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Selichot – The Penitential Prayers

G‑d replied (to King David): “When suffering will befall the Jews
because of their sins, they should gather before me in complete
unity. Together they shall confess their sins and recite the order
of the Selichot, and I will answer their prayers” — Midrash.

In the Shulchan Aruch we are told about a certain period of the year when the gates of Heaven are eased open, and access to the Divine throne becomes more easily available. This period of the year lasts for forty days and comprises the entire month of Elul followed by the first ten days of Tishrei. Although we believe in “direct access,” meaning that each and every individual can dialogue with G-d at any time, these forty days are particularly auspicious days for the acceptance of those prayers.

This forty day “grace period” dates back over 3,300 years to the post-Exodus events in the Sinai desert. The Jewish people, freshly liberated from back-breaking slavery, are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai, and Moses has ascended the mountain to receive the Torah – but he does not return. Due to a miscalculation the Children of Israel fear that the experience has overwhelmed their great leader, and that he would never return. As the fear spreads that Moses may not return, they create a golden calf as an alternative Divine intermediary – not a particularly good idea.

We all know the ending – G-d tells Moses to descend to his disgraced people, Moses smashes the Luchot (the Ten Commandments) and punishes the sinners.

It takes forty days of prayer until G-d begins to forgive them, and then another forty day period which culminates in a new set of Tablets, and G-d’s pronouncement to Moses, “Salachti Ki’devarecha – I have forgiven, as you requested.” It is this last forty days of forgiveness which correspond to the month of Elul followed by the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. G-d’s final granting of forgiveness took place on what we now call Yom Kippur.

Because these days are so propitious for forgiveness we focus during these days on extra prayer and Teshuvah (Return). Special early morning selichot prayers are added during these days, Sephardic Jews reciting them for the entire month of Elul, and Ashkenaz Jews for at least four days before Rosh Hashanah and then through to Yom Kippur. Most communities say these extra prayers before the daily Shacharit morning services except the very first ones which are usually held as a choral service at midnight after Shabbat.

This year Selichot begin at midnight on September 24th. Bring your family and friends to the shul and participate in an age-old tradition, the pre-Rosh Hashana selichot, and pray that G-d grants us all the blessings we need for the next year. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent


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