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This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
The Mahzor Vitry, an 11th‑century work describing the yearly cycle of observances and prayers, tells us that “it is a custom to begin on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah to rise early to the synagogue, before the sun rises, and beg for mercy.” In the words of one of the poetic texts recited at this service:
At the conclusion of the day of rest, we come first to meet You. Incline Your ear from above, You who dwells amongst praise, To hear the song and the prayer.
Selichot, prayers for forgiveness, are ancient prayers already mentioned in the Mishnah. They originated as prayers for fast days. The Mishnah describes public fast days and the order of prayer for such occasions as featuring a series of exhortations that end with the words “He will answer us,” recalling the times in Jewish history when God answered those who called upon Him. The Tanna deve Eliyahu Zuta, a midrashic work that dates at the latest to the ninth century, mentions a special service for forgiveness instituted by King David when he realized that the Temple would be destroyed.
“How will they attain atonement?” he asked the Lord and was told that the people would recite the order of Selichot and would then be forgiven. God even showed David that this act of contrition would include a recitation of the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” a descriptive passage from Exodus that expresses God’s merciful nature:
“The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment…” (Exodus 34:6‑7).
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