Appearances can be deceiving. Like a living body whose function depends on the harmonious functioning of myriad cells, bones, and sinews, so the Siddur works its miracles through a blend of prayers that span over thousands of years, some dating back to the first Bais Hamikdosh, and others only a few centuries old.
An Early Nucleus
When did the Siddur begin? Excavating down to the Siddur’s earliest levels, we discover that although its main components were composed during the Second Temple, according to Rav Sherirah Gaon (Teshuvas Hage’onim page 132) the process began centuries earlier in the days of the First Temple. He begins with a question:
“You asked regarding the statement of Rav Chiya bar Aba in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that the men of the Knesses Hagedolah enacted blessings and prayers, Kedushos and Havdolos for Yisroel (Berachos 33a) – what did they do before this time in the days of the First Temple?” To this, Rav Sherirah Gaon answers that the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah built the Shemoneh Esrei from a nucleus that had existed long before their time. He describes the nucleus in detail. “We have heard,” he writes, “that the prayer they had in the fi rst temple was only the… first three [blessings], together with avodah [Retzei] and Birkas Kohanim at the end. This was after they already said the blessing over the luminaries [Yotzer Hame’oros] and read the Ten Commandments, Shema, Vehoyoh im shamo’a, and mentioned Yetzi’as Mitzrayim in Parshas Vayomer and recited one blessing afterwards, over the redemption of Yisroel, in Emes Veyatziv. The other blessings of the prayers were enacted by the prophets and the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah during the days of the Second Temple.”
However, even the prayers of the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah were only a beginning and many more followed. As the Tikun Tefillah (Otzar Hatefillos) explains, their early enactments only included the daily tefillos; whereas, the prayers of Shabbos, Rosh Chodesh, and festivals – as well as the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the order of vidui – were established in the days of the sages of the Mishnah and Talmud, a long time after the Anshei Knesses Hagedolah. According to him, most of these were established in the yeshiva of Rav in Sura. Masseches Sofrim, generally considered as dating from the time of the early Geonim (seventh century), mentions a number of additional tefi llos that are now part of our regular routine, although they may have entered the Siddur much earlier. These include the Brochoh recited after Krias HaTorah, the blessings said after the Haftorah reading, the pesukim said when taking out a Sefer Torah (Shema Yisroel, Gadlu), the recitation of Vezos HaTorah during hagba, the pesukim of Kiddush Levanah, and the nusach of Haneros Hallalu and Al Hanissim.
By the time we reach the oldest Siddur in existence, composed by Rav Amram Gaon, (nifter 875) at the request of the Jews of Barcelona, the nusach of our Siddur is almost complete.
Let us start from the beginning of davening and see how the tefillos of various times blend into a unifi ed whole. Regarding the very first tefillah that we say upon entering shul, the verses beginning with Ma tovu, the Tikun Tefillah admits that he has no idea when the minhag of reciting them began. Next comes the beautiful piyut, Adon Olam, which, according to the Mateh Moshe (a talmid of the Maharshal, writing in the name of Rav Yehuda Hachassid) was composed by Rav Sherirah Gaon and his son, Rav Hai Gaon. Many, however, place it much later and say that it was composed by the famous Spanish paytan, Ibn Gabirol. As to why we say Adon Olam at the very beginning of Shacharis, the Gra explains that this is because Shacharis was enacted by Avrohom who, the Gemara (Berachos 7b) tells us, was the first person to address Hashem by the term Adon.
After the morning blessings we come across a mysterious prayer mentioned by the Eliyahu Raba, “A person should always be G-d fearing in secret and in public,” followed by the fi rst verse of Kri’as Shema. Based on earlier sources, the Tikun Tefillah reconstructs the tragic history of this prayer:
When King Izdagerd the Second became monarch of Persia in the middle of the fifth century C.E., he sought to uproot two cardinal principles of belief – Hashem’s unity and His creation of the world. Ironically, the wicked King Izdagerd was the grandson of King Izdagerd the First who honored the Torah (see Zevachim 19a) and provided the Jewish people with a golden age during which Rav Ashi sealed the Talmud. Now the grandson wanted to uproot belief in Hashem by forbidding Jews from observing Shabbos or reading the Shema.
