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 High Holiday 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 say this line only 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 to themselves.
Here are some landmarks:
- As 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 day.
- Toward the end, the ark is opened, and a series of verses, beginning with the words shema koleinu (“hear our voice”), are recited responsively,first by the leader and then by the congregation.
- 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 . . .”
Throughout the Year
Although the focus of this article is on the pre- (and post-)Rosh Hashanah Selichot, it should be pointed that there are versions of Selichot to be said as part of the morning service on the communal fast days of Tzom Gedalia, 10 Tevet, Taanit Esther, and 17 Tammuz (but not the 9th of Av).
There are also special Selichot for those who have the custom of fasting on Behab (Monday, Thursday and Monday following Sukkot and Passover) and even texts to be said in a case of drought or when children are ravaged by plague.
On Yom Kippur, the day devoted to forgiveness, every prayer is followed by Selichot.
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 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 Geonic 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 Baalei 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 concluding section.)
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 prayers.”