Esor Ben-Sorek

Seven Questions… Four Answers

The siddur, daily Hebrew prayerbook, has undergone more than 1,000 years containing petitions, benedictions, poems, psalms of praise and the re-telling of Jewish history. Next to the Torah, the first five books of Moses, the siddur is the most visible and used religious object by Jewish worshipers.

We cannot know the names of the hundreds of scholars who contributed to the compilation of the siddur as we know it today. Until the 9th century, daily prayers were recited by memory or a reader prayed out loud and worshipers responded with “Amen”.

The first handwritten siddur appeared in the year 876 CE by Rabbi Amram Sheshua ha Gaon, leader of the Sura academy in Babylon, and was mainly used by scholars.  In 942 CE a new siddur appeared written by Saadia Gaon in Babylon mainly for popular use. No rabbinical leaders during the Middle Ages ever decided which prayers to include and which to exclude, thus giving Jewish scholars a mission to create their own personal prayers and poems (piyuttim).

Until  1646 all siddurim were handwritten and frequently spelling errors appeared from one edition to another. The very first printed siddur was published in Italy in the 15th century and was used until Selig Baer, a German Jewish scholar compiled his siddur in 1886 which included sources from ancient Hebrew manuscripts. His siddur is considered authentic and is used by most Orthodox synagogues. It contains a specified order of the Jewish daily prayers.

There are dozens of different versions of the siddur, usually based upon the country and language used by scattered Jewish communities. Thus we have the Ashkenazi Orthodox siddur, the Hasidic siddur, the Italian ritual siddur, the Sephardic siddur, the siddur for Turkish and Greek Jews and for Jewish communities in North Africa, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The major difference is in the particular wording of the prayers   and each Jewish community has its own liturgy sung to its own personal music.

Despite the various differences in style and in wording, (most use Hebrew), some include Aramaic prayers, and in Anglo-Saxon English-speaking countries all of the prayers appear in English translation on the opposite side of the Hebrew page.

When I recite my daily morning prayers, while I have no one special prayer (all of them are meaningful) I am attracted to one particular prayer composed of seven questions and four replies. As ancient as the words may be, it is more meaningful today than it has been in previous centuries, mainly because it causes me, the worshipper, to pause at each question and to seek an appropriate answer for myself.

It begins with an introductory appeal to God reminding us that we should be God-fearing, recognize truth and speak truth from our heart. We do not admit to being righteous individuals but in asking the seven questions we beg God to be merciful. The seven questions follow.

1)What are we?

2) What is our life?

3) What is our kindness?

4) What is our righteousness?

5) What is our salvation?

6) What is our strength?

7) What can we say before You 0 Lord our God and God of our forefathers?

Seven very difficult questions to consider and to seek personal and honest responses.

We are privileged to answer each question with the words of our lips and the meditations of our heart.

But the siddur offers four responses. Brief, but amazingly powerful.

  • We are Your people, members of Your covenant. Children of Abraham.
  • We are the offspring of Isaac whom Abraham bound upon the altar of Moriah.
  • We are the descendants of Jacob whom You loved and whom You called Israel and Yeshurun.
  • Therefore, we are obliged to thank You, to praise You, to glorify You, to bless, sanctify and offer praises and thanks to Your Name.

This prayer is a very long one for me as I pause at each question in an effort to find a suitable personal response. And often I wonder if I am being truthful in my poor efforts to reply to the seven questions.

But the four answers bind us historically to our peoplehood. And no redaction can ever change its spiritual power.

That being said, in this my 523rd article, is there only one truth? Are we bound to the past and present or have we the right to dream of a richer, happier, loving, more peaceful future for the Household of the people of Israel?

We must always bear in mind: It is forbidden for a Jew to forget his past or to ignore his present.

Ma anachnu? What are we? Ma chayainu? What is our life? Ma ha teshuvot? What are the answers?

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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