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Question: When the cantor says Shema Koleinu during the High Holiday season, he skips several lines during the interactive recitation. Why?

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Answer: While Shema Koleinu in most congregations serves as a “highlight” of Selichot, it was not originally a High Holiday prayer.

We recite Selichot as a way of begging Hashem for forgiveness for our iniquities. We start reciting them in Elul and continue to do so through Yom Kippur. In this period of time designated for repentance, Hashem is nearer to us than ever, as we note in the words for which Elul serves as an acronym: “Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (based on Songs of Songs 6:3).

HaGaon HaRav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe, Nissan 5759 p.95) said: When we realize that everything Hashem does for us is good and our whole life emanates from Him, then surely “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.”

The Mishnah Berurah (Orach Chayim 581, in his preface to Hilchot Rosh Hashanah) writes that Elul also stands for: “et l’vovecha v’et le’vav” in Deuteronomy 30:6, which reads in full: “Hashem, your G-d, will remove the obstruction from your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, and with all your soul, for the sake of your life.”

What do the last words in this verse – “for the sake of your life” – mean? In his recently-published “Steinsalz Chumash,” Rabbi Adin Steinsalz writes that they mean that a person will no longer consider his service of G-d a mere obligation; rather, he will see it as the very meaning of his life.

The Prophet Isaiah said, “Dirshu Hashem be’himatz’o, kera’uhu bih’yoto karov – Seek the L-rd while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). But isn’t Hashem always near? Is there ever a time when one can’t repent? The Gemara (Shabbos 153a) quotes R. Eliezer as saying that a person must repent before he dies. His disciples asked him: “How can one possibly know when death will come?” Eliezer replied: “That is all the more reason that a person should repent today – lest he die tomorrow.” How, then, can we say that a particular time of year is better for repenting?

And yet, the Torah makes clear that such a time exists: “Ve’haytah lachem lechukat olam, ba chodesh ha’shevi’i be’asor la’chodesh te’anu et nafshoteichem…. Ki bayom hazeh ye’chapper aleichem le’taher et’chem mikol chatoteichem lifnei Hashem tit’haru…lechukat olam le’chapper al bnei yisrael mikol chatotam achat ba’ shana – This shall be an everlasting statute to you, that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict your souls…. For on that day will He forgive you, to cleanse you, that you may be clean from all your sins before Hashem…an everlasting statute to you, to make atonement for the Children of Israel for all their sins once a year” (Leviticus 16:29-34).

The Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1) writes based on the Talmud that repentance and Yom Kippur act as a unit in ultimately cleansing man of his iniquities. In extreme cases, if one has sinned gravely, forgiveness is held in abeyance even after one repents with death effecting ultimate forgiveness (ibid. 1:2).

So while the Yomim Nora’im are not the only times one can repent, the Divine Presence is particularly close during this time period, and one must take advantage of this opportunity.

Selichot are said in a reflective mood, and Shema Kolenu in particular is recited with much fervor and anguish, making it the highlight of these prayers. Shema Koleinu, as mentioned before, was not established as a Selichot prayer but as one of the 18 blessings of the Amidah that we recite three times a day.

Rabban Gamliel states (Berachot 28b) that we have to say these 18 blessings daily in our prayers. The Gemara cites a baraita according to which it was R. Shimon HaPakuli who presented to Rabban Gamliel the order in which these blessings are arranged. This same baraita is also cited in Tractate Megillah (17b), where a second baraita in the name of R. Yochanan, is cited stating that it was the 120 members of the Great Assembly (which included many prophets) who set the 18 blessings in order. The Gemara explains the order based on various pesukim.

If the Great Assembly established the sequence of the 18 blessings, how can we attribute it to R. Shimon HaPakuli? The Gemara suggests that the reasons behind the order (not the order itself) had been forgotten.

Based on the baraitot in these tractates, the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillah 1:4 – see Kesef Mishneh) identifies the Great Assembly as Ezra the Scribe and his beit din. Since the returnees from the Babylonian exile were assimilated, they had very limited knowledge of Hebrew. Ezra therefore arranged for the Torah to be translated into Aramaic when it was read before them (see Nechemia 8:8) and provided them with a set order of 18 daily blessings to be said when praying.

In his commentary on the Tur (Orach Chayim 112), the Bach notes that the Beit Yosef cites the Shibolei Ha’Leket who, based on an oral tradition, explains that the Great Assembly established the sequence of the blessings based on chronological order. “Magen Avraham,” for example, which refers to Abraham’s escape from Nimrod’s, came before “Mechayyeh Hameitim,” which alludes to Yitzhak’s survival of the Akeda. All 18 blessings, according to this explanation, refer to important historical events involving our nation.

The 16th blessing of Shemoneh Esreh is identical to Shema Koleinu as found is our Selichot. The Mishnah (Berachot 28b) cites R. Yehoshua referring to a person who prays “me’ein Shemoneh Esreh,” i.e., “like” the 18 blessings. R. Akiva says that if a person doesn’t know the text of Shemoneh Esreh, he can recite an abbreviated version. The Gemara (infra 29a) explains that “me’ein Shemoneh Esreh” refers to “Havinenu,” which concludes with the blessing “Shome’a Tefilla.”

Other prayers, too, such as Tefillat Ha’derech, end with “Shome’a Tefilla.” We thus see that the 16th blessing of Shemoneh Esreh is always appropriately referred to as “tefillah,” or prayer.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.