Mishkan Hanefesh is the Union of Reform Judaism’s official prayer book for the High Holidays. Or rather, I should say books, as there are separate volumes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I must admit it feels a bit strange to write a book review for a prayer book. And if this were merely a prayer book, my feelings would be justified. But these two volumes represent a compendium of Jewish thought that make them worth reading any time of the year.
Mishkan Hanefesh offers multiple ways to experience the holidays. There are the prayers, as well as several different types of explanations. They prayers and translations are on white pages, usually on the right page. The matching left page has a grey background, and contains poetry, or thematically matched Jewish text. You’ll find the wisdom of Jewish sages from the last thousand years, from Maimonides to Abraham Joshua Heschel to Rabbi Abraham Twerski.
Scattered throughout the book are blue pages, which offer commentary from both modern and classic rabbinic sources.For example, the blue page before the Torah reading on Yom Kippur morning has commentary from orthodox Rabbi David Hartman (1931-2013), who started the Hartman Institute, and Rabbi Josh Zweiback (b 1969) who is currently the senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise in LA. Wisdom from Rabbi Amy Eilberg, the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement is also captured within these books.
Mishkan Hanefesh is not only a throughly modern book, it is also a Mussar book. I love that it translates the Yetzer Ha’ra as “hostile impulse.” In The Spiritual Practice of Good Actions, I translate Yetzer Ha’ra as the evil inclination. Hostile impulse is so much better, because evil brings to mind truly diabolical characters like Isis or Voldemort. Hostile impulse better captures the idea that it is our survival instincts, like anger and sexuality, which map to our reptilian brain. The afternoon service on Yom Kippur is explicitly a Mussar service. It explains the importance of Tikkun Middot as follows :”repairing and strengthening the personal qualities and traits that enable us to fulfill our urge to be good.” As part of the Amidah prayer, there are sections on Lovingkindness, Strength, Holiness, Forgiveness, Love of Zion, Gratitude, and Peace in the Home. The blue pages for these soul traits are worth reading at any time of the year. In addition, there are reflection questions posed throughout the services to offer us an opportunity to look within, and truly personalize the experience.
Mishkan Hanefesh also has an amazing layout. The drama of the Sh’ma prayer or blowing of the shofar are captured by two page spreads with giant letters. There are pages of full page art that evoke awe and reflection throughout. And each section is easy to navigate, with a web-page like side navigation menu, that helps you follow the progression of the prayers and reflections.
Before I go, I must admit, I am biased – one of the editors of Mishkan Hanefesh is Rabbi Janet Marder, the senior Rabbi at my synagogue, Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos. She is brilliant, and has been a major influence on my Jewish growth. I can see her heart and wisdom throughout the book. If your synagogue is adopting Mishkan Hanefesh, it is well worth the investment to get your own set. And if it doesn’t, but you are looking for a compendium of Jewish wisdom on personal transformation, then Mishkan Hanefesh is a must have.
Looking for something else? Check out our page of Mussar books.