by Emery Issakovitz
In the week before Rosh Hashanah, there is an ancient tradition still in practice today which is that of rising early to say a special collection of prayers called Selichot. The S'fardim (Jews of Oriental backgrounds) begin with the beginning of the month of Ellul and recite the special Selichot prayers each morning before the standard morning service. The Askenazim (the Jews of European origin) begin a week before Rosh Hashanah. This always starts on the night following the Shabbat. The first night service is always shortly after midnight. Subsequent services are said either at midnight or early in the morning before the regular Morning Prayer service. There are many individual customs concerning the exact order of the prayers which vary from community to community, and even within an individual community there are differences.
The Selihot prayer is first mentioned in the Sidur (prayer book) of Rav Amram Goan (9 th century CE). During the course of time many other prayers were inserted. These prayers themselves were composed by various people such as Saadyah Gaon (9 th century CE), ibn Gavirol (11th century CE), Rashi (11th century CE), Rabbainu Gershon (11th century CE), and many others. Most of the poets have embossed their names in the verses as an acrostic with the first word in each sentence using a progressive letter from his name.
At first the Selichot were said during the repetition of the silent standing prayer, the Amidah, but subsequently was changed and repeated after the Amidah. At this period of time, it was generally used in times of distress and on fast days. At a later period they were adapted into the tradition that we have today of reciting before Rosh Hashanah.
In days gone by, the village beadle would go through the streets with a lamp and awake every one to join in the services.
This custom is very interesting in view of the fact that we have Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to meditate and contemplate our deeds and request forgiveness. Why then do we need the additional Selichot Services?
The answer can be found in the following comparison:
A person sinned against his good friend and caused his friend great grief and anguish. When he realized that he had caused a tremendous injury to his good friend who had reacted by pulling himself away from his former friend, he was motivated to request forgiveness, Selichot.
He had to request from his friend forgiveness directly. Why? The reason is that because it is natural that when a person is hurt by another, he pulls away from him and withdraws his desire to be a friend. Even more so, there is created a desire NOT to be a friend. In other words, the desire to be friends was replaced by the desire not to be friends.
When he goes to his former friend, he must admit to him that he knows that he caused him pain. This admittance of guilt humbles him and shows to his friend that he is now in pain because of the pain that he caused the other and because of the broken relationship. By showing his personal humility and pain at the other's sorrow and distress arouses the latent feelings of love in the former friend.
When his former friend sees the distress that he is suffering due to his sincere remorse and the pain that he is suffering because of the termination of their friendship, his former love is aroused toward his friend. Once love is aroused, the aspect of love takes the man and blinds him to the faults in his former friend. As is well known, love is blind, or better still, love blinds those who love. In this manner, reconciliation is made and the two friends are re-joined together as before. The friendship is rekindled and the friend no longer sees the deficiency in the other.
This is the purpose in Selichot. We do not wait for Rosh Hashanah to come. We desire to approach the day of judgement as friends of G-d, not as strangers. In this manner we are confident that G-d will give us a good year.
from the July 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine