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 is a special time at TAS/HJC. We have an annual apple-honey bake-off, where congregants whip up their favorite recipes that contain apples, honey, or both, and other congregants serve as judges… with the enviable job of tasting each delicacy to determine the best of the best each year. We also bring out one of our sifrei Torahs for an annual cleaning. With the scroll rolled out across our Social Hall, congregants wash their hands, grab special erasers, and go to work removing dirt and smudges and repairing the stitching to keep our Torahs well-maintained. Our Rabbi then points out notable sections of the scroll for all to see. Lastly, we have an educational aspect of the program. In recent years we have had a variety of topics, including lessons on blowing the shofar, a history of polymers used in erasers (like the ones used to clean our scrolls), and this year, instruction on braiding challah bread. A brief Selichot service follows the program.
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, different texts are recited on the different days. Though the text and length of specific prayers varies from day to day, the overall format remains the same. The service begins with the recitation of Ashrei (Psalm 145), followed by 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.