still desolate and ruined! The time has passed when these conditions apply. After reestablishment of a Jewish State in 1948, Jerusalem thrives as it has not for thousands of years. It is hardly desolate. It is home to tens of thousands of residents: Jews, Christians, and Moslems, even a small Buddhist minority. It is a capital that is the seat of a national government. Its colleges are among the finest in the world. Its religious life is vibrant. The Holy Sepulchre, the Al Aksa mosque and the Western Wall are within city limits. Rather than being a barren mother yet to give birth, Jerusalem is surrounded by suburbs. The robust economy of the State of Israel leads the world in numerous areas of accomplishment. Moreover, the city is booming. Its growing population is both a blessing and a challenge that foments ongoing struggles between Jews and Palestinians. Indeed, my own first grandson recently entered the world as a citizen of both Jerusalem and Israel.
From my perspective the siddur is the greatest collection of Jewish philosophy made available to the average Jew. It is written in beautiful, poetic Hebrew that lends itself to interpretations that meet the challenges of an ever evolving world. Sometimes, though, when language is specific; verbiage must be read literally. Such is the case of the Nachem prayer quoted.
The Nachem prayer ought not be abandoned. The siddur must maintain this link to an ages-long aspect of the Jewish heritage. Jews cannot afford to forget the baseless hatred or the abandonment of God that led to past destruction and exile. Nevertheless, editors of Orthodox siddurim and the rabbinic scholars who guide then need to take a moment to update the tefillah (prayer) so that its substance meshes with reality.