To ensure the strict observance of his decree, he appointed guards in every shul until the end of the third hour when the time of Kri’as Shema ends. In reaction to the situation, the sages of that generation enacted two decrees, first, that every person should read the verse of Shema Yisroel immediately after rising from bed before going to shul where the guards were waiting, since reading this one verse fulfills the mitzvah of Kri’as Shema, bedi’eved (Berachos 13b). Secondly, in order to announce Hashem’s unity in public, the sages inserted a telescoped Kri’as Shema in the Kedusha of Shabbos and Yom Tov when people gather in shul, consisting of the two verses, Shema Yisroel and Ani Hashem Elokeichem. By the time this was recited during Mussaf, the guards had already left.
King Izdagerd’s decree lasted for about five years until it ended with his unexpected death.
The Shibolei Haleket writes that the introductory prayer, “A person should always have fear of heaven privately and publicly,” was also introduced at this time. “Since the people could not be yere’im in public,” he writes, “they were warned and urged to accept the yoke of heaven upon themselves in secret.” Sandwiched between the morning blessings and Pesukei Dezimra we find Mizmor Shir Chanukas Habayis leDovid, which is perhaps the most recent prayer in the Siddur, appearing for the first time in the Siddur Chesed Le’Avrohom of Rav Avraham Azulai that was printed in 1781. Seven years later, we find the Siddur Shaar Hashomayim (Shklov 1788) printing this mizmor in small letters and with no punctuation, perhaps to indicate that even then it was not yet part of the established tefillos.
The Tikun Tefillah mentions two reasons why this psalm is mentioned here, to remind us that shuls are called small batei mikdosh (Megillah 29a), and also because our prayers are in lieu of the temple’s sacrifi ces. In addition, this mizmor was sung at the beginning of the morning services in the Bais Hamikdosh. While on the subject of late additions to the Siddur, it is worth mentioning additions introduced by mekubalim during the seventeenth century, which include saying Leshem yichuds and yehi ratzons before performing mitzvos, and the introduction of Kabolas Shabbos together with the Lecha Dodi of Rav Shlomo Alkabetz.
Thus, we find the Yosef Ometz (written by the famous Rav Yosef Yuzfa Hahn Neurlagen, shamash of Worms who died in 1637) writing of the latter as a new minhag: “The seder Kabolas Shabbos customary here since recently is a beautiful and good custom.” Indeed, one reason the shliach tzibbur says Kabolas Shabbos on the bimah and not at the amud is to indicate that it is a new custom and not part of Maariv, and for the same reason, the shliach tzibbur of Hamburg would say it without a tallis and only put on his tallis for Maariv proper.
Finishing Hallel Every Day
After Mizmor Shir, we recite pesukei dezimra whose main components are Ashrei and the five Hallelukah psalms that follow it, culminating in the last mizmor of Tehillim. Of these, Rabbi Yosi ben Rabbi Chalafta says (Shabbos 118b), “May my portion be with those who fi nish Hallel every day,” which the Gemara explains as referring to Pesukei d’Zimra. Masseches Sofrim states even more explicitly,
“Said Rabbi Yosi, May my portion be with those who pray those six psalms every day.” Ashrei is the most important of these six mizmorim based on the Gemara (Berachos 4b) where Rabbi Avina said, “Whoever says Tefillah LeDovid every day three times is guaranteed to be a ben olam haba.”
According to the Seder Olam, we recite Hodu at the beginning of Pesukei Dezimra in remembrance of the avodas Bais Hamikdosh, since for fifty-three years before Shlomo brought the ark into the Bais Hamikdosh, the first fifteen verses of Hodu were sung by the Leviyim during the morning daily offering, while the last fourteen were sung during the afternoon offering.
As to why we sign off the Pesukei Dezimra by saying Vayevorech Dovid and Shiras Hayam, the Avudraham explains that this is because the Mechilta derives the fifteen expressions of praise found in Yishtabach from these verses. An additional reason for saying Shiras Hayam is that like so many tefillos based on the avodah in the Bais Hamikdosh, Shiras Hayam too is based on the Leviyim saying it every day during the evening tamid (Rosh Hashanah 31a). The Machzor Vitri cites the kehillah of Rome who offered yet another reason for saying Shiras Hayam at this point: “You should know that Shiras Hayam was our custom… and the custom of all the kehillos in Spain from the exile from Yerushalayim until now, to say it the whole year every day except for Tisha B’Av… The sages enacted to say the Shira with them (Pesukei d’Zimra) because it discusses the downfall of our enemies and gives praise to He who does wonders.” Although the Siddur has proved too long to be explored in one article, we have seen enough to understand how the prayers of our Siddur are a mosaic of our rich history. Through the joys and tragedies of the past, the Siddur pleas for a future of redemption and peace.