Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
The core of the Selichot prayers is the 13 Attributes of Mercy, the very words that God taught Moses for the people to use whenever they needed to beg for divine compassion. Because the Talmud states that God was wearing a tallit at that time (Rosh Hashanah 17b), it is customary for the prayer leader to wear a tallit for the recital of the Selichot prayers, even though they otherwise are never worn at this early hour because it is too dark to see the tzitzit (which are meant to be visual reminders, as in the verse, “And you shall see them”; Num. 15:39).
The 13 Attributes of Mercy are found after the incident of the Golden calf, when God threatened to destroy the people of Israel rather than forgive them (Exod. 32:10). According to the Talmud, Moses felt that Israel’s sin was so serious that there was no possibility of intercession on their behalf (Rosh Hashanah 17b).
At this point, God appeared to Moses and taught him the Thirteen Attributes, saying: “Whenever Israel sins, let them recite this [the Thirteen Attributes] in its proper order and I will forgive them.” Thus this appeal to God’s mercy reassures us that repentance is always possible and that God always awaits our return.”
The 13 Attributes of Mercy are based on two verses in Exodus: “The Lord! The Lord! God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who Cleanses (but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations)” (34:6-7).
The Hebrew phrase “v’nakeh lo y’nakeh” (and who cleanses but does not cleanse) is a common biblical grammatical form that uses repetition to stress the action. The Rabbis ingeniously cut off the verse after v’nakeh, thus changing the meaning to indicate that God does forgive all sins.
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