Prayer Throughout the Ages – Part 2 – The Siddur
One day, over 1,200 years ago, a letter was written to Rav Amram Gaon of Bavel (modern-day Iraq), from far-off Spain.
“Please esteemed Rabbi, for the sake of our entire community, we are hereby requesting to send us the words of the prayers for the entire year. And please, write it down in the correct order.”
Rav Amram Gaon (died 875) was one of the most respected and influential Rabbis of that time. In response, he wrote down the entire order of the prayer services, and as a bonus also added some laws and customs concerning prayers. This became known as the Seder (order) of Rav Amram. And that’s how the Siddur (related to the word Seder) was invented!
The Siddur was a big hit! But it wasn’t easy to make lots of copies. The printing press wouldn’t be invented for another 600 years! So scribes worked hard to hand-copy the “Seder of Rav Amram” and distribute it to other communities.
“Can someone please invent a copy machine already?! It sure would make life easier.”
“Fabulous idea! But how do you copy a machine?”
The “Seder of Rav Amram” was copied and used not only by the Jews of Spain, but also by the Jews of France and Germany.
Thanks to Rav Amram the era of Siddur-writing began and hasn’t stopped until this very day!
Fast forward a few decades and another Siddur arose, a more “user-friendly” one, by another Gaon of Bavel, perhaps the most famous one ever – Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942). He was originally from Egypt, so in addition to the words of the Siddur, he wrote a commentary and a sort of “Siddur guide,” in Arabic, the spoken language of the people in that area. For the Rosh Chodesh prayers, for example, he included the laws of the calendar. The prayers for Yom Kippur had the laws of fasting, Teshuvah (repentance), and asking forgiveness from one’s neighbor.
Fast forward over 100 years and of course, you guessed it… we have the Rambam (1138-1204) and his book of law, the Mishneh Torah. At the very end of his Book of Love (what better place is there?), the Rambam writes out a Siddur for the entire year, which he names, appropriately, Seder HaTefillos – the Order of the Prayers. He also included the Hagadah of Pesach.
And one more important Siddur, from a different region of the world. This Siddur was composed by Rabbi Simcha Vitri, a student of the great Rashi of France, and was completed in the year 1208.
Fast forward once again more than 200 years, to around 1440, and the printing press was invented by none other than Shazak! (just kidding… it was Johannes Gutenberg). Thanks to this amazing invention, the Siddur became more affordable. Now, more than ever, Siddurim spread to countries throughout the world.
“Even in America!”
“Let’s not get carried away. Columbus did not discover America till 1492, and the first group of Jewish settlers arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 from Brazil.”
“Huh? New Amsterdam?
“Well, later its name was changed to New York.”
As time progressed, there developed different Nuschaos (versions) of the Siddur, with slight changes, depending on location. In fact, the first printed prayer book was that of Nusach Romi (Roman, or Italian Jews), printed in Soncino, Italy in 1486.
That’s how, for example, the Sepharadic Nusach came about – it’s the tradition of the Jews originating from Spain; Nusach Ashkenaz – from Germany and France; Nusach Teiman – from the Jews of Yemen, or Nusach Ari – the prayer book that follows the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, a.k.a. the Holy Arizal.
Next time you pick up a Siddur, look carefully at the front cover and you’ll see which Nusach it is. Also, think about how our prayers have developed throughout the centuries. From Bnei Yisrael in the desert praying in their own words, to the very first Siddur ever written, all the way down to YOU, in your beautifully formatted and translated Siddur, here in the 21st century!