Sounds of Penitence: The Music of Selichot

By Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky

It may seem strange, but I wish to begin with a very Jewish, and yet not at all Jewish phrase: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” These words are what a Catholic person says upon entering Confession, or at least that is how we all see it portrayed in television and movies.1 Those words are also found, not surprisingly, in Jewish liturgy: “S’lach Lanu, Avinu, Ki Chatanu…” (Forgive us, Father, we have sinned). While there are many similarities between Christian and Jewish liturgy, including that of penitential language, this is not a comparative religions essay. I begin with this example, however, because of its prevalence in our cultural context. HOW we handle these moments of penitence, however, is quite different.

We all have the opportunity to apologize to others face to face, over the phone, or even on Facebook. We can say the words, or type them, and hopefully begin a meaningful conversation that will effect change. What do we do when we don’t have that route? Sometimes we need to account for our actions in a different way, and prayer is certainly one of those methods. Silent prayer is one aspect I love about Jewish prayer services: we have a chance to think and meditate, silently. That is my time for private, personal prayer. As far as the rest, those are public prayers: set formulas we recite either aloud or silently, covering a wide range of subjects.

You may have wondered why we recite these self-deprecating texts out loud, all together as a community, even though they may be exaggerations of reality. You may have even heard an explanation for this which suggests that it is easier for someone to acknowledge a sin aloud when accompanied by many others, either as a way of shielding that person from being singled out or harshly judged, or holding one’s hand so he or she is unafraid. I would add that the comforting effect of communal prayer in these examples is enhanced by the melodies to which they are chanted. We can bring emotions to the surface by the use of music, or drown them out in the same way. On Yom Kippur, when we experience what it is like to be close to death, the melodies keep us somber while showing us there is light at the end of the tunnel.

One of the major components of the Selichot section of liturgy is “Ya’aleh.” Composed of several paragraphs, the solemn text begs that the petitioner be declared cleansed, purified, and forgiven, after having looked within and confessed. This setting of Ya’aleh by Hazzan Israel Alter begins by referencing the familiar strains of “Ani Ma’amin.” (“Ani Ma’amin” as referenced here is a melody said to have been sung by Jews as they were taken to gas chambers during the Holocaust. Its text, “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, I will wait every day for him to come,” is based upon a selection from Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith.) Despite the somber subject matter of the borrowed melody’s text, Hazzan Alter kept the tempo just rhythmic enough that congregants might hum or chant along. LISTEN

Not unlike other prayers within this liturgy, K’racheim Av has positive content, describing God as a compassionate, loving parent: “As parents show compassion to their children, so do You, Adonai, show compassion to those who revere You. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so is Your love unending for those who serve You.” The prayer could be interpreted as beseeching God’s mercy, and consequently the music could reflect our urgency for compassion. Quite to the contrary, I have long found this gentle setting by Michael Isaacson to be warm and comforting, so much so that I have used the selection for memorial services. LISTEN

It would be remiss to not include a snippet of the much beloved setting of “Sh’ma Koleinu” by Max Helfman. Although there are other versions, including by the ever popular Debbie Friedman the High Holidays would not be complete for many of us without hearing Helfman’s majestic setting. Ranging from a shockingly loud plea, “Hear our voice!” to a practically whispered, “accept our prayer…do not cast us away,” this classic composition sums up the essence of not only the Selichot prayers, but perhaps all of Yom Kippur itself. LISTEN

Towards the end of the Selichot portion of prayers is a brief poem, “Ki Anu Amecha,” which begins, “We are Your people, You are our Sovereign. We are Your children, You are our Parent…” Melodies for this simple list of expressions of our relationship to God tend to be quite upbeat. The melodies do not sound sad or mournful despite the context of our repentance. Rather, they help us lift ourselves out of the depths of apologies and forgiveness. They remind us that there is hope, and with that hope, we return with renewed fervor to our prayers. In this example of a common folk tune forKi Anu Amecha, the arrangement, both of the melody and of the piano accompaniment, helps maintain the congregation’s lifted spirits by its tempo. LISTEN

Jews have only one “Day of Repentance” per year. Does Yom Kippur give us a 364-day-long pass for the rest of the year? Quite to the contrary, having one day on which to repent to God doesn’t mean we spend the rest of the year without thinking of the content or melodies of these prayers. Each time I recite the prayers of the Amidah, the central portion of each prayer service, and I come across the paragraph which begins, “Sh’ma Koleinu,” I immediately think of the lengthier prayer with its classic melody, sung on the High Holy Days. Perhaps seeing those, and other, familiar words helps remind us of the upcoming Day of Repentance, and returns us to the path on we had set forth since the prior Yom Kippur. Similarly, Catholicism distinguishes between different types of sins; while they must confess a minimum of once per year, or when they have committed a particular type of sin, they are encouraged to go to confession often, for the sake of awareness of one’s actions and intents, and to help overcome potential future sins. While the steps of confession and repentance differ dramatically from religion to religion, there is something reassuring in the fact that so many of us strive to make ourselves better on a regular basis. I hope the above examples of our Jewish musical expressions of penitence have been not only reassuring, but a reminder; Yom Kippur is nearly a full year away, but we should keep our actions in mind as surely as we can hum the melody of Kol Nidre.


Ya’aleh, Israel Alter. From The High Holy Day Service: The Complete Musical Liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for The Hazzan. Cantors Assembly, Inc., 1971. Performed by H. Kobilinsky.

Translation of K’racheim Av from Sharei Teshuvah (Gates of Repentance): The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe, ed. Chaim Stern. Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978

Kracheim Av, Michael Isaacson. From Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), Volume II, Yom Kippur, ed. Samuel Adler. Transcontinental Music Publications, 1982

K’racheim Av, Michael Isaacson. Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) Highlights: Music for Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, Track 17. Performed by Cantor Martha Novick.

Sh’ma Koleinu, Max Helfman. From Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe), Volume II, Yom Kippur, ed. Samuel Adler. Transcontinental Music Publications, 1982.

Sh’ma Koleinu, Max Helfman. Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) Highlights: Music for Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur, Track 15. Performed by Cantor Howard Stahl.

Ki Anu Amecha, Folk tune, arranged by Mary Feinsinger. From Shirei T’shuvah (Songs of Repentance), Transcontinental Music Publications. Performed by H. Kobilinsky.

  1. I suppose I should confess to you readers that I have never been to a Confessional, and so please take my observations as second-hand. Also, I have chosen not to change the liturgical language to be non-gendered, for the sake of familiarity.

Hayley Kobilinsky has served as Cantor of Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk for nine years. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, where she teaches a workshop on music for the Three Festivals, and coaches for the Cantorial Certification Program.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email
Guest Blogger

About Guest Blogger accepts submissions for consideration. Send your posts to Please include biographical information, including your affiliation with any Reform congregation or institution.

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply