Building a Better Siddur: An E-Siddur for the Twenty-First Century
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael J. Broyde is a Law Professor at Emory University, was the Founding Rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a Dayan in the Beth Din of America
I confess: I like davening from the siddur on my Blackberry Bold. It has a backlit screen, the words are clear and I like scrolling more than turning pages. My Blackberry also has a chumash that automatically opens to this week’s parsha and a Shulchan Aruch that I sometimes learn from during those occasional slow moments in davening (like when they are rolling the Torah). But, lurking in the back of my mind is the idea that my e-siddur ought to be doing much more for me, and it is time to build a better mousetrap.
Indeed, my Blackberry has already been programmed in its calendar function to tell me every day a lot of davening information, including the Hebrew date, whether we say tachanun today, when is sunrise and sunset, what is the Torah reading, as well as what is today’s daf. What is needed is an e-siddur that takes advantage of that information. I would like my e-siddur to do at least six things and I can project a few more into the future.
- I want my e-siddur to know where I am and what time it is, and thus what I am davening. If it is 7:30 a.m. in Atlanta, GA then my e-siddur ought to know that I am davening shacharit and when I press the siddur icon, open to shacharit. It ought to tell me what is the earliest time for talit and tefillin when I am close to that time and the same for mincha when I am approaching that deadline. When I open my e-siddur at 2:30 pm to daven, it should automatically open to mincha as that is the only prayer for that time. Candle lighting times would be nice too on Friday.
- I want my e-siddur to formulate the proper davening, given what date and time it is. If it is 7:30 am on December 26, 2011 in Atlanta, GA, it is shacharit for Rosh Chodesh and Channuka, and my e-siddur ought to automatically insert ya’ale v’yavo and al hanisim into shemona esrei, and when I scroll down after Shemona Esrei, Hallel ought to be the next prayer on the agenda. Tachanun ought to be skipped automatically.
- I want the right Torah reading to come up on Mondays and Thursdays (and Rosh Chodesh and fast days too). When a haftarah is said on a fast day at mincha, that should be after Torah reading. My Blackberry calendar knows these things and so does the computer display board in my shul. My e-siddur should also.
- I want to be able to program it up front with my minhagim. I daven Religious Zionist ashkenaz and I want my siddur instructions in my native language, English. Someone else might daven Charedi Yeshiva Sefard with Yiddish instructions and someone else Edot Hamizrach with Hebrew instructions; Chacun à son goût. In addition, a variety of different minhagim have developed for zemanei hayom. I should be able to tell it mine among a list of many programmable default options. My e-siddur should adopt to my minhagim.
- I should be able to program my e-siddur to skip tefillot that are optional and that I do not say and insert those that I do say. Some skip korbanot (not me; I say them every day) and others skip vidui (I do skip it) and some say the six “zachor” passages every day (not me) and some add a prayer for parnassa at the end of davening (I try to). Yet others sit for a few minutes and say Tehillim, either on a monthly, weekly, or daily cycle (not me now, but I used to). Let me personalize my e-siddur.
- I would like the option to automatically disable email notifications and incoming phone calls when the siddur is open and in use – sometimes, all of us really just want to turn off the outside world when our siddur is open.
Let me add that of course it needs all the bells and whistles of any text based application, such as variable text sizes to accommodate the visually struggling and backlight adjustments for various lighting conditions. A function that tells me the proper direction for tefilla — maybe with both a Rhumb line option and compass direction option (to include both views among the achronim, a subject of a forthcoming article) — would be nice too. So too, while I confess that I am not a Daf Yomi learner (maybe I should be, but that is a topic for a different post) it would be nice if my e-siddur would have a tzurat hadaf for the day’s daf readily available on it.
Let me add that there are all sorts of other interesting features that one could add to such an e-siddur app once it becomes integrated into the general structure of Orthodox life. Consider for example a “context aware automatic alert” which integrates a person’s general schedule with davening times along the lines of an SIRI alert which notes that “you have a 90 minute meeting starting at 4:30 today with sunset at 5:15 – you should daven mincha early today” or “you had better leave early for shacharit today. Heavier than expected traffic is being reported,” each of which requires the integration of the siddur app with other common smart phone or tablet features or applications. More sophisticated additional features, such as hyperlinks to sources or essays could well take the place of notes found in the current printed siddurim. So too, the ability to add one’s own annotations would be of value, from names of cholim at the proper place to perhaps even a davener’s own insights and comments.
I would gladly pay for my daily e-siddur if it is well done (and I suspect that I am not the only one who gladly pay), and more generally such a siddur could be an anchor product for an overall Orthodox religious lifestyle mobile app. It would help people manage their schedule, shop for kosher food, answer simple questions of data driven halacha and provide reminders common to all Orthodox life. Monetization is possible through ads placed by suppliers of kosher food (maybe only when the GPS function notes you are in a supermarket), sefarim stores, local kosher restaurants, maybe even charities soliciting donations.
Prayer is a central ritual to the Orthodox community and technological enhancements to the prayer experience through a nicer and better laid out siddur has been ongoing for centuries. We have always recognized that the esthetics of prayer can enhance the experience of praying; the Jewish community has always sought out the best siddur. An e-siddur can create a prayer environment much more esthetically pleasing than any printed prayer book ever can be, if only because it can give you the right prayers in the right order every day, with instructions tailored to its owner’s current location and customs, while changing every day with the changes of the Jewish calendar.
May all of our prayers be answered.
 As my close friend and chavrusa of more than 30 years, Steven Weiner of SRI (the inventors of Apples new SIRI function) joked while reading an earlier version of this, one could just see the following conversation taking place twenty years hence “SIRI, I forgot to say ya’ale v’yavo – what should I do?” “Sorry I can’t tell you that – kol isha is not permitted in shul.”