by Barry Shainker
For many of us, the High Holy Day season begins with Rosh HaShanah and the start of the new month of Tishri. Jewish tradition, however, teaches that we must use the preceding month of Elul as a time of soul-searching and reflection to prepare ourselves for the magnitude of the Days of Awe. It is during this time that we find the holiday of S’lichot on our calendar.
In the broadest definition, s’lichot are penitential prayers said before and during the High Holy Days and other fast days throughout the year. But the term first appears as a reference to the biblical verses that were added to the Yom Kippur liturgy. Eventually, the holiday prayers were combined with general prayers of repentance. The prayer book of Rav Amram Gaon, from the 9th century, for example, includes a collection of these poetic writings and meditations. While these prayers were initially only recited during the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the custom developed to use them in the days beforehand as well.
In Hebrew, s’lichot translates to “forgiveness,” and indeed there is an emphasis in these prayers on the merciful attributes with which God is said to govern the world. In many ways, the prayers which make up the S’lichot service mirror what we find on the Day of Atonement which follows soon after. The language of these qualities should sound familiar to anyone who has recited the liturgy throughout Yom Kippur when we speak about God’s ability to forgive “transgression, iniquity, and sin.” We begin and end the season of repentance with the same words, calling out to the compassionate God who we hope will accept our prayers.
The holiday itself occurs early in the month of Elul in Sephardic tradition, but on the Saturday evening just before Rosh HaShanah in Ashkenazi communities. Either way, prayers are read and meditations considered as individuals are encouraged to reflect on the past year and the changes they wish to make in the upcoming one. Many institutions include a ceremonial changing of the Torah covers to the High Holy Day white, which allow members of the community to participate in an important ritual while simultaneously having a personal meaningful experience.
A S’lichot service can be a very moving experience. As I reflect on the observances I’ve had over the last few years, I think about the sense of wholeness and peace that I’ve developed. While I enter the worship space full of strife and concern for the many problems on my mind, I leave feeling rejuvenated and prepared to use the Days of Awe as a time of introspection and growth. The somber and reflective music allows me to take stock of my year and the countless mistakes I have made. The prayers reflect the fleeting nature of life, a theme throughout the High Holy Day season, and I think about the many changes I can make to become a better person. Experiencing S’lichot has enabled me to more fully understand and participate in the process of t’shuvah (complete repentance) which is so central to the High Holy Days.
Barry Shainker is currently an Education student at HUC-JIR in New York.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah