Birkon HaShachar: A bilingual guide to Jewish morning ritual

Over the course of this semester, I’ve been studying Jewish object culture through the lens of design. I’ve paid particular attention to Jewish publishing. Concurrently this semester I took Art of the Book, where I learned much about book construction, printmaking, typography.

Some common siddurim (prayerbooks) used by English-speaking Jews
image source

Most Jewish prayerbooks of today are standardized, with each respective movement and ethnic tradition having their own books. For example, in my circles, the most common siddurim are the Koren Sacks and ArtScroll.

Bentchers (that’s Yiddish, in Hebrew they’re called Birkonim), prayer books that only contain birkat hamazon, the blessing after meals, are the rare exception to this rule.

The bin (and pile for overflow) of benchers at my rabbi’s house. Though most are white, many have covers with foiled text personalizing them and the size and breadth of content vary widely.

It’s a widespread custom to order custom commemorative birkonim for celebrations such as weddings and bar/bat mitzvahs. There are a massive range of designs available, and they are often chosen and personalized with great care. These small books are given to attendees and becomes a momento of the celebration. Within my Jewish community, virtually every household has a basket or drawer full of these books near their kitchen table, facilitating prayer while commemorating the celebrations of friends and family.

Reflecting on the phenomena of custom Bentchers/Birkonim, I wondered why we don’t have other books that only contain a small portion of prayers? Bentchers with the blessing after meals are tied to these communal celebrations, but what about the parts of Jewish prayer that are just as regular but more personal, and individual?

With all this in mind I saught out to make a new kind of birkon, a “Birkon HaShachar”. While a typical Birkon contains Birkat Hamazon, my Birkon contains Birkat HaShachar, the Jewish morning blessings.

There are many design problems that arise in making Jewish prayer books, the first being language. Most American Jewish Prayerbooks are bilingual Hebrew/English, but since Hebrew written right-to-left and has no capital letters, it presents some unique design challenges. Additionally, some prayerbooks include transliteration of Hebrew into the English alphabet. I made a chart of the various methods I’d seen in different prayer books to weigh their pros and cons, but I ultimately chose to create an entirely new style of setting these languages next to each other.

I wanted to make a book that felt special but was simple in construction. Inspired by a book form I learned in my class made from only 1 sheet of paper, I realized I could make a flippable booklet, one side in Hebrew, one side in English.

I made some curatorial choices in the text. First, I chose to omit blessings that are tied to particular actions, such as washing one’s hands in the morning and Torah Study. I wanted to focus on the blessings that don’t require any special actions and are instead focused on contemplation, G-d, and the self.

Though I used the traditional Hebrew text, I chose to make some interpretive choices in the English text. A dry translation would have given a false impression of the depth and meaning of the Hebrew, so I chose to name the English an interpretation rather than a translation. I started from the base of Sefaria’s English translation, and made edits for brevity, clarity, and removed gendered language for G-d. Additionally, I chose to use the variation of the blessings I personally say according to my custom and gender.

Accompanied by subtle illustration, my Birkon HaShachar serves as a visual guide to Jewish morning blessings.  I used blocks of color and varying text size to emphasize relationships between phrases and encourage contemplation.