Understanding Selichot

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by R. Eliezer Melamed

Since the times of the Geonim (589-1038), Jews have kept the custom of rising in the early hours of the morning (‘ashmoret ha’boker’) during the Ten Days of Repentance (‘Aseret Yemei Teshuva’) to recite Selichot (penitential poems and prayers).

Contrary to the popular misconception that the objective of Selichot is to pray for one’s individual life, the primary intention is to pray for Kal Yisrael, all of the Jews – to awaken to teshuva (repentance), to beg God to forgive us for our sins and have mercy on His People in their exile and tribulations.

We ask that He not focus on our transgressions and sins, rather, remember the covenant He made with our forefathers, and with us; remember the binding of Isaac, and the sacrifice of all the holy Jews who gave their lives to sanctify His name; and pray for the Ingathering of the Exiles, the building of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, and the Holy Temple, and the return of theShechina (Divine Presence) to Zion.

This is always the most favorable approach for an individual – to participate in the prayers of the tzibur (general public), and intensify one’s prayers over Clal Yisrael, the dwelling of the Shechina, and the sanctification of God’s name in the world. In this way specifically, one’s personal prayers will also be accepted.

Prophetic Origins

In times of trouble, the Prophets awakened Israel to gather in fasting and prayer, begging God to spare His people and land, as it is written:

“Blow the shofar in Zion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly: gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those who suckle: let the bridegroom go forth from his chamber, and the bride out of her pavilion. Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare your people, O Lord, and give not your heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them: Why should it be said among the peoples, Where is their God? Then the Lord was zealous for his land, and pitied his people” (Joel 2:15-18).

When are Selichot Recited?

In the times of the Geonim the custom was to recite Selichot during the Ten Days of Repentance; this was the minhag (custom) of the two great yeshivas in Babylon, and was also the prevalent custom during the period of the rabbis called Rishonim (1000-1450) (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 3:4). In a few places, the custom was to recite Selichot all of the month of Elul.

Sephardic Custom

Towards the end of the period of the Rishonim, Sephardic communities accepted the custom of reciting Selichot all of the month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance (S.A. 581:1). This is because all of these days are worthy of repentance, as we have seen that on Rosh Chodesh Elul, Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to ask forgiveness for Israel’s sin of the Golden Calf, and on Yom Kippur, God answered: “I grant forgiveness as you have requested.”

Ashkenazi Custom

In Ashkenaz, the accepted custom was to begin reciting Selichot on the Moetzei Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, provided there were four days on which to recite them before Rosh Hashana.

Various explanations were cited for this (M.B. 581:6). However, I will mention the reason cited in the book ‘Leket Yosher’ (authored by Trumat Hadeshen), that Motzei Shabbat is a suitable time for Selichot because on Shabbat “everyone is accustomed to study Torah…” seeing as Shabbat and the Torah are as spouses, “and on Shabbat, Israel is free from work and study Torah. Therefore, it is good to start on Yom Rishon (Motzei Shabbat), because people are happy for having learned Torah on Shabbat, and also because of oneg Shabbat, and as was said in the Talmud: “The Divine Presence rests upon man neither through gloom, nor through laziness, save through a matter of joy in connection with a mitzvah…” (Shabbat 30b).

According to this, although the best time to recite Selichot is in the early hours of the morning, on the first day there is an advantage to reciting them on Motzei Shabbat after chatzot (halakhic midnight), while still dressed in Shabbat clothes.

At What Time of Day are Selichot Recited?

The best time to recite Selichot is in the early hours of the morning, i.e., towards the end of the night, because this is a time of compassion and grace, a time of anticipation just before the appearance of daylight and the revelation of the word of God in the world. At that very moment in time everyone is asleep, the world is quiet and unpolluted from thoughts and evil deeds, and prayer radiates from the depths of the heart, penetrates all barriers, and is accepted. In any event, the fitting time to recite Selichot begins after chatzot, because that’s when anticipation of daylight starts, and it is a time of favor and compassion.

In recent generations, people have become used to going to sleep late at night, and the regular time for rising is between 6:00 and 7:00 A.M. – approximately two hours after ashmoret ha’boker. If people were to get up at ashmoret, they would be tired all day long, and their work and studies would likely be affected. Consequently, today many people tend to get up for Selichot about an hour, or half an hour, before the time they usually pray Shacharit. And although dawn has already risen, bediavad (post factum) the time is still fitting for reciting Selichot. If they are able to recite Selichot after chatzot at night, it is preferable.

Although the Rishonim did not fix the reciting of Selichot as mandatory, this is the minhag of Israel. However, someone who finds it difficult to wake up for Selichot is not obligated to do so during the month of Elul. During the Ten Days of Repentance, one should be more meticulous in reciting Selichot, because these days are more amenable for repentance and atonement (see, Rosh Hashana 18a; Rambam, Teshuva 2:6).

Selichot Juxtaposed with Fatigue at Work and Study

Someone who cannot go to sleep early, and waking up for Selichot will result in fatigue and an inability to fulfill his duties at work – it is preferable for him not to wake up for Selichot even during the Tens Days of Repentance. Instead, he should try to increase his reciting of Tehillim (Psalms), and if he wants, during the day he can recite the sections of Selichot that an individual is permitted to say.

