To Pray as a Jew

A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service


By Hayim H. Donin

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A distinguished guide to Jewish prayer

Why do Jews pray? What is the role of prayer in their lives as moral and ethical beings? From the simplest details of how to comport oneself on entering a synagogue to the most profound and moving comments on the prayers themselves, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin guides readers of To Pray as a Jew through the entire prescribed course of Jewish liturgy, passage by passage, ritual by ritual, in this handsome and indispensable guide to Jewish prayer.

Unexcelled for beginners as well as the religiously observant, To Pray as a Jew is intended to show the way, to enlighten, and hopefully to inspire.


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There is hardly a Jew who does not at some time in his life hold a Jewish prayer book, a siddur (pl. siddurim*) in his hands. In most Jewish schools, the siddur is the standard text used for the practice of reading once the child has learned the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Thus, even a child exposed only to the most meager religious training is likely to have had contact with the siddur. So would a person who suffers the loss of a loved one and comes into a synagogue, if only to say the Kaddish. If a Jewish home has any Hebrew religious texts at all, the siddur, if only one for the High Holy Days,* is sure to be among them. Indeed, it may be the only one.

The siddur is the Jewish religious text in widest circulation, surpassing even the Hebrew Bible. It is published in many countries by dozens of publishers in countless editions. The siddur has been translated into many languages. In the English language alone, at least half a dozen different translations are in use. These translations are usually printed opposite or below the Hebrew text. Many commentaries on the siddur have been written by great scholars, and some editions of the siddur appear with a commentary on the page.

The siddur deserves all this attention because it is more than just a book of prayers. I take the liberty of quoting a short passage from my book To Be a Jew.*

[The siddur is] a vast repository of all the principles of Jewish faith, a record of both the great victories and tragic defeats Israel has known in its long history. It is a testimony of the aspirations and hopes of the Jewish people throughout time. It is witness to the ethical and moral heights to which Jewry aspired and attained. It is a reminder of laughter and gaiety, of celebration and rejoicing, as well as of sorrow and grief, of mourning and bemoaning that takes place in the life of the individual as in the life of an entire people. [The siddur] provides insights into daily Jewish living as well as into all the special occasions and festivals in the Jewish calendar. It contains Biblical passages that date as far back as 3300 years; prayers composed by the Sages as long as 2500 years ago. While most of the prayers are hallowed by their Biblical and Talmudic origins, there will also be found some that have been written since.

The Siddur is study as well as prayer. It is moral instruction and ethical guidance as well as pleas for personal needs. It emphasizes man’s duties as well as his rights. It is the record par excellence of Israel’s relationship with God.

I have become convinced that throughout most of Jewish history, it has been the siddur, or rather the prayers themselves, that have been the most popular vehicle for conveying to the masses the basic principles of the Jewish faith. The doctrinal lessons that the sages wished to emphasize in their struggle against sectarian heresies found their way into the prayers. The prayers thus became a most effective “textbook” for teaching, instilling, and perpetuating Jewish values and faith.

Franz Rosenzweig once wrote, “The sum and substance of the whole of historical Judaism, its handbook and its memorial tablet, will ever be the Prayer Book: the Daily and the Festival, the Siddur and the Mahzor. He to whom these volumes are not a sealed book has more than grasped ‘the essence of Judaism.’ He is informed with it as with life itself; he has within him ‘a Jewish world’.”*

It is therefore ironic that in our times the siddur, though in widespread use, is perhaps the least understood, the least studied, and the least appreciated of all Jewish religious texts. Relatively few are able to see its beauty or to be inspired by its contents.

People unfamiliar with the siddur see it as a forest of words in which they feel lost, encountering page after page of endless, seemingly repetitive passages. If this is not enough to frighten someone who lacks the compass of a Jewish education, certainly it can bore and make one feel deeply uncomfortable in the synagogue. There are surely countless Jews who stay away from the synagogue only because they feel so utterly lost when they get there, neither knowing what to do with the book in their hands nor being able to follow the ritual of the service. Many who would like to pray simply don’t know how. Unfamiliarity in this case may even encourage a display of indifference or the flaunting of disbelief.

