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Annotated machzorim

September 28, 2011

With the Jewish New Year of 5772 nearly upon us, it is a chance to review the remarkable machzorim (Jewish prayerbooks for specific holidays with specialized liturgy – here, I consider Rosh Hashanah machzorim).  There has been quite a flood of new volumes on the market recently, and several of them have extensive meditations or spiritual notes that raise them above the ordinary holiday prayerbooks of a previous generation.

I must say that I find adding these mediations or spiritual notes a very appealing practice – as long as the typography makes it clear that these are not part of the regular liturgy.  These sorts of notes are useful for self-study, solo prayer, or when one is bored during a prayer service – for many, they can make a prayer service more meaningful or help stimulate concentration and mindfulness (kavannah).

Machzorim with liturgical and theological annotations only

artscrollArtscroll Machzor

The publisher Artscroll has long had an extensive set of machzorim, including volumes with transliteration (for those with limited Hebrew), with interlinear translation (for those with moderate Hebrew), and for different practices (nusach Ashkenaz, Sephard).  Perhaps  its best-known volume is its “basic”  Hebrew/English volume.  The annotations in the Artscroll machzorim are probably familiar to those who have seen its other prayerbooks – many readers find them somewhat condescending.  They are in the form of commentary on the prayer – not spiritual meditations.  Also, the translation is in many places awkward English or could better match the Hebrew.  For me the merit of the Artscroll volume is the huge number of “extras” it has (such as the complete text of Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, and additional piyutim). 

(Note:  Amazon price:  $21.11)

Koren Machzor

korenFollowing on its successful introduction of its siddur (general prayerbook) last year, publisher Koren has released a Rosh Hashanah machzor, with translation by Jonathan Sacks, a prominent British rabbi.  (Rumors are that Koren will release a Yom Kippur machzor in 2012.)  The annotations are certainly sparser than those in the Artscroll, but perhaps written more elegantly.  Still, there are no special meditations or spiritual commentary.  Like the Artscroll, this volume has plenty of “extras.”  The typography and layout of this volume is especially beautiful – the most beautiful of all the machzorim I consider in this post.    (Note, this machzor departs from the regular format by having “Hebrew on the left, English on the right” so the text flows out of the center of the open book.)

(Note:  Amazon price:  $21.25)

Machzorim with spiritual annotations or meditations

soloveitchikSoloveitchik Machzor

The Soloveitchik machzor was published in 2007 and features extensive commentary drawn from the many teachings of Joseph Soloveitchik.  Soloveitchik was known as a major commentator on the High Holy Days, and his book On Repentance remains one of the major theological frameworks for understanding teshuvah (repentance/return).  The quality of the annotations is quite high, although the physical production of this book is not, and it uses a modified form of the often awkward Artscroll translation.  This machzor is my personal favorite of all those I consider in this blog post – I feel that it is a true “teaching” machzor, and that rather than the sometimes simplistic perspectives presented in other machzorim, this machzor has deeper commentary.

(Note:  Web price:  $28.79)

Machzor Lev Shalem

conservativeMachzor Lev Shalem, from the American Jewish Conservative denomination (Rabbinical Assembly) is second only to the Koren machzor in beauty.  I am not often a fan of two color printing, but this volume uses it elegantly, and features an incredibly beautiful Hebrew font.   This is a larger format book than the machzorim mentioned above, but it is still easy to handle.  The cover is formed with some sort of material that is very pleasant to touch – in fact, holding this book is a particularly pleasant experience.  The format for the book is the classic “English on the left, Hebrew on the right” but follows the traditional side annotation format common in Jewish texts (e.g., the Vilna Talmud).  The annotations on the right are liturgical and theological, while the annotations on the left are often meditations.  I must say that this is an extremely attractive and useful format, and the Rabbinical assembly claims sales of 120,000 – which I suspect is some sort of record for one-year sales of machzorim.  (Like most liberal machzorim, this one volume combines the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a single volume.)

(Note:  Web price:  $39.60)

Machzor Eit Ratzon

njMathProfessorPensMachzor Eit Ratzon is privately published by Joe Rosenstein, a math professor at Rutgers.  It is an independent effort but aimed at liberal congregations.  It has a unique five part structure – four columns from right to left present (a) liturgical, historical, and theological perspectives; (b) an English translation; (c) Hebrew text; (d) Romanized transliteration, while an area on the bottom presents spiritual meditations and notes.  Although this version is less elegantly typeset than other versions I consider in this post (and is physically the tallest and widest machzor), it is easy enough to use it for reading, studying, and likely praying.  This may be the most user-friendly machzor I have ever seen.  (Like most liberal machzorim, this one volume combines the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a single volume.)

(Note:  Web price: $32.00 + $6.00 s/h)

On Wings of Awe (Revised Edition)

ktav-on-wingsOn Wings of Awe is a revision of a classic 1985 American liberal machzor aimed at the Reform movement.   I have not seen the new edition, so I will simply quote from the publishers description: 

Transliterations of every Hebrew prayer in the book make it possible for non-Hebrew readers as well as Hebrew readers to enter fully into the service. This Machzor also includes poetic translations and interpretations of all sections of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which help worshippers find their own pathway into some of their more complicated and theologically troubling sections. There are also a number of personal prayers, through which worshippers from high school age to the elderly may articulate some of their own concerns, anxieties, and hopes through the language of the High Holydays. On Wings of Awe includes practices that have recently become standard in American synagogues: introducing each other at the start of the service; antiphonal readings; chanting in English; encouraging congregants to stand and read prayers from their seats; asking people to turn to each other and study a text during a service.

(Like most liberal machzorim, this one volume combines the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a single volume. I do not know what extent of spiritual annotations this machzor has.)

(Note:  Amazon price:  $24.95)

(I throw in an honorable mention for Lawrence Hoffman’s Prayer of Awe series – which is not a machzor but a study of the High Holy Days liturgy.  He has now has released two volumes.  Hoffman’s Prayer of Awe series is is a successor to his My People’s Prayer Book series.  I hope to address both of these series in a later post sometime.)

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