by Steven Portnoy
One Shabbat morning a few weeks ago, I brought my iPad to services. I had recently downloaded from the CCAR, electronic versions, or as we have come to know them, apps, of Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat Evening, Mishkan T’filah for Shabbat Morning, and Mishkan T’filah for Weekday Morning. The fact that there are three separate apps was, for me, the first clue that this is something different.
The Mishkan T’filah I am familiar with is one book. The single volume contains both the evening service and the morning service. Theoretically it starts on page 1 and continues to the end of whatever service you are attending, evening or morning. I say theoretically because in use and practice, the congregations I am familiar with do not use the siddur in that manner. Indeed, although the candle lighting for Shabbat evening is in the front of the book, so are Kiddush and the Motzi. And yet, virtually all the synagogues in which I have been a member or visitor during the last 20 years — including in Barcelona, Spain — end Shabbat evening services with Kiddush and the Motzi, going from Kaddish to Kiddush, and then to a closing song, which is located in the last pages of the book. I also am aware that many Reform congregations include a Torah service on Shabbat evening, which is not possible with the current structure of the e-book. There is no Torah service; it flows instead from t’filah onward to “concluding prayers.”I suspect that the evening service, moving as it does, for the most part in a linear fashion, would be easier to follow on an iPad. Despite my best efforts, however, I was unable to follow the morning service on my iPad. We are all acquainted with the term “user-friendly”; unfortunately, from my perspective, the electronic version of Mishkan T’filah does not qualify as such.
The very fact that the CCAR separates Mishkan T’filah into three different “books” diminishes worshipers’ ability to follow along with the prayer leader, even when a page number is given for reference. This format is an obstacle for experienced — and observant — users, amongst whose numbers I count myself. Given that there is no search function as we have come to know it will make the book virtually impossible for casual users during a service. Additionally, page numbers for the Shabbat morning service are not synchronized with the single volume print version commonly in use. There is an index to many of the prayers, and “tapping” the prayer in the listing takes you to it, but you need to know what you’re looking for.
Adding to the difficulty is the “swipe” factor. Anyone familiar with e-readers such as Kindles, Nooks or other similar devices is used to swiping from right to left to turn the page. Following the print versions of Mishkan T’filah and many other Hebrew texts, the various iPad versions of the siddur require users to swipe from left to right to turn the page. I don’t have a problem with that. I do, however, have a problem with the fact that some pages require users to swipe from bottom to top — sometimes more than once — to get to the next page. This inconsistency can quickly become confusing.
Lest you think I am all negative, let me assure you that I am not. I am being critical in hopes of improvement. The app has some benefits. Among them is that with the usual stretch of the fingers, the type size can be enlarged, enabling those with impaired vision to read the text easily. An additional benefit is that some of the prayers and songs have audio — annotated by a little musical note in the upper left corner of the page. A tap on the note brings about a “start” button, enabling users to hear that particular song or prayer. I do wish, however, that the prayers and songs with the audio feature were marked as such in the index.
Despite my criticisms, I am aware many people worked long and hard to bring Mishkan T’filah to the app stage. My hope, as is usual with apps, is that updates will address some of the issues raised here, enriching the worship experience for iPad users in the pew.
The question of using electronics for prayer is a blog post for another time.