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)
The name “Lord” [the Hebrew letters YHWH which constitute God’s name] was consistently understood by the Rabbis as referring to the appearance of God in His attribute of mercy, Therefore, its repetition in this passage indicated that God was merciful at all times. As the Talmud put it:
“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…”
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 Ashkenazi Jews 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:
O Lord, hear our voice in the morning; in the morning we set them before You with hopeful expectation. Hear our voice…
It is always darkest before the dawn. Yet the dawn is not far off, both literally and figuratively.
This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days, published by the Jewish Publication Society.
Pronounced: eh-LULE, Origin: Hebrew, Jewish month usually coinciding with August-September.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronounced: roshe hah-SHAH-nah, also roshe ha-shah-NAH, Origin: Hebrew, the Jewish new year.
Pronounced: yohm KIPP-er, also yohm kee-PORE, Origin: Hebrew, The Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar and, with Rosh Hashanah, one of the High Holidays.