On the other hand, there are people who know exactly what prayers to say and where in the siddur to find them. These are people who can easily read the Hebrew text and who feel quite at home in any synagogue. It is likely that they have prayed regularly all or most of their lives. Yet a great many in this group also have a problem, though they may hesitate to admit it or may be entirely unaware of it: either they do not understand the Hebrew; or if they do, the words say nothing to them. While they speed through the forest of words, they see only the trunks of the trees and catch no glimpse of the light, beauty, and splendor of the whole. For such people, familiarity has dulled the awe and excitement that the siddur should generate. It is taken too much for granted, regarded as too elementary, and unworthy of serious study. The siddur has become for them exactly what the sages cautioned us against: a source of routine prayer—words that flow from the lips but not from the heart.

I hope that this book will answer the needs of both these groups. It should help the relatively well informed to gain a much better understanding of the inner structure of the siddur and a greater appreciation of the spiritual richness embedded in the words that they have for so long been accustomed to say. At the same time, I have tried to keep in mind the people for whom the prayer service is still confusing. Many of the sections in Chapter 2 have been included mainly for their benefit, as have numerous details throughout the book.

What I have done is to present a mixture of halakha and history, midrash and philosophy, in an attempt to explain the contents of the siddur and the structure of the service in such a way as to help make the siddur come alive, to make it more exciting and more meaningful. It is not my purpose to convince anyone to pray or of the need to pray. I leave that task to others, perhaps even to the reader himself. But if one is moved to pray, or feels committed to prayer as a religious duty, or simply wishes better to understand the substance of Jewish prayer, then this book is intended to show the way, to enlighten, and hopefully to inspire.

I touch but do not dwell on the differences between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazic rites; I touch even less on the differences that are sometimes found in different siddurim within each of the traditional rites. For the differences are relatively minor, while the general structure of the service is the same. If one is familiar with one siddur and one rite, one will be comfortable with another.

The English translations of the Hebrew prayers used in this book are my own. I found it difficult to choose from among the many existing translations. While some are better than others, I was not completely satisfied with any of them. I do not know whether my translation will prove to be more satisfactory than the others. When translating, we tread a fine line. The Talmud cautions that “he who translates a verse with strict literalness is a falsifier, and he who makes additions to it is a blasphemer” (Tosefta Megillah [Vilna Shas] 3:21). Therefore I have sought a translation that tries to balance contemporary usage, traditional interpretation, and literal meaning. I also wish to note that all italics in the quotations from Biblical and other sources, unless otherwise indicated, are my own.

I have decided to retain the use of “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Thy” in all passages that address themselves directly to God. The more contemporary “You” and “Your,” which I had at first considered using, made me uncomfortable in some instances, although I find it difficult to explain why this should be so. The Hebrew atah (and the Yiddish du) reflects the familiar and the intimate approach to God with which I am comfortable. Still, English seems to demand, at least in some places, the more reverent “Thou” and “Thy.”

The English transliteration does not strictly follow the accepted convention to which Jewish scholarly writings subscribe. My purpose is to have the Latin characters read as easily as possible and for the transliterated words to sound as close as possible to the Hebrew. The transliteration follows the Sephardic pronunciation, the dialect spoken in Israel. Those who are able to read the Hebrew can of course use the pronunciation or dialect with which they are most comfortable.

One final word of explanation. Almost everyone who saw the manuscript raised the question: “Why do you start with the Shemoneh Esrei?” Most books on the subject follow the order of the siddur. Those that do not at least give precedence to the Shema, which is the older of the two, and whose degree of sanctity is higher as its source is the Torah. The primary reason for my approach is that I find it easier to convey an understanding of the entire structure of the prayer service by starting with the Shemoneh Esrei, which is the core of every service, and then to build around it.

