Selichot: Prayers of Repentance

These special prayers are recited during the month preceding Rosh Hashanah.

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"The Lord! the Lord!"‑-I am the same before one sins and after one sins and repents. "A God compassionate and gracious..." Says Rabbi Judah, "A covenant has been made concerning these Thirteen Attributes. They will never be turned away empty handed..."

Thirteen Attributes

The Selichot service also emphasizes the recitation of "The Thirteen Attributes." Over the centuries, special poems embellishing this passage were added to the Selichot. The exact poems to be recited may differ from place to place, but the basic elements of the service have remained the same throughout the Jewish world. Because of its emphasis on God's forgiving nature, this text describing "The Thirteen Attributes" plays an important role in the Yom Kippur liturgy as well.

The tradition of reciting Selichot throughout the month of Elul may stem from the fact that it was customary to fast six days before Rosh Hashanah. Since the Selichot originated as prayers for fast days, it followed naturally that they would be recited at this time.

Sephardic communities begin reciting Selichot at the beginning of Elul so that a period of 40 days, similar to the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai, is devoted to prayers of forgiveness. The practice among Ashkenazim is to begin saying them on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah. However, if there are fewer than four days between the beginning of Selichot and Rosh Hashanah, the prayers are begun the previous Saturday night. The conclusion of the Sabbath was considered particularly propitious for such prayers of forgiveness, since it marks the beginning of a new week and the completion of a sacred day of rest and study.

Originally, Selichot prayers were recited early in the morning, prior to dawn. There was a custom in Eastern Europe that the person in charge of prayers would make the rounds of the village, knocking three times on each door and saying, "Israel, holy people, awake, arouse yourselves and rise for the service of the Creator! It later became common practice to hold the first Selichot service‑-considered the most important‑-at a time more convenient for the masses of people. Therefore, the Saturday night service was moved forward to midnight.

A Moving Service

The effect of a Selichot service can be quite moving. The mere gathering together of people at a time when they are usually asleep is impressive. We sense the extraordinary nature of the prayer and turn introspectively within ourselves. The prayers themselves are pleas for mercy. The melodies are sad and full of longing. Properly chanted, they form an oratorio expressing the despair that accompanies separation from God and the desire to change and repent. The self‑deprecation contained in the words, which express the feeling of life's fleetingness, and the burden of vanity that motivates so much of what one does, all cause us to ponder how we can break the cycle of our lives and change ourselves for the better. The possibility of change and of a better life is inherent in these prayers:

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.