The Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor, Minhag Anglia

How good is the Chief Rabbi's new machzor?

By Dr Jeremy Schonfield, September 22, 2011

Translation and commentary by Lord Sacks
Edited by Dayan Ivan Binstock,
Koren £29.99

This new machzor, the first of a hoped-for translation and commentary of the whole cycle by the Chief Rabbi, has been worth waiting for. And it has been quite a wait.

Machzorim in this country tend to come at intervals of around a century. David Levi's translation of 1794, which remained in print into the 1850s (the introduction mistakenly gives precedence to Isaac Levi's controversial 1806 reprint), followed by De Sola's of 1860, set the scene for the first edition with Chief Rabbinical imprimatur, known familiarly as "The Routledge", early in the 20th century.

The Routledge had a beautiful Hebrew typeface and careful metric translations by Nina Salaman, Elsie Davis and the novelist Israel Zangwill. But these soon looked dated, and there were few biblical references to show how scriptural allusions colour each line with the narrative background from which the phrases derive. Routledge was a devotional work, made for people who felt that liturgical sense would take shape with familiarity, as with serious poetry.

The cracks in this argument soon appeared. Israel Abrahams issued a "Companion" to the siddur in 1914, identifying authorship and structures, and Chief Rabbi Hertz completed the first siddur with an English on-the-page commentary in 1946. He died before drafting his High Holy Days machzor.

The 1980s saw the advent of the influential Artscroll editions, with contemporary American translations and commentaries. These reveal a deep rift in Jewish attitudes to study. Their Talmud commentary is seriously learned - the Hebrew-language edition is widely used in yeshivot - and asks challenging questions of the texts, probing traditional Jewish beliefs in exciting ways. But they treat the liturgy far more superficially, the notes reflecting a simple piety often unworthy of the intellectual depth of the poetic writers.

This approach would not have been tolerated by the editorial team who worked on the Talmud. I have written elsewhere about the Jewish tendency to ignore the "undercurrents of Jewish prayer" - evidence of an awareness that all is not well in God's relations with Israel, and that in praying, we should bear in mind more scenarios than the obvious one of addressing an all-hearing master of the universe. Any new commentary will in time be judged by this standard.

The strengths and weaknesses of this classic new machzor will become clear only after years of use. For now, we can only map out initial reactions.

Koren are currently issuing fine prayer books in a variety of rites, this one coming in two versions, American and Minhag Anglia, a term that has never before, as far as I know, appeared on the title page of a prayerbook. It features the splendid Koren Hebrew typeface and an elegant layout. Much of the prose appears in short lines, so that Alenu, Baruch She'amar or Nishmat can now be savoured as poems.

Some will be disturbed that the Hebrew appears on the left of the page and the English on the right, but this has the advantage of providing a straight margin in the centre of the spread and room for marginal reference on the edges of the pages. It is therefore sad to see so few marginal references and that the numbers of chapters, but not of verses, are given. In addition, more Hebrew key words or letters in the English would help identify which passage is represented. These points deserve reconsideration in future editions. The book is long, a thousand pages against Artscroll's 700, but kept to bearable weight by smooth cream-coloured paper.

Sacks's crisply contemporary translation of much of the prose, familiar from his siddur, is a joy. But that of the poetry is patchy. Unetaneh Tokef on pages 564-75 reads well, but that on pages 418-21 departs from the Hebrew unnecessarily, and compares poorly with Artscroll's tidier crib. One also misses translations of some of the additional piyutim at the end. For English versions of some of these, one has to go back to De Sola's 19th-century edition.

The glory of this book is its commentary, aimed both at those unused to synagogue and regular attenders. It is thoughtful, often inspiring, enriched with Chasidic tales and wears its learning lightly. The introduction powerfully outlines the feast, but curiously without mentioning the Binding of Isaac. The notes on the Akedah similarly identify no link to the shofar. Particularly strong is the survey of Tashlich.

Some of the brilliance in the Chief Rabbi's weekly Torah web-notes is on show here, but there is simply too little space for him to do the liturgy the justice it deserves. If he were to write without the confines of an on-the-page format, he would be able to reveal much more of its theological courage. At least this book gives one a fascinating taste.

Dr Schonfield is the author of Undercurrents of Jewish Prayer

Last updated: 11:29am, September 22 2011