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Selichot or slichot (Hebrew: סליחות) are Jewish penitential poems and prayers, especially those said in the period leading up to the High Holidays, and on Fast Days. God's Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are a central theme throughout these prayers.
Selichot of the High Holidays
In the Sephardic tradition, recital of Selichot in preparation for the High Holidays begins on the second day of the Hebrew month of Elul. 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. This may be because originally the pious would fast for ten days during the season of repentance, and four days before Rosh Hashanah were added to compensate for the four of the Ten days of Repentance on which fasting is forbidden - the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, and the day preceding Yom Kippur - and, while the fasts have since been abandoned, the Selichot that accompanied them have been retained. Alternatively, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy includes the Biblical phrase, “you shall observe a burnt offering”, and like an offering which needs to be scrutinised for defects for four days, so too four days of self-searching are needed before the day of judgment.
Selichot refers to both the poetic piyyutim that compose the service as well as to the service itself. Sephardic Selichot services are identical each day. In the Ashkenazic tradition, although the text and length of specific prayers varies from day to day, the overall format remains the same and is prefaced by Ashrei (Psalms 145) and the Half-Kaddish.
Selichot are usually recited between midnight and dawn. Some recite it at night after the 'Arvit service or in the morning before the Shacharit service due to the convenience of synagogue attendance at these times.
Arguably the most important and certainly most popular night of Selichot in the Ashkenazi tradition is the first night, when many women and girls as well as men and boys attend the late-night service on Saturday night. The hazzan wears a kittel and sings elaborate melodies. In some congregations, it is not unusual for a choir to participate in this first night's service. This night also has more Selichot than any other night prior to Rosh Hashanah eve. The other nights are more sparsely attended and those services are often led by a layperson, rather than a trained musician, and with melodies that are less elaborate than the first night.
Categories of Selichot
Categories of Selichot in the Ashkenazic tradition may include:
- Selichah (סליחה) — Hebrew for "forgiveness." This is the default Selichah and comprises the vast majority of the Selichot service.
- Pizmon (פזמון) — Hebrew for "chorus." These central Selichot vary according to the day and contain a chorus which is repeated after each stanza.
- Akeidah (עקידה) — Hebrew for "binding", a word which specifically refers to the Binding of Isaac. This Selichah contains the theme of the Akeidah as a merit for God answering our prayers. It begins to appear on Rosh Hashanah eve and is placed immediately before the Pizmon.
- Chatanu (חטאנו) — Hebrew for "we have sinned." Starting on the evening before Rosh Hashanah and continuing through Yom Kippur, this Selichah is said after the final recitation of the Thirteen Attributes and before the Vidui confessional. It contains as its refrain, "חטאנו צורנו סלח לנו יוצרנו", "We have sinned, our Rock, forgive us, our Creator". Perhaps the most famous Chatanu Selichah is the Eleh Ezkera Martyrology recited during Musaf on Yom Kippur, though the recitation of the aforementioned refrain is not always followed in this particular Chatanu.
- Techinah (תחינה) — Hebrew for "petition." This Selichah begins to appear on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in the Tachanun section, at the very end of the Selichot service.
Selichot of Fast Days
On minor fast days (besides the Fast of Gedaliah, whose Selichot are preempted by the Selichot of the High Holidays), some communities recite Selichot after the conclusion of the Shacharit Amidah. The content of these prayers is related to the specific fast day. Western Ashkenazic communities insert the recitation of the Selichot of minor fast days in the middle of the blessing for forgiveness (סלח לנו כי חטאנו) in the repetition of the Shacharit Amidah.
Selichot are not recited on the major fast day of Tisha B'Av.
- סליחות: ע״פ מנהג חב״ד / Selichot: according to the Chabad custom. Translated by Rabbi J. Immanuel Shochet. 2000. Free Selichot e-text. Hebrew with English translation; has title pages in Hebrew and English.
- "Selichot". Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.