The accepted practice is that it even for a Torah scholar accustomed to studying diligently, it is proper for him to devote the required amount of time to recite Selichot (Rokach 209; Birkei Yosef and Shaarei Teshuva 581:1). It is the custom in all yeshivas to recite Selichot, even though it comes at the expense of learning. However, if rising early causes one to lose more learning time than the time dedicated in reciting Selichot, because afterwards, the change in schedule will cause a lack of concentration in his studies, it is preferable not to rise for Selichot.

The Wording of Selichot

Since our Sages did not explicitly institute the reciting of Selichot, hence, Selichot lack a standard nusach (wording), and every community added its own pleas and poems. Nevertheless, there is a general framework used in all the communities, as appears in the siddur (prayer book) of Rabbi Amram Gaon, with the reciting of the Yud Gimmel Midot (Thirteen Attributes of Mercy) being the focal point of the prayer.

Although the recitation of piyutim (poems) should not be cancelled on a regular basis, nevertheless, when the worshippers are short on time, they can skip some of them and say the main Selichot, making an effort to recite those Selichot which arouse one to greater teshuva.

Similarly, when teachers see that students find it hard to concentrate on all the Selichot, they may rearrange the order so the students can have better kavana (concentration). And when it is necessary for members of different communities to pray together, and they wish to recite Selichot jointly, they can arrange a combined version, as Rabbi Avraham Gisser shlita and Rabbi Shmuel Shapira shlita have done.

Selichot Nowadays Should Be Similar to the Prayers of Ezra

After having been privileged to witness the developing process of the In-gathering of the Exiles and the establishment of the State of Israel, we should be motivated to recite Selichot with even greater intensity, requesting that God continue having mercy on us, return us to Him in complete repentance, and redeem us completely.

Resembling our present situation, the olei Bavel (immigrants from Babylon) in the times of the first return to Zion, also faced serious spiritual difficulties, and by repenting, merited to build the Second Temple. As in the words of Ezra who, upon immigrating to Israel from Babylon, found that many Jewish inhabitants had taken non-Jewish women for themselves, and the ministers and their deputies were dishonest. When he heard this, he rent his garments, plucked his hair, knelt down on his knees, spread out his hands, and prayed:

And when I heard of this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down appalled. Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of them of the captivity; and I sat appalled until the evening offering.

“And at the evening offering I arose up from my fasting, even with my garment and my mantle rent; and I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the Lord my God; and I said: ‘O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to you, my God; for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our guiltiness is grown up unto the heavens. Since the days of our fathers we have been exceeding guilty unto this day; and for our iniquities have we, our kings, and our priests, been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to spoiling, and to confusion of face, as it is this day.

“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you have commanded by your servants the prophets, saying: The land, unto which you go to possess it, is an unclean land through the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, through their abominations, wherewith they have filled it from one end to another with their filthiness.

“Now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity for ever; that you may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever. And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great guilt, seeing that you our God has punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and has left us such a remnant, shall we again break your commandments, and make marriages with the peoples that do these abominations? Would you not be angry with us till you had consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape?

“O Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous; for we are left a remnant that is escaped, as it is this day; behold, we are before you in our guiltiness; for none can stand before you because of this” (Ezra 9:3-15).

Ezra’s sorrow, fasting and prayers aroused the nation to repent, and thanks to this, the Second Temple was built and stood for hundreds of years. However, failing to repent completely – seeing as many Jews remained in Babylonian exile and failed to immigrate to Israel – the Shechina did not dwell in the Second Temple as it had in the First Temple, and ultimately, it too was destroyed due to our sins.

Is the Wording of Selichot Suitable for Our Times?

Indeed, in the wording of Selichot there are sentences fitting for times of galut (exile), and certain people find it difficult to identify with the content. Some even claim there is a bit of falsehood in reciting them today.

But when we view the Jews as one people having lived in all generations, with each one of us truly linked to all the Jews who lived in all the generations and in all the various countries, consequently, each and every one of us was actually together with all the Jews in every exile and all the terrible tribulations. Together with them we suffered terrible degradation, until we almost lost hope.

We were together with the holy Jews and martyrs in all the forced conversions; in the Crusades and the Inquisition; in the Muslim killings, and the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648-1650; and the last and most horrendous of all – the dreadful Holocaust, which ended barely seventy years ago, with hundreds of thousands of survivors who underwent the death camps and ghettos still living among us.

How can we be calm, saying that the Selichot supplications are not suitable for us, when the world is still full of wicked people who openly declare their desire to continue the work of the Nazis? In view of this, the wording of Selichot can be recited out of a deep sense of identification.

About Eliezer Melamed

Rabbi Eliezer Melamed is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law. His works include the Peninei Halacha series on Jewish law and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. Some of Rabbi Melamed's books are currently being translated into English. These articles are excerpts from the authorized translations, with occasional brief introductions by the editor.

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