Sephardic Siddurim (Prayer Books)

by S. Alfassa Marks

I would like to explain that the nusakh SEFARD is not the true Sephardic nusakh (prayer ritual). The Sephardic nusakh, is the nusakh HaSepharadim also called [v'bnei Edot HaMizrach] "Communities of the East" which has roots and history that go back to Spain and Portugal, but has (in modern times) been modified with Iraqi influence. This is a subject which is a common point of confusion. Part of the problem is that the term "Sephardic" has been utilized to represents all non-Ashkenazi Jewry, and this is indeed an error.

Understanding the Sephardic Rite: (as told by HaRav Adin Steinsaltz shlita)

"THE ORIENTAL (SEPHARDIC) RITE is derived from that used by Spanish Jewry before their expulsion. As in many other facets of Jewish life, the cultural origin of the Jews of Spain was Babylonia, and Babylonian influence was sustained through constant contact with the Geonim, either directly or via North African Jewry. The "Golden Age" of Spanish Jewry (around the eleventh century c.e. yielded a wealth of religious poetry of the highest literary and intellectual quality. Even when the Spanish poets leaned on the traditional models of the earlier liturgical poets, they gave their writing new form in terms of both language and usage, and many of their works became an integral part of the Standard prayer services. Many of these poems were in fact Piyyutim originally written for the synagogue.

At the time, Spain was not a unified political entity, and the Jewish communities there also differed from each other in their customs and prayers, albeit these differences were expressed mainly in their choice Piyyutim for special occasions. After their expulsion from Spain, the Jews migrated primarily to countries of the Ottoman Empire, which was then at its height. Almost everywhere they went, the Spanish Jews succeeded, by dint of their superior Torah learning and spiritual qualities, in molding the local customs to their own style. In many of these places, the local prayer rite was quite similar to their own, having been likewise influenced by the Babylonian practice, and thus easily adaptable to that of Spanish Jewry.

The growing influence of the Kabbalah on the generations following the expulsion from Spain led to greater uniformity in the liturgy, as well as dissemination of the liturgy among communities not reached by the Spanish exiles themselves, such as Iraq and Persia. The Lurianic Kavvanot were based mainly upon the Spanish custom, and under the influence of Rabbi Isaac Luria and his disciples, certain changes were also made in the Sephardic rite. Rabbi Isaac Luria did not greatly value the Piyyutim composed in Spain, and preferred those of the Ashkenazim, which he considered to be closer to mystical thought. For these reasons, as well as for halakhic considerations (e.g., unnecessary interruption in the course of the prayer), most of these Piyyutim were omitted.

The poetry of Spain, as well as those Piyyutim composed elsewhere or in later generations, can be found mainly in those prayers that are not part of the regular services, such as the Selihot, the Kinot, Zemirot for Shabbat and festivals, and various petitionary prayers and Bakkashot. The influence of the Kabbalah was augmented wherever the rite of the Sephardim was used; consequently, numerous le-Sbem Nbud and Yebi Ratzon passages and selections from the Zohar are to be found in it. Allusions to mystical thought (such as the writing of God's name intertwined with other appellations of the Divinity) are found there even in Siddurim in general use, and not only those used by kabbalistic sages.

In later generations, the Oriental rite came under the strong influence of Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (known as the Ben Ish Hai). By virtue of his great Torah learning, his authority has been accepted by Jews throughout the Orient. The prayers and benedictions he composed, as well as services he introduced for special occasions, have become part of the regular order of prayer of the Sephardim.

In our times, the Oriental rite is used not only by the descendants of the Spanish exiles (both in the separate congregations they created in Oriental countries and in their congregations in Holland and in certain cities in Germany), but is also in regular use among nearly all the Jews of Islamic countries (except for Yemen), including the Jews of Iraq, Persia, and Central Asia (Bukhara, Georgia, etc.), as well as all those Jewish communities that were at one time under Ottoman rule.

This rite is, accordingly, the predominant one among the Jews of the Balkan countries: Greece, Bulgaria, and other places. Although there are certain differences among the various communities and congregations, on the whole the Oriental version has remained quite uniform, apart from small variations resulting from local custom, or, on occasion, the choice of special Piyyutim.

The overall order of prayers in the Oriental rite is duplicated in nusakh Sepharad, together with its basic formulation. However, the version of the Sephardim does contain a number of distinctive formulations and expressions. Some of these are the result of using the basic Babylonian version, while others are the result of the fact that the Oriental rite did not undergo changes forced upon it by censorship, as as the common practice in countries under Christian rule.

The most striking difference between the Oriental rite and other rites is in the Shemoneh Esreh, especially in Birkat ha-Shanim ("the Blessing of the Seasons"), for which the Oriental rite has two separate formulations: one for the summer months and another for the rainy season. This liturgy also has a different version of Tahanun, while the Minhah service commences with Psalm 84. These distinctions are also found in the Yemenite version. In the Kaddish, the paragraph begins: "Yehei Shelama Rabba" and includes a lengthy additional phrase."

