The Siddur as an Educational Resource for Tefilla education

By Daniel Rose

In the first of this four-part series on tefilla education, we identified three possible goals of a program of tefilla education: tefilla literacy, tefilla inspiration (meaning-making and connection building), and tefilla community belonging. In this second article we will begin to explore the ways these goals can be achieved, with specific focus on the role of the siddur as an educational resource for their achievement.

If we are to create meaningful tefilla experiences, focusing on tefilla inspiration at least as much as tefilla literacy, serious thought and creativity must be put into providing educational opportunities to make the text and experience of tefillah relevant to young 21st century lives, provide opportunities for spiritual experience and growth through tefillah, and foster relationship-building with God through conversations about God (a focus that is often lacking in the rest of the Judaics curriculum).

These goals lend themselves to both formal instruction in the classroom and less formal instruction during tefillah services. They can be achieved in a class on the philosophy of the siddur, a five minute daily devar tefillah given by the tefillah educator during the service, or through having a substantially abridged tefillah once a week, and using the remaining time for overt tefillah education. The options and potential formats are endless. For these tefillah goals to be achieved, educational planning and investment is necessary like any other area of the curriculum.

The siddur as an educational resource can play a critical role. There is value in giving young children an adult siddur, as is commonly the practice in educational settings, providing them with access to standardized liturgical texts found throughout the Jewish world. This can and should be the beginning of their socialization into the Jewish community. But there is also a cost to this approach. Imagine the frustration and confusion if we were to give our first graders a 12th grade mathematics textbook, or a university science paper, or ask them to read a Shakespearean sonnet. Isn’t that what we are in effect doing when we give a young child an adult siddur (and I include in this category the popular “educational siddurim”, which in essence differ only in that some of the text appears in larger font, and there are line numbers)? Aren’t we saying to them: “Here is an adult siddur. It may be confusing and overwhelming to you now, but someday it will make sense. In the meantime, let’s see what you can take from it anyway.” We don’t do this with any other subject within the curriculum, so why do we do it with a siddur, which is arguably the foremost guidebook to forming a relationship with God? By giving our students these siddurim in the first grade, are we saying that a relationship with God will only come at a later developmental stage for our children?

An adult siddur may be adequate for a tefillah program focused solely on achieving tefillah literacy and skills acquisition, where the siddur itself and the tefilla text is the main focus of the tefilla. However, if we place the child at the center of our program of tefilla education, then we need more from the siddur. For example, the rubrics of an adult siddur are totally lost on a young child, written in developmentally inappropriate language. When the child is the focus, we will want to use a siddur that has age appropriate rubrics. For the youngest children, struggling with their reading, pictorial rubrics would be more appropriate, and for older children, rubrics written in developmentally appropriate language are vital. Other educational elements to help a child become familiar with the structure of tefillah and the choreography of tefillah, would also be of great value to the tefillah educator, such as a navigation tool (for example a pictorial representation of the structure of tefilla, with the current location clearly marked on each page) and an age appropriate guide to the laws governing tefillah.

When it comes to connection building and meaning making, which I have argued should be paramount to a long term educational tefilla education vision, a standard siddur falls far short of our educational needs. Most adult siddurim lack any additional educational components or resources to help the educator facilitate, or encourage the student themselves independently, to connect to with the tefillot, or to God, during tefillah. The siddur could be so much more. Although the siddur itself may not necessarily function as a tefillah curriculum, it can provide educational resources on the page itself, both for the student to read and engage with independently, and as a resource for the tefillah educator.

These additional educational resources could be reflective questions, encouraging the students to challenge themselves with the themes of the tefillot, or stories, quotes, and explanations, and even illustrations and photographs, which can function as a visual commentary on the text of the tefillot. All of these can all help the student to connect to the themes and meaning behind the texts of tefillah, and encourage student thinking to deepen and progress in new directions.

Beyond these additional elements of an educational siddur, the actual typesetting of the siddur also has educational implications. For example, having each berakhah of the Amidah on a separate page can help the student focus and connect to it. The layout of the text can also help the student identify and understand how the blessing is constructed.

The question of whether a siddur for young people should have a translation divides tefilla educators. Most standard translations of the siddur use sophisticated language that is not much easier for students than the Hebrew, and can be more of a distraction than an aid to understanding the liturgy. Some believe that even an age appropriate translation is a distraction to fully connecting to the themes of the tefilla, and should only be introduced at a later age. For younger children, translations could be thematic rather than literal, encouraging students to connect and relate, rather than get lost in the language.

Finally, empowering the students to create their own meaning and understanding of the tefilla text by giving them room on the page for creative midrash, to write their own interpretations and connections, empowers the students and gives them a sense of ownership.

Conclusion

The siddur can and should function as an educational resource to accomplish our goal for tefilla education. However, it is never the sole answer. As any educational resource, it is only as impactful as the educator implementing it. In the third part of this series we will turn our attention to the Tefilla Educator.

Dr. Daniel Rose was the Director of Educational Projects at Koren Publishers, where he edited and contributed to the Koren Magerman Educational Siddur Series.

This article is excerpted from a more comprehensive one which appears in Jewish Educational Leadership 16:1.

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