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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sephardim Are on the Map

It is quite an event to have ArtScroll print, for the first time, a Sephardic siddur. There has been quite a buzz about this in the English-speaking Sephardic world as it is quite the event. It certainly marks the Sephardic community as having established itself in this country as a major entity in the Jewish community.

This is quite an advance from the situation only 40 years ago in this country. Rav Shmuel Khoshkerman recounts how 40 years ago it was difficult to find any Sephardic machzor for the Yomim Tovim. My goodness, has the situation changed for the better!

A Unified Siddur

What stands out about this new siddur is that it creates a unified siddur for all Sephardic Jews. Until now there have been a plethora of “boutique” Sephardic siddurim. For example, on the shelves of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, we have Syrian-based siddurim, Moroccan-based siddurim, Rav Ovadia Yosef-based siddurim, Ben Ish Chai-based siddurim and this is just the beginning.

ArtScroll took a bold step and is pioneering a Sephardic siddur that seeks to serve and satisfy all the different Sephardic sub-groups. It might be difficult for an Ashkenazic Jew to grasp why this is such a monumental achievement. By this point, Ashkenazic practice is fairly homogeneous, with only a smattering of divergent issues (such as to whether a man wears tefillin on Chol Hamoed or wears a tallit before his wedding).

This is because Ashkenazic Jews were scattered in a relatively small area and therefore their practices remained mostly the same. However, Sephardic Jews were spread much farther and wider than their Ashkenazic brethren. For example, Morocco and Persia are quite a distance from one another. Thus, it is not surprising that the different communities developed different minhagim.

In the new ArtScroll siddur, Minhag Yerushalayim, Syrian and Moroccan customs are all included in one siddur. In a bold statement in the book’s introduction, the editors state that they have concluded that the differences in the nusach are relatively minor and therefore one unified siddur is highly appropriate.

It seems that this bold experiment has for the most part succeeded. Both the Ben Ish Chai and Rav Ovadia Yosef’s pesakim are presented. For example, both sides of the great debate between these two great authorities as to whether the bracha of She’Asa Li Kol Tzorchi (which thanks Hashem for our shoes) should be recited on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur are presented as options in the siddur. Even regarding certain areas where there is significant divergence, such as the order of Kabbalat Shabbat and Birkat Kohanim, a coherent order and sense of progression has been successfully achieved.

One downside, though, as some have already noted, is that it is a bit heavy and unwieldy. It is indeed best used if one is sitting at a table or a lectern. Otherwise it can be overbearing. Perhaps some of the commentary and introduction can be eliminated or reduced in future editions to make it more user-friendly.

While there is a beauty and distinct advantage of maintaining “tribe based” siddurim, it runs a distinct risk of “tribalism” and forgetting the all-important overall identity as a Sephardi and a Jew. This revolution in unity is a most welcome step in unifying our people, or at least reducing factionalism.

One exception, though, are Yemenite customs. The Yemenite siddur is too distinct to be able to incorporate in one siddur together with other Mizrachi Jews.

Room for Improvement

Although ArtScroll assembled a team of some of the most prominent rabbanim in the North American Sephardic community (such as Rav Eliyahu Mansour and Rav Mordechai Lebhar), there still remain some pockets of areas that need improvement.

For example, Mizmor 49 is presented as the introductory reading before Arvit at a bet avel. This is presented as the accepted practice, with no alternative practice noted. However, the reality is that some communities recite this perek on such sad occasions but others do not.

Another example is that Nachem is presented as being recited only at Mincha on Tisha B’Av. The fact is, though, that Minhag Yerushalayim is to recite Nachem at every tefilla on Tisha B’Av.

In the Halacha section, the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai that one who forgets HaMelech HaMishpat during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva need not repeat the Amida is presented as the opinion accepted in “most communities.” This, in all respect to the ArtScroll editors, is not a correct assessment. It still remains a hotly debated and unresolved divide amongst Sephardic poskim and rabbanim.

Conclusion

Even with its need of some minor revisions, the brand-new ArtScroll siddur is a most welcome addition to the Sephardic (and Ashkenazic) beit knesset and bookshelf. It has mostly succeeded in its ambitious, lofty and most worthy goals. While it certainly does not replace the more “partisan” siddurim, it certainly merits a significant place on our shelves at the synagogue and home. May it enhance the tefillot and Torah knowledge of Am Yisrael.

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.