The excitement is palpable. Eitan Shushan’s bar mitzvah will be held this coming Shabbat, im yirtzeh Hashem, at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck! A large crowd is expected, including many Ashkenazic guests. A typical dilemma faced by Ashkenazic guests is which siddur to use for the tefillot that Shabbat morning. The question is sharpened by the wide variety of Sephardic siddurim available at Shaarei Orah. Which should be the chosen siddur?
Come With an Open Mind
The first step in appreciating and enjoying a Sephardic service is to come with an open mind. A number of years ago, one Ashkenazic guest commented to me that the Sephardic siddur is “all mixed up.” I was very surprised by this comment, especially since the individual who made it is a talmid chacham. Other Ashkenazic Torah scholars have expressed delight when visiting Shaarei Orah, as many of the Sephardic practices they learned in either the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch came alive during their visit.
Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim Chayim, these and these are the words of the living God, is a basic Torah principle. Binary thinking—in other words, living life as a zero sum game of either/or—is one advocated by Aristotelian logic, but rejected by modern science informed by more sophisticated models such as quantum mechanics. The Torah long ago rejected the Aristotelian model and embraced a logic of multiple truths as articulated by the Ritva to Eruvin 13b, Rav Soloveitchik in the “Lonely Man of Faith” and Rav Jonathan Sacks in his monumental work “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.” Bottom line: come to a Sephardic synagogue with an open mind and you will enjoy!
A Sephardic or Ashkenazic Siddur?
Shaarei Orah does place a number of Ashkenazic siddurim on its shelves. However, it is not the recommended course of action. Rav Moshe Feinstein, in Teshuvot Igrot Moshe, rules that when visiting a beit knesset that prays using a different version than one’s own nusach one should pray only the silent Amida in one’s own nusach. All other parts of tefillah should be recited in the nusach of the host congregation, in accordance with Chazal’s exhortation “Al yeshaneh mipnei hamachloket,” a visitor should not deviate from the host community’s practice (Mishnah, Pesachim, Perek 4).
Moreover, using an Ashkenazic siddur when visiting a Sephardic kehilla might be compared to using a map of Chicago when trying to find your way in Manhattan—you just are not going to reach your destination using this strategy. By using a Sephardic siddur, one will be in tune and in step with the ambient culture.
What about the silent Amida? Most do not know the Shabbat Amida by heart. How can an Ashkenazi fulfill his obligation to pray if he recited the Amida in a nusach other than his own? The answer is that Hacham Ovadia Yosef is fond of quoting the Ari HaKadosh who asserts that while the Kabbalah teaches that each tribe has its own unique tzinor (portal) for tefillah, the Sephardic nusach (recall that the Ari’s father was Ashkenazic—he is the descendent of the Maharshal) constitutes a “universal portal” that may be used by all Jews.
Interestingly, one can avoid this problem during the week by using a siddur app on one’s smartphone. One can use Sephardic tefillah for all portions of the tefillah and switch to Ashkenaz for the silent Amida. Although many rabbanim have registered their displeasure at the use of electronic siddurim or the use of smartphones altogether, common practice in the Orthodox community seems to be otherwise, at least in case of great need. For example, at a Haredi wedding I recently attended in Monsey, nearly every one of the hundred or so men who joined for Arvit used their smartphones for tefillah.
Which Sephardic Siddur to Use?
Even after resolving to use a Sephardic siddur, one must decide which Sephardic siddur to use. Shaarei Orah (as is typical in Sephardic synagogues of Shaarei Orah’s ilk) offers nearly a dozen varieties of Sephardic siddurim. This is because Shaarei Orah members hail from (at last count) more than 13 different Sephardic communities. Thus, we offer Moroccan, Syrian, Turkish and Yemenite siddurim as well as a variety of Rav Ovadia Yosef-style nusach Yerushalmi siddurim.
As is typical with kehillot such as Shaarei Orah, where Sephardic Jews of many different backgrounds unite, the “official” nusach is Yerushalmi/Hacham Ovadia. Thus, the most used siddurim at Shaarei Orah are the Yerushalmi siddurim (with the Moroccan Darkei Avot a close second and the Syrian Kol Yaakov a close third). Hence, a visitor is advised to choose a nusach Yerushalmi siddur.
Of the many varieties of nusach Yerushalmi siddurim, the Ohr VaDarech is the easiest for beginners to use. However, the Avodat Hashem, Yechave Da’at and Avodah SheBalev are also excellent choices. If you choose any of these wonderful siddurim, try to notice the brief notes that add significance to the tefillah and help boost our level of kavana.
Whichever siddur one chooses, please come and enjoy Eitan’s bar mitzva. B’ezrat Hashem it will be a beautiful and emotional event, whose warmth and wonderful memories will last a lifetime.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a Rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a Dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.