Selichot: Poems that Ask for Forgiveness

by Dr. Richard Sarason

When most North American Reform Jews hear the word “selichot,” they likely think of the late Saturday night service with this name that precedes Rosh Hashanah by roughly a week and introduces the penitential season. But why is this service called Selichot? Because its liturgy is comprised primarily of a genre of liturgical poems/hymns (piyyutim) that acknowledge our frailty (sometimes obsessively so) and ask for God’s forgiveness (s’lichah). In the traditional Ashkenazic liturgy, these poems are recited every day, for three weeks, between the week before Rosh Hashanah and the day of Yom Kippur. Sefardic Jews recite them during the entire month of Elul through the day of Yom Kippur. Those “days of preparation” anticipate the characteristic prayers, in particular, of Yom Kippur – for selichot poems/prayers are recited following the Amidah and Vidui during every service on Yom Kippur. (They are not recited at all on Rosh Hashanah.)

This genre of rabbinic liturgical poetry is one of the oldest and most venerable: there are literally hundreds upon hundreds of such poems (not all of which are still recited in the various Jewish liturgical rites around the world).1

The word “penitential” also characterizes the mood of these poems: they rhetorically depict human beings as flawed, abject, and unworthy before God. Typical of this stance is the verse in Daniel that appears in many penitential prayers: L’cha Adonai hats’dakah v’lanu boshet hapanim (“Yours, O God, is the right; ours is the shame;” Daniel 9:7). But self-abasement here must also be understood as a strategy to elicit divine compassion. (Think of how young children learn to elicit desired responses from their parents!) The penitential stance is difficult for moderns, particularly in a culture that stresses human adequacy, ingenuity, and “can-do-ness.” Confronting and acknowledging the limits of human capability and the reality of our mortality is difficult, but necessary – particularly as we age. This insight (and experience) might help us to enter more sympathetically into the mood of the selichot.

The vast bulk of these selichot poems have been eliminated from Reform liturgies. (Some of the very early European Reform prayer books, like that of the Hamburg Temple in 1819, substituted Spanish-Portuguese selichot-poems for those in the Ashkenazic liturgy, as being more aesthetically pleasing and easier to understand.) The North American Reform prayer books have tended to substitute for the selichot poems appropriate psalms and psalm-verses (often framed as responsive readings) as well as creative English meditations. This tendency is to be found as well in Gates of Repentance and the drafts of the new CCAR MahzorMishkan HaNefesh. Some of the more popular selichot poems nonetheless have been retained in these prayer books. An example is Ya’aleh, which introduces the selichot in the Yom Kippur evening service (GOR, 274):

May our supplications ascend before You from eventide,
May our cries come before You in the morning,
And may our be pleas be accepted by You by [the next] evening.

The bolded words in Hebrew, ya’aleh v’yavo v’yeira’eh, are the first three words of the middle paragraph of the Kedushat hayom benediction on the Festivals and High Holy Days, so the poet here is expanding midrashically on this prayer (a characteristic poetic technique in these texts).

Another familiar s’lichah that is retained in most Reform prayer books is Ki anu amecha(“We are Your people; You are our Ruler;” GOR, 279). While not a piyyut, the prayerSh’ma koleinu (“Hear our voices;” GOR, 278), is a major part of the selichot liturgy. The litany (=a text with a repeated refrain) Avinu malkeinu, rhetorically speaking, also is as’lichah, since it invokes divine compassion and favor while acknowledging human unworthiness.

The draft services for Yom Kippur in the new CCAR MahzorMishkan HaNefesh, include those selichot that are found inGates of Repentance, but also reinstate in the evening service several that have not appeared recently in Reform prayer books: Ki hinei kachomeir (“Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are we in Your hands . . .”) andK’racheim av al banim (“As a father shows compassion for his children, so may You show compassion for those who worship You . . .”), as well as the litany Mi sh’anah l’Sarah imeinu b’ziknatah (“May the One who answered our mother Sarah in her old age . . .answer us”). The draft text also gives a fuller version of Ki anu amecha. The morning service draft delays the Vidui and Selichot until after the Torah service and gives a briefer selection of selichot. The afternoon service draft falls midway between the other two in the quantity of selichot it includes. All services, of course, contain original English meditations and prayers in this section.

The centerpiece of the traditional selichot liturgy on both Yom Kippur and on the preceding days of preparation is not found inGates of Repentance or Mishkan HaNefesh (and did not appear in the Union Prayer Book either), but appears prominently in Gates of Forgiveness, the liturgy for the late evening selichot service. This is the poem El melech yosheiv, “God, King, who sits upon a throne of compassion,” which frames a recitation of Exodus 34:6-7, “Adonai, Adonai, gracious and compassionate God, long-suffering, abundantly merciful and faithful . . . ,” which is referred to in rabbinic literature as the Thirteen Attributes of God. This is how God reveals Himself to Moses, who is standing in the cleft of the rock at the top of Mount Sinai. The Rabbis interpret this narrative to mean that God reveals to Moses the formula by which the Israelite people in the future should invoke God’s mercy when, on Yom Kippur, they acknowledge their failings. That is why these verses are also recited before the open ark just before the Torah is removed for reading on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and subsequently, under the influence of 16th-century Lurianic Kabbalah, on the Three Festivals as well).

While the abject tone of some of the selichot prayers and poems may be difficult for many people today, the underlying psychological and human realities, stripped of their mythic imagery, remain highly relevant for us during the Ten Days of Repentance and all year round: we know that we cannot always be in control, that our capacities are limited, and that sometimes we miss the mark. Acknowledging those facts in humility – that we cannot do it all alone – is the beginning of wisdom.

  1. The Israeli scholar Jonah Frankel published a two-volume anthology of these poems in 1993.

Dr. Richard Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.

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One Response to “Selichot: Poems that Ask for Forgiveness”

  1. avatar

    What a fantastic article! Thank you for your wisdom and explanations.

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