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Leil Selichot 2020 / סליחות

Leil Selichot (Prayers for forgiveness in preparation for the High Holidays) for Hebrew Year 5780 ocurrs after nightfall on .

Selichot or slichot (Hebrew: סליחות) are Jewish penitential poems and prayers, especially those said in the period leading up to the High Holidays, and on Fast Days. In the Ashkenazic tradition, it begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. If, however, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, Selichot are said beginning the Saturday night prior to ensure that Selichot are recited at least four times.

Unlike a conventional service, Selichot does not include the Shema or the Amidah, but it does have some of the same characteristics of a typical service: it begins with Ashrei (Psalm 145) and half-kaddish, and ends with a full kaddish.

The introductory and concluding sections of the Selichot text are the same every day, consisting essentially of biblical passages and ancient prayers. The middle section varies; it contains selections of prayers (piyutim) for each day in a special order, with common supplications such as the repeated appeals to the Divine attributes of mercy. The middle section also has a special pizmon (hymn with refrain) for each day.

The piyutim were composed in the Geonic period and shortly thereafter (between approximately the 9th and 12th centuries of the common era). Their authors include some of the greatest authorities of that time, such as Rav Saadiah Gaon, R. Gershom Meor Hagolah, R. Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi), and members of the group of Baalei Tosafot. Most of them inserted their names by way of acronyms or acrostics. Their compositions invariably use biblical phrases or paraphrases, and oftentimes references to, or paraphrases of, rabbinic teachings. Another common feature of the piyutim is their poetic structure, and most of them follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet. (This is also true of several prayers in the concluding section.)

There are many more piyutim than those that appear in any given service. Different communities made their own selections of which piyutim to recite, and thus evolved a variety of customs or versions for the Selichot. The various texts were originally local choices, but once a custom is adopted on a communal level, one is bound to follow his community’s custom and cannot change it by omitting, adding or exchanging piyutim.3

The Midrash relates that King David was anguished when he prophetically foresaw the destruction of the Holy Temple and the cessation of the offering of the sacrifices. “How will the Jews atone for their sins?” he wondered.

G‑d replied: “When suffering will befall the Jews because of their sins, they should gather before Me in complete unity. Together they shall confess their sins and recite the order of the Selichot, and I will answer their prayers.”

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