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 prayers.”
With the imminent approach of the new year and the Days of Awe, our preparations for the High Holidays move into highest gear. Several days before Rosh Hashanah we begin to recite the Selichot, a series of penitential prayers and liturgy.
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, the Selichot start on the Saturday night directly preceding the New Year. If Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, then Selichot commence on the Saturday night approximately a week and a half before Rosh Hashanah. Following the midnight service, Selichot are recited daily (except on Shabbat) before the morning prayers, until Rosh Hashanah (aside for the Sunday morning immediately after the first Selichot, which is covered by the midnight recitation several hours earlier).
Sephardim recite Selichot throughout the entire month of Elul.
It is important to attend synagogue for Selichot, as its text contains several important passages which may be said only in the presence of a minyan (quorum of ten Jewish men).
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 recited 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 story is told about the fourth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, who once asked his illustrious father, the Tzemach Tzedek, regarding the reason for this custom. “My son,” he responded, “now is no longer the time for words. Now we must translate words into deed . . .”
Click here for the complete Selichot prayers in Hebrew.
In 2013, Selichot (according to Ashkenazic custom) will begin after midnight of Sunday morning, August 31. Contact your local Chabad-Lubavitch center for the exact time and location of local Selichot services.