So much more could have been written about prayer in general and about prayers in particular. But every book reaches an optimal size for its purposes. The problem I had to weigh and consider was what to omit rather than what else to include. I hope that I have achieved a happy balance.

I wish to express my gratitude to Moreshet Publishing Ltd., Jerusalem, for permission to use portions of the Rinat Yisrael Siddur, edited by Shlomo Tal. Apart from its beautiful and elegantly distinctive typeface, the Hebrew text in this siddur contains several features found in no other prayer book. One features assists the reader to accent the words correctly. The symbol over the last letter of a word indicates that the accent is on the last syllable. The symbol ‹ over a word indicates the accent either on the first or second syllable.

Another feature assists the reader who wishes to read in the Sephardic dialect. Not every vowel (pronounced aw in Ashkenazic) is pronounced ah in Sephardic. The vowel signs in this siddur distinguish between the vowel (kamatz gadol), which is pronounced ah in the Sephardic dialect, and the less common kamatz katan, which is shown as and which has an aw sound even in the Sephardic pronunciation.

It should be noted that God’s name appears in this siddur as —as it does in the Torah and in all printed Hebrew Bibles, as well as in older siddurim. In all other prayer books, God’s name is abbreviated to . Both are read in exactly the same way: Adonai (in Sephardic), Adonoi (in Ashkenazic).

I am deeply indebted to those who critically read the entire manuscript. They include Rabbi Dr. Martin L. Gordon, Rabbi Leonard Oschry, Rabbi Uziel Weingarten, Dr. Naomi G. Cohen, Professor Marvin Fox, and Dr. Sara Reguer. Their insights, criticism, and suggestions contributed immeasurably to the quality of this book. And I am most grateful to Rabbi Avraham Kroll and Rabbi Moshe Hershler for their guidance on the many fine halakhic points that needed to be clarified and resolved for this book.

My thanks are also extended to several friends who read the manuscript in its various stages and whose comments were very helpful. They are Morris L. Green, Dr. Martin Norton, Yale Roeh, Dr. Mark Segal and Joyce Segal, Miriam Soller, and my wife Tzivia. Sound advice also came from George Greenfield of Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., and I wish to express my appreciation to him. I also wish to pay tribute to my typist, Haya Raphael, whose devotion and superb skill made my work so much easier. To Sidney Eisenshtat, for his precious counsel, special thank you.

I am most grateful to Erwin A. Glikes, my friend of many years and formerly my editor and publisher, whose keen insights once again found expression in the pages of this book; to Midge Decter who enthusiastically completed the editorial work on the manuscript and carefully guided it through all its subsequent stages; and to Arthur Krystal whose thoughtful copy editing contributed much to the refinement of this book.

Finally, I thank Almighty God for having kept me alive, sustained me, and enabled me to reach this season.

Hayim Halevy Donin

* The full Hebrew title for the Jewish prayer book is Siddur Tefilah or Seder Tefilah, which means the Order of Prayer. But one hardly ever hears it called by its full name. Instead, it is simply called siddur (“order”) and that is how I shall refer to it throughout this book. (Most Jews are familiar with the other form of the same word, seder, which, when used alone, refers to the ritual order that is followed on the first two nights of Passover.)

* A siddur intended specifically for use on one of the holidays is called a mahzor, which means a cycle, because some of the prayers in it are said only periodically or cyclically.

* New York: Basic Books, 2019, pp. 235–236.

* Nahum M. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig: His Life and Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1953), p. 251.

Chronology of Ages in Jewish History

To provide the reader with some historical perspective to different periods mentioned in the book, I offer the following outline:

Period of the Patriarchs: 2000–1700 B.C.E.

The Exodus from Egypt: circa 1280 B.C.E.

The Period of King David: 1005–965 B.C.E.

Period of the First Temple: 928–586 B.C.E.

Period of the Second Temple: 515 B.C.E.–70 C.E.

Period of the Mishnah (Tannaitic Period): From the beginning of the first century C.E. until about 220 C.E. I refer to this period as the early Talmudic period.

