Saying You're Sorry
Preparing for the High Holidays with Selichot.
o one would argue that learning the precise
details of kashrut (the laws of keeping
kosher) is challenging.
It's not just a matter of not eating
shrimp or bacon, or separating meat from milk. It
means a whole new set of dishes and learning why you
can't serve brisket with that rice dish that says it's "dairy
free." (Some items are so marked, but the heksher,
proof of kashrut, reads O-U-D, indicating that it still
contains a minute bit of a dairy product.)
Then there's Shabbat: You've got to remember to
have all that food cooked in advance, turn on the lights
you'll be needing (and turn off the ones you won't
want to use, like in the refrigerator), have everything
ready that you can possibly imagine using ...
• When: Saturday night (around midnight),
Aug. 31. (Selichot services generally are held on
the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.)
• What It Is: A penitential service of prayers,
confession and asking for Divine mercy.
• What The Word Means: Selichot is the
plural of selicha, the Hebrew word for "forgive-
• Reason For The Observance: To prepare
ourselves for the Days of Awe — Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur — when we ask
God to grant us forgiveness and continued life.
• Traditions: Selichot is observed around
midnight because of Psalms 199:62, which
reads, "At midnight I will rise to give thanks
- But these laws pale, absolutely pale, in comparison
to the challenge of some of Judaism's other mitzvot
(commandments), such as loving one's fellow Jew and
asking for forgiveness.
The night of Saturday, Aug. 31, we observe Selichot,
the theme of which is sin and repentance.
The concept of seeking selichot (literally, forgiveness)
is drawn from the Torah, specifically the episode of the
Jewish people's encampment at Mount Sinai after the
exodus from Egypt.
Moses ascended Mount Sinai three times (Exodus 19,
20, 24). Once, the people below lost faith and created
an idol, the infamous Golden Calf. Moses returned,
chastised the people, destroyed the tablets and went
back up the mountain a second time to pray for God's
forgiveness and to receive new tablets (Exodus 32:30
Moses returned to the encampment and then
ascended the mountain a third time (Exodus 34). This
is reckoned as the first day oUlul, the month immedi-
ately preceding Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah is the first and
second of Tishrei; Yom Kippur is on the 10th).
Moses prayed for God to grant the Jewish peo-
ple complete atonement.
After 40 days (on Yom
Kippur), when God erased the
collective sin of the people,
Moses descended from the
the days of
Yom Kippur have
been regarded as a
period of divine grace
and especially suited to
introspection, moral self-
evaluation, seeking for-
giveness and invoking
The Selichot service
poems called p' iyutim, which are intended to turn
our thoughts and feelings to God and divine
mercy. Although the readings are concerned with
the sins of the individual worshipper, they con-
stantly evoke the suffering of Israel as a nation.
Within this context is the theme of Israel's stead-
fast faith in God's mercy and in the ultimate
Recounting Moses' third ascent on Mount
Sinai, the Torah in (Parshat Ki Tissa, Exodus 34:5-
7) reads: "And the Lord passed by him and pro-
claimed: "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and
gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness
and truth; keeping mercy for thousands of gener-
ations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error,
and who cleanses, but not completely, recalling
the iniquity of parents upon children and grand-
children, to the third and fourth generations."
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan reasoned that
God taught Moses this prayer as a way of
approaching Him to request forgiveness.
A later episode involved the 12 scouts sent to
the land of Canaan, who returned with a discour-
aging report. That resulted in the people's call for
a return to Egypt and God's intention to strike
them down. Here, Moses said a prayer that
included a modified form of the Thirteen
Attributes, and God forgave the Jews.
Several times during the Selichot service today
the congregation recites the Thirteen Attributes,
as well as Moses' prayer.
Because the rabbis who devised the Selichot
service did not wish for people to think of the
Thirteen Attributes as a sort of magic formula
that produces absolution, they mandated an
expression of confession and remorse. Thus, the
Thirteen Attributes are followed by vidui, or con-
fession. This consists of two parts: Ashamnu ("We
have trespassed"), an alphabetically arranged list
of sins, and Al Chet ("For the sin"), a long inven-
tory of transgressions, accompanied by beating of
The hoped-for result from the Selichot service
is that worshippers will come away realizing that
we are not always right, that we falter daily: We
disobey or ignore the teachings of Torah, both