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What Are Selichot?

What Are Selichot?


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.1 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 the 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,2 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 Gedaliah, 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 shortly after 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 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 (between approximately 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.3

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.”

The time varies depending on the season, and usually doesn’t concur with our clocks (see Hours). According to Jewish law, “midnight” is exactly halfway between sunset and sunrise. In the USA, because Rosh Hashanah is observed during Daylight Savings Time, “midnight” is often closer to 1:00 AM than to 12:00 AM.
Due to technical calendar reasons, the first day of Rosh Hashanah cannot fall out on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday.
This section is mostly paraphrased from Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet’s introduction to Selichot According to Chabad Custom (Kehot, 2006).
Rabbi Menachem Posner serves as staff editor for
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Join the Discussion
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CB Wisconsin September 20, 2017

Add a comment...I am learning. Reply

Anonymous LA,CA September 20, 2017

If I am unable to say selichot before shacharit, may I say them later on or before mincha? Reply

Jeffrey Perlman September 17, 2017

Thank you so very much. Reply

Dave Tzfat September 16, 2017

Selichot Edot Mizrach? I follow Sephardic tradition here in Tzfat, and use the Edot Mizrachi selichot, in Hebrew, which is also deeply moving, poetic and plaintive. Can you, however, point to a link to an English - language version of this nusach, so I can share it with others? Reply

moises tampa September 17, 2017
in response to Dave:

this is a pdf file Reply

Mark Alcock Zimbali September 16, 2017

Toda, we need to daily reminded,lest we forget and stray. Reply

Victor Moreira Medford, MA September 15, 2017

Good. Thank you. Reply

Philip Hoyle Washington September 13, 2017

Thanks! Reply Staff via September 15, 2016

To Anonymous That is so special! At this link you can find some prayers and helpful guides, when you're at services don't be shy to ask your neighbor or the rabbi's wife for help. Reply

Anonymous hallandale September 14, 2016

Thank you it will be my first time celebrating Rosh Hashanah. Can you please post some prayers to learn for a beginner. Reply

Mike Small Sunny Isles Fla September 6, 2015

Well done well done Reply

Gershon london uk September 4, 2015

source? what is the source for the midrash? Reply

Anonymous August 9, 2015

thank you for the link to the actual words of Selichot.. Reply

Dawn New York September 24, 2014

Where can I find the English translation of Selichot? Reply

Mark Alcock Umhlali August 25, 2014

High Hols. yes, we must make ourselves fit ,holy and sinless to humbly praise & pray to Holy Ha-Shem. Amein. Reply

bea September 2, 2013

todá, david! Reply

Lisa Australia August 31, 2013

Finding English Translation of Selichot Thank you, David! I was able to find the English translation on Reply

Galit Adelaide August 27, 2013

English translation - David Thank you David, your instructions were clear and I have the download.

My first Selichot. Blessings to you Chabad for providing this beautiful spiritual tool. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Cary, NC July 23, 2013

Re: The study behind the meaning and spiritual power of Elul begins at the beginning of the month as does the working on Teshuva. There is also a custom of adding in three chapters of Psalms daily.

It is only that the Selichot themself are not said until later.

One reason given to the (minimum) of 4 days of Selichot:

With regard to all Biblical Festivals the Torah says "you shall offer an Olah (offering)", whereas with regard to Rosh Hashanah it says "you shall make an Olah." Our sages say that on Rosh Hashanah we need to make ourselves fit for an Olah. And just as every offering was inspected four days before it was offered, so too we must inspect ourselves for (at least) four days before Rosh Hashana Reply

seineke San Diego, CA September 17, 2017
in response to Yisroel Cotlar:

A new love of the internet and its videos, thank's and Rabbi Ronnie Fine Reply

Lewis Brinin The swamps of Florida July 21, 2013

slichot I wonder why chabad/ashkenazic practice is to wait so long to start saying slichoth? Wouldn't it make sense to ramp up to the intensity of the High Holidays slowly and steadily over the whole month of Elul? I am thinking of trying to find the kind where you start right after Rosh chodesh Elul this year. Reply

Kidron del Oeste Zapote, Costa Rica September 16, 2012

download Selichot available true thank you so very much for this wonderful resource. Reply

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