What is the pre-Rosh Hashannah ritual known as ‘Slichot’ and why is it so popular?

The month-long period of repentance is about to end, culminating in the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur.

In is this final push for divine forgiveness, Jews praying an especially intense form of prayer called Selichot. 

Selichot are composed of Torah verses and poetically written Hebrew works in which we ask G‑d to forgive us on a personal and communal level.

There are significant differences between the Sephardi penitential traditions and those of the Ashkenazi Jews. In the Sephardic tradition, the recital of Selichot in preparation for the High Holidays begins on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul. In most modern Sephardic communities, Selichot services are identical each day. 

In the Ashkenazic tradition, it begins on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah. If, however, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, Selichot are said beginning the Saturday night prior to ensure that Selichot are recited at least four times. In the Eastern Ashkenazic tradition, the text and length of specific prayers vary daily.

Originally, Selichot prayers were recited early in the morning, prior to dawn. Today, Selichot are usually recited between midnight and dawn.  Some recite it at night after the Maariv (evening) prayer, or in the morning before the Shacharit prayer, due to the convenience of synagogue attendance when a prayer is already taking place there.

In addition to the Selichot of the High Holiday period, the recitation of Selichot on Yom Kippur itself is the centerpiece and most important part of the liturgy, recited in all of the prayers of the day. 

Most Jewish communities continue reciting Selichot throughout the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Selichot are also recited on fast days. Selichot does not include the recitation of the Shema or the thrice-daily prayer service called the Amidah, but, like the daily service, selichot begins with Ashrei (Psalm 145) and the half-kaddish sanctifying God’s name. Also like a normal prayer service, selichot ends with a full kaddish.

Inthe Ashkenazi tradition, the middle section varies being made up of selections of prayers (piyutim) for each day with common supplications such as the repeated appeals to the Divine attributes of mercy. The middle section also has a special pizmon (hymn with refrain) for each day.

 A central theme throughout these prayers is Thirteen Attributes of Mercy as enumerated in the Book of Exodus with which God governs the world.

Hashem passed before him and proclaimed: “Hashem! Hashem! a Hashem compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” Exodus 34:6-7

The Tanna debei Eliyahu Zuta, a midrashic work that dates at the latest to the ninth century, mentions a special service for forgiveness instituted by King David when he realized that the Temple would be destroyed.

“How will they attain atonement?” he asked the Lord and was told that the people would recite the order of Selichot and would then be forgiven



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