Period of the Gemara (Amoraic Period): From the beginning of the third century C.E. until 500 C.E. I refer to this period as the later Talmudic period.

Post-Talmudic Period [Savoraim]: 500–640 C.E.

Period of the Geonim [the heads of the Talmudic academies]: From 640 C.E.–1038 C.E.

Period of the Early [Rabbinic] Authorities (Rishonim): From the beginning of the eleventh century C.E. till the end of the fifteenth century.

Period of Latter-day [Rabbinic] Authorities (Aaronim): From the beginning of the sixteenth century C.E. until the present day.

Key to Abbreviations and Acronyms Used in Citations


















































(Divrei Hayamim)


The name of a Talmudic tractate is always spelled out. If followed by a number such as 31a or 31b, reference is to the page in the Babylonian Talmud. If followed by a number such as 7:4, reference is to the Mishnah, the numerals indicating chapter and section. If the name of a tractate is preceded by Yer. (Yerushalmi), reference is to the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud; the numerals that follow refer to chapter and section.



Ora ayim, one of the four sections of the Shulan Arukh, the code of Jewish law compiled by Rabbi Joseph Karo (1488–1575).


Yoreh Deah, one of the four sections of the Shulan Arukh.


Magen Avraham, a halakhic commentary on Ora ayim by Rabbi Avraham ben Hayim Halevy Gumbiner (1637–1683).


Mishnah Berurah, a halakhic commentary on Ora ayim by Rabbi Israel Meir HaKohen, known as the Chafetz Chayim (1838–1933). A parallel commentary, also cited, is called Biur Halakha.


Arukh HaShulan, an eight-volume compendium of Jewish law by Rabbi Yehiel Michael Epstein (1829–1908). It follows the order of the Shulan Arukh.


Rabbi Shelomo Yitzhaki (1040–1105), a commentary upon the Bible and Talmud.


Tosafot. Commentary on the Talmud by twelfth and thirteenth century C.E. talmudists.


Maimonides (1135–1204). Citations refer to the Mishneh Torah, his code of Jewish law. The Hebrew acronym of his name is Rambam.


Rabbi Moses Isserles (circa 1525–1572). His halakhic notes on the Shulan Arukh are incorporated into the latter work.

Contemporary Works Mentioned in Citations

Igrot Moshe, Ora ayim. Two volumes of responsa by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. Published in New York, 1959–1963.

Mekor ayim HaShalem. A five-volume code of Jewish law by the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv–Jaffe, Rabbi Hayim David Halevy. He is the author of three volumes of responsa, Asei Lekha Rav, which is also cited.

Netiv Binah. A five-volume work on prayer by Rabbi Issachar Jacobson. Published in Tel Aviv, 1968–1978.

Olat Re’iyah. A two-volume commentary on the prayer book by Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook (1865–1935). Published in Jerusalem, 1962.

Yesodei Yeshurun. A six-volume halakhic compendium by Rabbi Gedalia Felder. Published in Toronto, 1954–1970.

Key to Pronunciation of Transliterated Words

ei as in say

ai as in my

e as in red

i as in key

u as in moon

a as in llama

o as in law (for Sephardic pronunciation):

as in cold (for Ashkenazic pronunciation)

kh is used instead of ch for the guttural sound of the letter or , as in barukh

is used instead of ch for the softer guttural sound of the letter , as in l’ayim.*

* Accepted spellings for certain common words, such as “Amen” or “Hallel,” have been retained.


It is true that at times I pray only because it is my duty to obey the Jewish law that requires me to pray. But there are also times that I pray because I sincerely want to pray. These are the times when I want to reach out and talk to my Father in Heaven, to my Maker, the Holy One, blessed be He. These are the times when I want to cry out to the Supreme Being, to communicate with Him in a way that I can communicate with no one else. I cannot see Him, but He is real. He is there!

