Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Write in your siddur

I always write in my sefarim, all of them. I recently suggested to a class that they write in their Tanach's, and was rewarded with expressions of shock – but I believe that most of us need to write in order to remember, and what better place than in the sefer from which we learn?

But that's not the subject of this post. Here, I'm expanding on a suggestion I made in the derashah here, that we should write in our siddurim, to help ourselves focus.

It's a way to corral ourselves during our distracted moments, and draw ourselves back.
It's a way to personalize our davening, by highlighting elements that matter to us.
It's a way to remember the items that catch our eye or ear and inspire us once, for the next time we daven.

So here's what I do:

I underline key words and phrases that I want to have special meaning, to ensure that I think when I get there.
Example: The word ואהבת ("And you shall love HaShem your Gd") in Shma. בכל יום אברכך ("I will praise You daily") in Ashrei. והשב את העבודה לדביר ביתך ("Return the service to Your home") in the amidah. The verbs in Psalm 100 (Mizmor l'Todah).

I make notations to call attention to interesting structural/poetic elements.
Examples: The Heaven/Earth contrast in Psalm 148 (aka "the third Hallelukah"), the thematic sets of lines in Avinu Malkeinu, and the Personal/Communal/Global sets in Ashrei.

I add reminders.
Examples: "מצות עשה (This fulfills a commandment)" before Shma, or circling רפאנו (the first word of the blessing for healing in the amidah).

I write in food for thought.
Examples: In תקע בשופר (the blessing for redemption in the Amidah) I have a question mark which reminds me to think about the difference between the roles of a שופר and a נס. In the first pre-Shma blessing in Shacharit, I note Rav Kook's thought from Orot on the link between Gd as "master of wars" and "seeder of justice".

I'm sure there's a lot more people could do with this. What would you add? Or are you horrified by the whole concept?


  1. How do you keep them from just becoming something you see everyday and not ignore... like the words in the siddur?

  2. I always have difficulty writing in my sefarim. I don't like writing in my secular books either. But I would love to hear your tips on writing notes and underlining key lines in sefarim while learning, as my few attempts and doing so have not worked out well.

    In terms of notes on tefilla, I see Shemoneh Esrei as a wonderfully flexible tefilla that can mean different things all the time. I usually follow one train of thought throughout Shemoneh Esrei for a few weeks before a different framework for the brachos occurs to me. Don't your notes limit your imagination and freedom of thought (with kavana) during tefilla?

  3. As a trainee librarian, I feel a little uncomfortable with the idea of writing in books, although in the past it was of course done regularly by many famous authors and intellectuals.

    Like Ed I wonder how you continue to notice the notes. When I used to use an Artscroll siddur, I did not always notice the rubric that told me to concentrate on fulfilling the positive mitzvah of saying the shema.

  4. I underline key notes in my R'YBS machzorim and circle the asterik which relates to it.
    joel rich

  5. Writing in books is very useful - as an academic, I can attest to the importance of writing notes or comments in the margins of books I own. This has the advantage of being able to remember distilled ideas when looking at the book a second time. I think writing in books is the ultimate expression of respect for author, showing that you are taking his words seriously.
    But I think your post on the siddur is most useful to me for a different reason. For a while, I found praying by hear with my eyes closed was a better way of inducing kavvanah, especially if you want to get rid of extraneous thoughts and truly meditate (which is what praying is). More recently, though, I've found my concentration failing with my eyes closed as well, especially if I'm very busy. Your method has the advantage of actually reading rather than skimming the siddur, since you'll always be thinking about new ideas you've just jotted down. This is a reason that my favorite siddurim are certain Israeli ones that put various ideas immediately above or in parentheses between the text of the davening, since your attention is automatically drawn to these new elements of the davening that you might not have thought of if you are using a regular siddur without commentary.

  6. I would have been one of the horrified ones had I been there.

    I'm used to making notes in my Gemara as I used to do in school. Maybe I would also do it in a siddur. But writing in a chumash or tanach - that's something that would really bug me. Maybe it was something I was taught when I was very young, but (with respect to you and your practice) it feels disrespectful to the sefer.

    Maybe it's something I internalized from how we treat different sefarim ie. don't put a siddur or gemara on top of a chumash etc. It has more sanctity, so kal vechomair (?) don't write in it. Or maybe scribbling on a page that has shem hashem on it bugs me? Don't know why.

  7. Ed, Daniel-
    By erasing old ones and writing in new ones from time to time, or starting in a new siddur. I've only been doing it for about a year; we'll see what happens over time.

    1. Sefarim - I tend to underline names, and to asterisk lines I find particularly enlightening. I also tend to footnote a lot.

    2. I haven't noticed this limiting happening to me yet, but I can see that it could happen over time. See my response to Ed above.

    Glad for the corroboration!

    Good point. Ever since I started doing this, I've become much more careful to daven from a siddur, and the positive effects have been substantive.

    Michael M-
    Could be it's because I have an inflated view of the value of my notes...

  8. As a longtime bibliophile, I also cringe at the thought of writing in a book. But what I DO regularly engage in is "tagging" my books (including siddurim and chumashim) with color-coded flags. Granted, sometimes a particularly pithy insight of mine may be lost, but more often it does a fine job of reminding me exactly what it was I thought was so darn interesting about a passage.

  9. Friar Yid-
    Certainly a good compromise, I hear.

  10. I think the intent of the writing ought to determine whether or not it's appropriate. Random doodling, certainly not, but if it helps your kavannah, if it helps you be engaged with your tefillah, I'm all for it.

    I find, with the musical scores from which I play in the course of my job, that whether I made a certain notation in the part myself has a great deal to do with whether I notice it in the course of playing that work in rehearsal or performance. Someone else's symbol for "take the mute off here" can slide right by me, whereas I'll almost always see and act on one that I marked myself, even though it's the exact same sign marked in the same place. So in the same vein, the printed rubric from ArtScroll that reminds you to focus on fulfilling the mitzvah of saying the Shema could be less effective than one that you write in yourself.

  11. bratschegirl-
    Very much agreed on both points; thanks for commenting.