Selichot: The Penitential Prayers for Rosh HaShanah
Resources for repentance in the month of Elul and the Days of Awe
As we enter the month of Elul all Jewish communities begin to reflect on our ways and deeds in a spirit of repentance. The reason for our reflection and introspection is because we are preparing for Rosh haShanah (The Jewish New Year, the day of judgment) and Yom haKippurim (the Day of Atonements).
However there is more that just proximity to the start of a new civil year in the Jewish calendar that makes Elul an ideal time for repentance. Many people point out the similarity between the word Elul and the word “to search” in the Aramaic language. This is a perfect time for us to look inward and search out the state of our moral character. For this reason the entire month of Elul is considered a time of personal repentance and self-judgment. Though we have the High Holidays to petition G-d for mercy and forgiveness, we examine ourselves before we stand this judgment to be sure our hearts are pure.
In the Sephardic tradition this season is a bit more obvious, for the entire month prior one says the Selichot – the Penitential Prayers. From the second day of Elul (once Rosh Chodesh has passed) they are recited in the presence of a minyan (a full congregation) for communal repentance.
For Ashkenazim this period is not as long, only requiring a minimum of four days of Selichot before Rosh haShanah. As the New Year only falls on certain days of the week according to the rules of the Jewish calendar, this may vary. If Rosh haShanah falls on a Thursday or on Shabbat, then one only recites from after the preceding Shabbat. If it falls on Monday or Tuesday, then this period starts about a week and half earlier. This period is commenced immediately after celestial midnight on motzei Shabbat (the going out of the sabbath, Saturday evening); with men and women, both adults and their children, gather to engage in prayer and liturgy. (For 2015 this starts on September 5th)
So the Sephardic tradition starts in Elul. While Ashkenazim start closer to the holiday of Rosh haShanah, during the period when the series of traditional Selichot begin to become most grand and intense right before the holiday.
In both traditions, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, the Selichot are said after Tikkun Chatzot – the Midnight Prayer Service – during the period between halachic midnight and dawn. However, for the sake of convenience you might find that your local congregation holds their Selichot service immediate before Shacharit (Morning Prayers).
It is ideal that one say Selichot in the presence of a minyan, as some of the prayers are only able to be recited with a sufficient quorum. The prayers are not just worded in the plural, but they are composed to be said responsively. Selichot are often said in rounds by lay persons, giving everyone an opportunity for participation. Selichot are said daily (except on Shabbat).
It is the custom of most communities to say Selichot during the Aseret Yamei Teshuvah – The Ten Days of Repentance, the days between Rosh haShannah and Yom Kippur. This is not the case in the Chabad custom, in which one does not say Selichot during these Days of Awe except for on the day of Tzom Gedalia – the fast of Gedalia. (For 2015 this will fall on September 15th)
Do you need a copy of the Selichot? You can download digital copies in PDF format, and according to different traditions. Here are a few leads:
- New Chabad Selichot in Hebrew – this is a new typesetting with instructions, there is no English translation. According to the tradition of Chabad chassidus.(Chabad.org)
- Classic Chabad Slichot in English – this text also has the facing Hebrew pages, however the person who digitized it scanned the Hebrew upside down in many cases. (Hebrewbooks.org)
- Classic Chabad for Day One – with English, this also has upside-down Hebrew pages. (Hebrewbooks.org)
- Selichot Avodat Yisrael, Sephard – this is a comprehensive set of selichot for each day. (Daat.ac.il)
- Selichot Saadia Gaon – Mizrahi tradition, the tradition of the middle-east. Nusach Edut haMizrach (Daat.ac.il)
- Selichot Teimani – according to the Yeminite tradition (Daat.ac.il)
- Selichot Kol Tuv Sefard – de acuerdo a la tradición de las comunidades sefarditas de Londres y Amsterdam, en hebreo y español. Compilado por el Rabino Juan Mejía, rabino Masortí. (koltuvsefarad.com)
- Kapparot Ceremony with Money – Liturgy and cruelty – free guide to the traditional expiation ceremony
- Tikkun Ḥatzot: Getting Right at Midnight — An Introduction to the Midnight Rite
- Tikkun Chatzot: Do we say the Midnight Rite During Spring and Summer?
- “Getting Down During the High Holidays” – a reflection upon ritual prostration during the High Holidays
- The Festival of Sukkot: “Stay sweet, my friend!” Honey During the High Holidays.