You walk into synagogue. It’s well past midnight, but there
are dozens of fellow Jews gathered there. In the front, cloaked in a tallit, the leader is about to begin the
service. You quickly open your book to “Selichot for the first day.” But what
exactly are Selichot? Let’s have a look together.
Selichot (alt. Selichos) n.communal
prayers for divine forgiveness, said during the High Holiday season or on
Jewish fast days.
In a Nutshell
While most Jewish services are held during the day or early
evening, High Holiday Selichot are
the exception, held in the wee hours of the morning. Drawing from a plethora of
biblical verses and rabbinic teachings, they are a soul-stirring introduction
to the Days of Awe.
In Ashkenazic tradition (the focus of this article), the
first night of Selichot is the biggie, held after midnight on a Saturday night
before Rosh Hashanah.
In some larger congregations, this service is led by a cantor and choir and can
take well over an hour. In smaller, more informal congregations, it may take
less time than that. All subsequent Selichot
are conducted just before morning prayers, generally with less fanfare.
The liturgy for Selichot is not found in most prayerbooks; rather, it is found in special Selichot
booklets, with a different selection for each day. You can see the complete
Hebrew service here.
The actual Selichot are a collage of Torah verses and
poetically written Hebrew works in which we ask G‑d to forgive us on a personal
and communal level. An oft-repeated phrase is the “13 Attributes of Mercy,”
which G‑d revealed to Moses at Sinai as the key to forgiveness. This is the
core of the entire service, and since it is considered a communal prayer, you
may only say this line when praying with a congregation.
For most of Selichot, the leader chants the first and last
line of each paragraph, allowing the congregation to read most of the paragraph
Here are some landmarks:
we will discuss, there are certain hymns, known as pizmonim, which are read responsively, with the congregation
reading a line and the leader chanting it after them. There is a different pizmon at the heart of the service each
the end, the ark is opened, and a series of verses, beginning with the words “shema kolainu (hear our voice),” are recited responsively,first by the leader and then by the
Close to the end, there is the Ashamnu
confession, in which we list an alphabetical litany of sins that we (as a
community) have committed. We strike our chests when saying each of these sins.
When Are Selichot Said?
We start saying Selichot several days before Rosh Hashanah. According
to Ashkenazic custom, the first Selichot are recited on Saturday night after “halachic midnight,”and a minimum of four days of Selichot must be
observed. Therefore, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday or
Shabbat, Selichot start on the Saturday night immediately preceding the New
Year. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, Selichot commence on the Saturday night
approximately a week and a half before Rosh Hashanah. Starting on the Monday
morning following the first midnight service,Selichot are recited daily before the morning prayers until Rosh
Hashanah (except on Shabbat, since the penitential prayers are inconsistent
with this peaceful, joyous day).
Sephardim recite Selichot throughout
the entire month of Elul.
Most Jewish communities continue reciting Selichot throughout the Ten Days of Repentance, the days between Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to Chabad custom, however, Selichot are not said during these days, with
the exception of the third of Tishrei, when Selichot are recited as part
of the commemoration of the Fast of Gedaliah.
The fourth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, once asked his illustrious
father, the Tzemach Tzedek, why Chabad communities do not continue
saying Selichot during the Ten Days of Repentance. “My son,” he responded, “now is
no longer the time for words. Now we must translate words into deed . . .”
More on the Selichot Liturgy
Unlike a conventional service, Selichot does not include the
Shema or the Amidah, but it does have some of the same characteristics of a
typical (afternoon) service: it begins with the Ashrei (Psalm 145) and Half
Kaddish and ends with a Full Kaddish.
The introductory and concluding
sections of the Selichot text are the same every day, consisting essentially of
biblical passages and ancient prayers. The middle section varies; it contains
selections of prayers (piyutim) for
each day in a special order, with common supplications such as the repeated
appeals to the divine attributes of mercy. The middle section also has a
special pizmon (hymn with refrain)
for each day.
The piyutim were composed in the Gaonic period and shortly thereafter
(approximately between the 9th and 12th centuries of the common era). Their
authors include some of the greatest authorities of that time, such as Rav
Saadiah Gaon, R.
Gershom Meor Hagolah, R. Shlomo
Yitzchaki (Rashi), and members of the group of Ba'alei Tosafot. Most of them
inserted their names by way of acronyms or acrostics.
Their compositions invariably use
biblical phrases or paraphrases, and oftentimes references to, or paraphrases
of, rabbinic teachings. Another common feature of the piyutim is their poetic structure, and most of them follow the
order of the Hebrew alphabet. (This is also true of several prayers in the
There are many more piyutim than those that appear in any
given service. Different communities made their own selections of which piyutim to recite, and thus evolved a
variety of customs or versions for the Selichot. The various texts were
originally local choices, but once a custom is adopted on a communal level, one
is bound to follow his community’s custom and cannot change it by omitting, adding or exchanging piyutim.
The Midrash relates that King David was anguished when he
prophetically foresaw the destruction of the Holy Temple and the
cessation of the offering of the sacrifices. “How will the Jews atone for their
sins?” he wondered.
G‑d replied: “When suffering will befall the Jews because of their
sins, they should gather before me in complete unity. Together they shall confess
their sins and recite the order of the Selichot, and I will answer their