A siddur is the Jewish prayer book and contains prayers according to the order of the Jewish calendar. It is the instrument of synagogue worship and includes prayers for weekdays, Sabbath, New Moon and all the festival and fast days, together with the relevant halakhot (laws) preceding each section. At the end it contains benedictions (blessings) and special prayers for special occasions such as marriage, circumcision, redemption of the firstborn, and the burial service. Scattered amongst its pages are also passages from the Talmud and the Bible, and selections written by rabbis and poets through the Middle Ages.
The siddur is the most read, handled and loved Hebrew text next to the Bible. Its status makes it one of the most sacred books of Judaism, second only to the Bible. It is written mostly in Hebrew, but some prayers are in Aramaic, the language used by the Jews in their everyday life in ancient Babylonia and in Israel after the return from the Babylonian exile. A siddur may contain the language of the country where it is read, so in Australia it contains English translations; in France, French, and so on.
In ancient times books containing the texts of the daily prayers did not exist. Prayer was very different then: the reader would pray aloud and the congregants would chant the words along with him. The prayers were only written down after the completion of the Talmud, when many of the components of the Oral Tradition were first put into written form. It was only later again, after the invention of the printing press, that the price of books was sufficiently reduced that ordinary people could afford to buy them and it became common practice ofr ordinary people to own a siddur. Before then, people relied on remembering their prayers by heart or on being guided in saying them by the reader in synagogue.
The word ‘siddur’ (or seder) means ‘order’ or ‘arrangement’. The prayers in the siddur were arranged to closely follow the order of sacrifices in the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple (in 70 C.E.), the rabbis came to see prayer as a substitute for the sacrifices previously offered at the Temple.
All daily prayer books include the three daily services, and many contain numerous additions such as the Psalms and the Song of Songs. There may also be various confessions said by those who brought sacrifices to the Temple, and the Psalms chanted by the Levites.
The siddur is more than just a prayer book. It is a vast repository of the Jewish faith when properly studied and understood. It is a record of the great victories and tragic defeats Israel has experienced during her long history. It is a testimony to the aspirations and hopes of the Jewish people for all time. It provides insights into daily Jewish living and all lifecycle events in the calendar. The siddur is for study as well as prayer; moral instruction and ethical guidance as well as personal pleas. Duties and rights are both emphasised. It provides a record of Israel’s relationship with God.
The siddur as we know it today is based on the one compiled by Amram ben Sheshna in Sura, Babylonia about 1200 years ago. It is the end product of a slow historic process. The siddur has always remained open to new prayers to meet the needs arising from new situations. This gives it the added dimension of timelessness, and suits it admirably to the spiritual needs of the Jewish people.