While most Jewish services are held during the day or early evening, High Holiday Selichos are the exception, held in the wee hours of the morning. Drawing from biblical verses and rabbinic teachings, they are a soul-stirring introduction to the Days of Awe.
In Ashkenazic tradition (the focus of this article), the first night of Selichos is the Big Night, held after midnight after the Shabbos before Rosh Hashana.
The liturgy for the High Holiday Selichos is not found in most siddurim; rather, it is found in a special Selichos sefer, with a different selection for each day.
The Selichos are a collage of Torah verses and poetically written Hebrew works in which we ask G-d to forgive us on a personal and communal level. An oft-repeated phrase is the “13 Attributes of Mercy,” which G-d revealed to Moshe at Sinai as the key to forgiveness.
For most of Selichos, the chazzan chants the last line of each paragraph, allowing the congregation to daven the paragraph to themselves.
Here are some landmarks:
- As we will discuss, there are certain hymns, known as pizmonim, that are read responsively, with the congregation reading a line and the chazzan chanting it after them. There is a different pizmon at the heart of the service each day.
- Toward the end the ark is opened, and a series of verses, beginning with the words Shema koleinu (“Hear our voice”), are recited responsively, first by the chazzan and then by the congregation.
- Close to the end we say the Ashamnu confession in which we list an alphabetical litany of sins that we (as a community) have committed. We strike our chests when saying each of these sins.
Sephardim recite Selichos throughout the month of Elul.
Many Jewish communities continue reciting Selichos throughout the Aseres Yemei Teshuva (Ten Days of Repentance), the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. According to Chabad custom, however, Selichos are not said during these days, with the exception of the third of Tishrei, when Selichos are recited as part of the commemoration of the Fast of Gedaliah.
The fourth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, once asked his father, the Tzemach Tzedek, why Chabad communities do not continue saying Selichos during the Ten Days of Repentance. “My son,” he responded, “now is no longer the time for words. Now we must translate words into deed.”
May we all be written and sealed for a good, happy, sweet and prosperous new year and the year of the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.