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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?

A Reader
Wilkes Barre, PA



Answer: Last week we noted that Shema Kolenu originated as one of the 18 blessings (the Shemoneh Esreh) we recite thrice daily on weekdays. It subsequently became, with the addition of several verses, a focal point of Selichot.

The Gemara (Megillah 17b-18a) discusses the Scriptural sources for the 18 blessings of Shemonenh Esreh. For the 16th blessing, in which we ask for our prayers to be accepted, it cites the following verse (Isaiah 56:7): “Va’haviotim el har kodshi v’simachtim be’veit tefillati – I will bring them to My Holy Mountain, and make them joyful in My House of Prayer.”

The second part of that pasuk is the Scriptural source for the next benediction, “Retzeh“: “Oloteihem ve’zivcheihem l’ratzon al mizbechi – Their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted on My altar.”

This verse in Yeshayahu concludes with another reference to prayer, “Ki veiti beit tefilla yikkarei l’chol ha’amim – For My house shall be called a House of Prayer for all the nations.” Interestingly, this verse is the lead-in for Shema Kolenu in Selichot. It would seem, therefore, that Shema Kolenu is, indeed, a focal point of Selichot.

It is important to note that, generally, prayers (especially Shemoneh Esreh) should be said silently. The prayers of Yamim Nora’im, though, are an exception since praying aloud – “b’kol rom” – is conducive to increasing one’s concentration and the intensity of one’s prayer (see Mishna Berurah, ad loc.). Even during the Days of Awe, though, one must take care not to raise one’s voice above that of the chazzan (Mechaber, Orach Chayyim 582:9, and Sha’arei Teshuva, ad loc.).

Hence, the practice of not saying several verses of Shema Kolenu aloud during Selichot – namely, “Amareinu,” “Ha’azinah,” and “Hashem,” which most people say quietly, and “Yih’yu le’ratzon,” which all say quietly – requires an explanation.

First let’s discuss why we say Selichot altogether prayers. Doing so is intimately tied with the prayer by Moshe Rabbenu asking for forgiveness for the Children of Israel following the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:11): “Va’yechal Moshe et pnei Hashem elokav va’yomar… Shuv me’charon appecha ve’hinnachem al hara’ah le’amecha – Moshe implored Hashem, his G-d, saying…. Turn away from Your fierce anger, and relent from this evil against Your people…”

The result of that intense prayer was, “Va’yinnachem Hashem al hara’ah asher dibber la’asot le’amo – Hashem relented of the evil which He had declared He would do to His people.” Moshe was pleading for the very lives of his people, and his supplications were effective.

Thus, when we recite Selichot we are cognizant of the fact that “our lives are on the line,” and we use all means at our disposal – imploring, shouting, crying – in addition to heartfelt, sincere repentance to assuage Hashem and merit His forgiveness.

In a conversation on this topic I had with the late Cantor Macy Nulman, z”l, an expert on Jewish liturgy and author of the well-known Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer, he noted that in discussing this matter, he referred to Responsa of Modern Judaism by my uncle, HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l (Vol. II p. 63).

My uncle quotes the Meiri to the effect that “Yih’yu l’ratzon…,” like several of the phrases in this prayer, is based on a pasuk in Tehillim, but with the singular person changed to the plural. This particular verse (Psalms 19:15) is part of King David’s plea to Hashem to forgive him in regard to the episode of Bat Sheva. And it is in deference to this righteous king that we say it quietly.

Cantor Nulman notes that the phrase includes the words “v’hegyon libbenu – the thoughts of our hearts,” and the preceding phrase, starting with “Amareinu,” includes the words “bina hagigenu – perceive our thoughts.” Both refer to inner processes of the mind, and there is no need to say them aloud since (ibid. 94:11), “Hashem yode’a mach’shevot adam – G-d perceives the innermost thoughts of man.”

Cantor Nulman also quotes Matteh Ephraim (581:18) who states that four verses until Al ta’azvenu are recited responsively aloud: “Shema Kolenu,” “Hashivenu,” “Al tashlichenu milfanecha,” and “Al tashlichenu le’et zikna.”

Many congregations have a tradition to recite a fifth verse, “Al ta’azvenu,” aloud as well. This is not necessarily in contradiction with the opinion of Matteh Ephraim since this verse is a conceptual continuation of the previous one and repeats the last words of that verse. Moreover, Matteh Ephraim’s “until” Al ta’azvenu may mean the inclusion of that verse.

There are obviously various traditions. Thus, we also find that some recite the verse “Amareinu” aloud and “Yih’yu L’ratzon” silently (see the Nusach Sefard ArtScroll Siddur [Tefillat Shlomo Hashalem, May 1992] edition). However, in the ArtScroll Nusach Ashkenaz Siddur (Yitzchak Yair Hashalem, May 2006) the instructions call for reciting both verses “Amareinu” and “Yih’yu L’ratzon” silently.

Rabbi Klass quotes in his Responsa a passage of the Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 2:1) explaining Resh Lakish’s statement that the repentance of the people of Nineveh was insincere: R. Chuna said in the name of R. Shimon b. Chalafta that the people of Nineveh separated the newborn animals from their mothers and thus both the suckling animals and the nursing animals let out great wails. The people of Nineveh then argued with G-d, “If You do not have pity on us, we will have no pity on them” – and they were forgiven.

Thus, wailing, combined with a solid argument and of course repentance is seen as successful in achieving forgiveness.

We must keep in mind, though, that we should not compare people to beasts although we do share some traits with them. As stated in Tractate Chagigah (16a), human beings are like ministering angels in three aspects and like beasts in three other aspects. Like animals, human beings eat and drink, propagate, and relieve themselves. But we are also compared to angels because we are endowed with understanding, we walk erect, and we can talk in the holy tongue.

Those who say “Amareinu” aloud rely on the fact that crying out loud and wailing is effective because it is common to all creatures, but speaking and reciting prayers puts us on a higher plane compared to angels. We recite “Yih’yu l’ratzon” quietly, though, in deference to King David.


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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