Selichot: Preparing for the Day of Judgment

A prominent feature of the current Days of Awe is the recitation of Selichot in the early, predawn days of the morning. Ashkenazi Jews began Selichot services on the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashana, whereas their Sephardi brethren have been reciting Selichot since the first day of the month of Elul.

Nature of Selichot and their Origin

Selichot (selicha means forgiveness) are prayers of penitence, of admission of sin, and pleading for mercy and Divine forgiveness. In addition, they give vent to the intense Jewish suffering, and especially the cruelties visited upon them by their enemies.

Except for Yom Kippur, where the Selichot form an integral part of the liturgy, Selichot are recited as a discrete service prior to the morning prayers. Between three to seven Selichot are recited every day except on Erev Rosh Hashanah when the number of Selichot is close to 20, making for an extended service.

Originally Selichot were recited only during the Ten Days of Penitence, since these were customarily days of fasting. Later on, they were extended to the days preceding Rosh Hashana to serve as an appropriate preparation for the coming Day of Judgment.

Times of Composition

Selichot constitute a specific and unique genre of prayer whose origin can be traced to the time of the Mishnah (2nd century), when they were recited on public fast days and in times of natural disaster, such as drought or famine. The early Selichot consisted of a series of biblical verses dealing with sin and forgiveness, and their style was rather simple. Many Selichot were composed before the 7th century, but were not recorded due to an early prohibition against copying sacred writings. But in the 9th century Rav Amram Gaon incorporated some Selichot into his well-known Siddur.

The great majority of Selichot recited today originate from the 8th to the 12th centuries, a time of great outpouring of poetic and liturgical compositions in the western European communities, including the Rhineland, France, and Italy The Ashkenaz Selichot have evolved in several different forms according to the customs of different geographic regions, such as Minhag (custom) Ashkenaz, Minhag Polin and Minhag Lita. For purposes of the discussion that follows, it is the Lita version that has been scrutinized.

Poetic Structure

Most of the Selichot are arranged in stanzas of four rhyming lines, the fourth often being a familiar biblical quotation. Selichot with three or two line paragraphs are less common. Each service includes a pizmon, a poem with a refrain, the lines being read responsively by the reader and the congregation.

The nature and contents of the Selichot are not easy to access even by those well versed in the Hebrew tongue. Much of the language is not direct but allusive., requiring extensive, knowledge of Scripture, Talmud and Midrash to understand fully the meaning of each phrase. The lines are couched in cryptical terms, interwoven with numerous biblical and rabbinic references. For example, our Forefathers, who are frequently mentioned, might be represented by such terms as “he who was bound on the altar” or ”he whose likeness is engraved in God’s throne,” to refer to Isaac and Jacob respectively.

The poetry is masterful and extremely complex, consisting of terse isolated parts of biblical verses, which, though lifted out of context, blend harmoniously and poetically in expressing the poet’s ideas. They reflect great skill on the part of the payton (poet) and their encyclopedic knowledge of Biblical and rabbinic texts Yet, the Selichot are so much more than just cleverly arranged poetry, when one considers that they were composed and inspired by some of the greatest scholars of their day, including such luminaries as Saadiah Gaon, Rabbeinu Gershon, and Rashi.

Virtually all Selichot are arranged so that the first letters of each line form an alphabetic acrostic, at the end of which the poet has signed an acrostic of his name. This has enabled scholars to identify some, though not all of the paytanim.

Thirteen Attributes

Since their earliest onset, all Selichot have revolved around a major theme that constitutes the very essence of the entire service, namely The Thirteen Attributes of God as recorded in Exodus 34: 6. Each and every Selicho is preceded and followed by a recitation of “The Lord, The Lord, merciful and gracious…forgiving iniquity and transgression” The importance of this verse is described in its Midrashic interpretation by the Talmud (Bab RH 17 b), when Moses beseeched God to forgive his people for the sin of the Golden Calf: ”the Holy One blessed be He wrapped Himself (in a tallit ) like a prayer leader and demonstrated to Moses the order of prayer. He said to him ‘ Whenever Israel sins let them perform before Me this procedure and I shall forgive them’“. Hence the custom for the chazan of the Selichot to wear a Tallit at night, a time when it is not customary to wear a Tallit.

The Selichot take on a great variety of different forms. For example, the “Akeida ”, describes the story of the binding of Isaac.(Gen.22:1-19 ), often with intense poetic beauty, asking God to remember His people in the merit of Abraham’s sacrifice Considering the times when these Selichot were composed, they might have served as metaphors for the thousands of Jews who were martyred al Kiddush Hashem ( the sanctification of God’s name) Another type of Selicha, “Machnisei Rachamim”, constitutes a highly emotional plea to the angels, beseeching them to transmit our prayers before the Heavenly throne, begging them most urgently to ask the Lord to be attentive to our prayers.

Such prayers have raised much controversy in that they imply the need of an intermediary rather than our ability to speak to God directly. Nevertheless they have been retained in the standard editions.

Polemics

The periods when many of the paytanim lived included times of devastating anti-Semitic edicts and unspeakable repression of the Jews, especially the time of the First Crusade, and the poet would cry out to his Creator to take note of Israel’s suffering. At the same time he would vilify Israel’s tormentors for the Jewish blood they had shed. These polemics consisted of short, subtle phrases, many of them verbatim quotes from scripture, which, as incorporated into the poetry, left no doubt concerning their intended meaning. Such phrases as “they exchanged their hope for a man-made god’ or ”they worshiped a buried god” were clearly directed against the Church at that time. Yet another phrase, “they call a man who never prophesied a prophet,” is a reference to Islam. To be sure that this was understood, the poet cites Ishmael’s son in the previous line. Special contempt was expressed against Christianity in seeking to convert Jews to their religion, a belief labeled by the poet as ”idol-worship”. These polemics, though stated with subtlety, did not escape the censors’ eyes, and were expurgated in their time. And yet, many have come down to us in their original form.

Conclusion

From the above discussion one can conclude that the recitation of Selichot with full understanding can be both moving and inspiring, providing one with the proper mindset for the approaching Days of Awe.

About the Author
Dr. Fred Gottlieb is a retired ophthalmologist living in Jerusalem.
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