There are numerous Sidurim and prayer rites in use today. Here are the main FIVE nusakhot

1. Nusakh ha-Sephardim - (Oriental or HaSepharadim v'bnei Edot HaMizrach) The Sephardic prayer rite based on concepts as described above.

A. Some subdivisions within the SEPHARDIC community are:

1. Turkish/Rhodes: the Sephardic Community of Seattle (which is based on the Jewish tradition of Rhodes and Ottoman Turkey [including Jews from what is today the modern country of Greece] ). They have their own nusakh: Siddur Zehut Yosef . This siddur and prayer rite correlates with their traditional use of Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) as the Turkish Jews originated in Spain. We were told: "Until the 1940s Congregation Ezra Bessaroth utilized the (Hebrew only) Yeshurun Siddur. As the Congregation was becoming more Americanized a need arose for a Sephardic Siddur with English translation and the De Sola Pool Siddurim [see #3.] were introduced. Interestingly, there were many significant and minor variations from the Rhodesli liturgical texts and at the behest of the Haham David J. Behar and the distinguished Hazzan Isaac Azose, the Congregation would continue to recite their traditional Tefilah, even if this was inconsistent with the contents of the De Sola Pool Siddur. This practice continued until the Siddur Zehut Yosef was completed (in early 2002).

Hazzan Azose’s family which is from Turkey stated: My purpose in developing this siddur was to document the nusakh, the practice of the Sephardic Jews who came to Seattle from Turkey and Rhodes during the first few years of the twentieth century, so that it would not be lost to future generations. I was born in 1930 and grew up listening to many hazzanim at the Sephardic Bikur Holim, whose pioneers originated from Turkey, and of course, to Reverend David J. Behar at the Ezra Bessaroth, whose pioneers originated from Rhodes. I paid close attention when they added certain words or phrases that were not in the siddur and when they left out particular words and phrases. Unfortunately, the siddur we had been using for over half a century did not follow our nusakh exactly and the succeeding generations had come to accept it as the de facto nusakh. For more information go here.

2. Many in the Syrian Sephardic community which comes from Aleppo [which also has Spanish roots] uses the OROT Sephardic siddur. This is a very commonly used Siddur in many other modern Sephardic communities as well. Note: we have been told that "The Orot book claims to follow the Syrian custom, which is not true. Most Sephardic sidourim today in reality follow the kabalisticly influenced Iraqi custom post 1900. Probably the only new sidour on the market today that follows the old [Ottoman] way is the 'Od Abinou Hai sidour published by Rabbi Levi Nahoum from the Old City of Jerusalem. However, another person wrote: "The Orot Siddur in fact claims to follow the "Sephardic" rite, only giving the Syrian variations in brackets. In fact the "Sephardic" rite it claims to follow is really an Edut HaMizrach rite." For more information call: 908-370-0081.

3. The Book of Prayers (De Sola Pool) has been used for 60 years by the community in the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in New York, This is the congregation founded in 1654, however, most of the community today is Ashkenazi. For more call 212-873-0300. It is based fundamentally on the Spanish Portuguese rite of London and Amsterdam.

2. Nusakh Ashkenaz - This rite was used in almost all of Lithuania, Russia, and all the other areas that were not under Hasidic influence.

3. Nusakh Hassidic - (Habad, Ari, Sefard) - This ritual based on the practices of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the famous mystic of Safed, was generally only used by Habad (Lubavitch) Hasidim. Sefard was one of the Hasidic innovations that took place in the first generations following the Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760). It combined elements of the Spanish (Sephardic) ritual with that of the Ashkenaz prayerbook. All the various Hasidic groups used this prayerbook in their synagogue services. Source: Rabbi Shalom Bronstein of Jerusalem. For more information see: Why Hasidim Daven nusakh Sefard (The common Art Scroll siddurim which say "Sefard" are not true Sephardic, but based on this nusakh. Art Scroll does not sell a Sephardic siddur.)

4. Nusakh Yemenite - As practiced by the Jews from Yemen. (Temani) rite ritual further breaks down into the Biladi and Shami rites.

5. Nusakh Italki (Italian) (also known as minhag Bnei Roma or minhag Lo'azim) - The nusakh of prayer in Italy is the "Italian nusakh," which is similar to nusakh Ashkenaz. To learn more go here.

Note: Not all Jews fit neatly into the broad categories "Ashkenazim" and "Sephardim." Others include Indian Jews, from Cochin, who have settled mainly in Kfar Yuval and Mesillat Zion, or the Bene Israel, mostly from Bombay, India, and now settled in large numbers in Beer Sheva, Dimona, Lod and Elat. They claim to have arrived in India before the Hasmonaean revolt. Also adding to the Israeli mosaic are the Kurdistani Jews from Iraq, the Bukharan Jews from central Asia, and among more recent arrivals, the Ethiopian Jews (or Beta Israel), about 23,000 of who now live in Israel.

Material for this page was assembled from various sources including the magnificent book by HaRav Adin Steinsaltz shlita, Ha-Siddur Veha-tefillah translated into English as "A Guide to Jewish Prayer" ISBN 0-8052-1147-0 March 2002. A highly recommend book for both the beginner, and the experienced learned Jew.