Selichot

*This is a scheduled post. It was written and submitted before Rosh Hashanah began.

Title page from a Selichot booklet.

Many of you may not be familiar with Selichot. Selichot are a collection of Torah verses and poetically written Hebrew works in which we ask G‑d to forgive us on a personal and communal level.

Even though Selichot has already begun this year, I thought you might like a little overview of this important part of the Fall Festivals.

While most Jewish services are held during the day or early evening, High Holiday Selichot are the exception, held in the very early hours of the morning. Drawing from many Biblical verses and rabbinic teachings, they are a soul-stirring introduction to the Days of Awe.

In Ashkenazic tradition, the first night of Selichot is the biggest, held after midnight on a Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. You may have seen pictures and videos of the Kotel in Jerusalem packed with people praying these prayers. 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.

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.

Some of the elements of the prayers include (1) 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. (2) 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. (3) 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.

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.

This information has been gleaned from various Jewish sources and is uniform throughout the world.

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