Contrary to what most people think, the siddur and machzor are not books containing a single view of Judaism. Additionally, much of what is in it are not prayers seeking help. The siddur and machzor are anthologies of diverse, even conflicting views, composed and collected and inserted into the collections by various people during different times with various world views. Some “prayers” even have beliefs that most readers reject such as the musaph service for shabbat which prays for the restoration of sacrifices, the anim zemirot song which describes God wearing tephilin, and the paragraph in the shalom aleichem song for Friday night which prays for angels to act as intermediaries and take our prayers to God.


What are the siddur and machzor?

Siddurs are books containing prayers, extracts from the Bible, and other writings used at synagogue services and at home daily and on the Sabbath. Because including the services for the various holidays would make the books overly large, these services were placed in a separate set of books called machzors. The word siddur means arrangement. It refers to the order of the services and the instructions frequently inserted that tell when the contents are recited. The term machzor means cycle. It refers to the cycle of holidays that appear at certain set times.  


The Friday night service   

The Friday night service called kabalat shabbat and its well-known song lecha dodi is a good example of a service that many Jews enjoy that was inserted into the siddur by mystics and has mystical, non-rational, even magical intents.

The kabalat shabbat service is made up of seven psalms from the biblical Book of Psalms and a couple of original compositions, one being lecha dodi. The kabalat shabbat service was inserted before the general Maariv (evening) service. The mystics viewed the Shabbat as suggesting the ultimate Shabbat, the messianic age. The mystics were also convinced that God is made up of ten parts called sefirot. Each sefirah, the singular of the plural form sefirot, “performs a distinctive function.” The sefirot became disjointed, separated, causing God to be no longer whole. Humans can aid God to be rejoined by performing acts on earth. as sympathetic magic, a performance on earth that causes a similar act in heaven, such as pouring water from a jug on the temple altar causes rain to fall.[1] When God is rejoined, the messianic age will begin.

Mystics developed the kabalat shabbat service to cause the rejoining of the sefirot which would cause the coming of the ultimate Shabbat, the messianic age by symptomatic magic.[2]


The origin of kabalat shabbat

The practice of kabalat shabbat began in the mid-sixteenth century in the city of Safad, Israel, by three mystics. Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) who originated the idea to read seven psalms,[3] Isaac Luria (known as Ha’ari and as Arizal – 1534-1572) who accepted the practice in part when he suggested deleting the first four psalms, and Shlomo Alkabetz (1500-1576) who composed lecha dodi and placed it into the service.[4]

The lecha dodi is not a song celebrating the onset of the Shabbat. It is about combining the ten sefirot, the ten parts of God, and the word Shabbat is used to indicate the messianic age that occurs when God is combined again. The refrain “Come my beloved against the bride to receive the Shabbat” means “Come sefira teferet toward the female sefira Malka so that the messianic age can begin.”


This raises some questions

Why were items inserted into the siddur and machzor with outdated theology, views that most Jews reject? Does God hear prayers? What is the value of reading what is in the siddur and machzor?

Most of the items inserted into the siddur and machzor were placed there because the people who placed them, mostly mystics, believed in what is stated. We have no proof that God hears prayers. And if God does hear them, we do not know if God supplies what we request. However, even if we have a negative view regarding the contents and the idea of divine intervention to satisfy our wants, reading the prayers can be very valuable.


The purpose of prayers

The Hebrew word for prayers has the root p-l-l which means judge. The Hebrew for “to pray” is l’hitpaleil, which is reflective, meaning it refers back to the person and literally means “to judge one’s self.” Thus, prayer is a time when a Jew reads certain ancient selections from various sources and is encouraged to think about what is read, judge one’s self, and use the knowledge obtained to improve.

For example, reading about the sacrifices brought in the ancient temple during the Shabbat musaph service should prompt us to think about Jewish history, about our relationship with God, what God wants of us, what sacrifices were designed to accomplish, can and should this goal be accomplished today, how ideas change, and much more.


[1] The American Indians also believed in sympathetic magic when they danced up and down they were convinced that this could cause the rain to fall.

[2] The practice to turn toward the door of the synagogue, or to the east according to some customs, is not to welcome the Shabbat as most people think, it is an act of sympathetic magic: if we welcome the messianic age here on earth, it will cause the heaven to do the same. This is also why the mystics suggested opening the door for the prophet Elijah during the Passover Seder and setting a cup of wine on the table for him; if we do so, it will cause him to come and bring the messiah with him.

[3] “All these Psalms 95-99 tell of a setting up of a Divine Kingdom on earth. All alike anticipate the event with joy.” The sixth psalm, number 29, “from early times was associated with the Sabbath.” In verse 10, it sings “of the Lord enthroned as King forever.” The seventh psalm, which combines psalms 92 and 93 is “A psalm, a song for the sabbath day,” which also speaks of God reigning forever. Joseph H. Hertz, Daily Prayer Book, Bloch Publishing Company, New York, 1948. It seems clear that Cordovero selected these psalms because they suggested the messianic age to him.

[4] Regarding the dates and practices, see for example, Y. Cohen et al, Siddur Eizur Eliyahu K’minhag Rabbenu Hagra, Michon Keren Eliyahu, Jerusalem, 5771. For the origin and purpose of lecha dodi, see for example, Lecha Dodi Likrat Kala, Yisod Shalom, Jerusalem, 5762. The later volume contains the commentary Al Chaftzei Hachayim.