Such moments come to me only occasionally, but they come. Sometimes it is when I am in distress or when I feel lonely and isolated from all the world. Sometimes it is when I feel anxious about the safety or health of loved ones, or when my people are being threatened. At such moments my cry is likely to be accompanied by a shed tear, a pained heart, a feeling of despair. Sometimes it is when a great sense of relief comes over me, or when truly joyous news exhilarates me and makes me ecstatic. Then my cry is apt to be accompanied by a sense of exuberance and by a feeling of gratefulness. Whether God will accept my prayers and affirmatively respond to them, I do not know. That He hears my prayers, I firmly believe!

If I did not regularly pray out of a sense of obligation to pray, I do not think that I could really pray at those times when I truly want to do so.

I remember when as a young boy I watched my father, of blessed memory, recite his prayers. Sometimes, particularly on the High Holy Days, tears flowed from his eyes. I remember feeling embarrassed. I did not understand what made him cry. I wanted him to stop. I looked away. I still do not know what his thoughts were at those times, but now I understand. I was watching a most intimate communication between him and his Maker. Now I, too, sometimes communicate with my Maker.

We live in an age when it is not fashionable to pray. Even among those who join synagogues, only a small percentage pray daily or even weekly. Those who do not worship regularly put on an air that they are somehow beyond that stage, that they do not need to pray. Their reason for affiliating with a synagogue is to identify with the Jewish people and the Jewish community, and perhaps even with the Jewish faith. But not for the purpose of prayer.

Some consider the spiritual arrogance of contemporary man to be a stumbling block to prayer. Since prayer requires the capacity to be in awe and to feel thankful, the immodest and arrogant personality simply cannot pray because he has no sense of awe or gratitude. He puts too much faith in his own ability to do wonders and ascribes all achievements to his own powers. He lacks the necessary measure of humility.

While this may be true for some individuals, it is perhaps skepticism and doubt that make it difficult for other people to engage God in conversation. It is not that they are atheists or even agnostics; it is simply that they waver between faith and doubt. Even of Noah, who is described in the Bible as a “righteous man” who “walked with God,” it is said that “he believed and didn’t believe,” for he lacked the faith to move immediately into the ark that he was commanded to build, and did not move in until the very last moment (Rashi, Gen. 7:7). Our generation, too, often appears to be precariously balanced between believing and not believing, sometimes leaning in one direction, sometimes in the other.

Or perhaps the reason for the unfashionability of prayer is simply that most people don’t know how to pray. They were never properly taught. Yet prayer is more commonplace than most people realize if we do not think of it as taking place only within a structured religious service and only through the medium of prescribed and sanctioned words. “Dear God, make her well” is as simple and classic a prayer as there can be. Moses said this prayer for his sister Miriam when she was stricken with leprosy (Num. 12:13). In one form or another this prayer is recited by countless mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, children, friends, and lovers. Or consider the sigh of relief, “Thank God!” that comes after going through a period of intense anxiety in the wake of a serious accident or a dangerous illness or a fateful mission, or when loved ones seem suspended between life and death or between success and ruin. This, too, is a prayer and is just as likely to be said by people who think that they never pray as by those who pray with deliberate and conscious regularity. Or consider the feeling of awe and admiration that wells up in one’s heart when coming upon great natural scenes: vast oceans, breathtaking mountains, stunning deserts. King David summed it up saying, “O Lord, how great are Thy works!” Is this not a prayer, even though it may come out simply as “Magnificent!”


  • "A lucid and sensitive guide for those who would like to pray Jewishly but don't know how....A boon to both Jewish teachers and laymen." —Hadassah Magazine

On Sale
Aug 13, 2019
Page Count
496 pages
Basic Books

Hayim H. Donin

About the Author

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin (1928-1982) established himself as an incomparable teacher and interpreter of Jewish laws and practice through his classic books To Be a Jew, To Pray as a Jew, and To Raise a Jewish Child, all published by Basic Books. For twenty years he was Rabbi of Congregation B’nai David in Southfield, Michigan, where he was also Adjunct Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Detroit. Rabbi Donin held a Ph.D. in Education and was also the founder and president of the Akiva Hebrew Day School in Detroit.

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