Selichot is a deeply moving service, full of beautiful traditional songs, haunting verses, and powerful shofar blasts. One of the fundamental parts of the service is the repeated repetition of the “Thirteen Attributes,” verses from the book of Exodus in the Torah that list the thirteen aspects of mercy and compassion that G-d embodies.
There is a Jewish holiday that is not practiced very much especially in the North-western part where the Jewish population is small and dispersed over the mountains and the plains. It is celebrated Saturday night before the High Holy Days begin with the New Year—Rosh Hashanah—the birthday of the world.
It is called Selichot, which means forgiveness, and is a preparation.
The preparation of the festival starts from the Saturday night only when each person is supposed to prepare for the holidays by looking deeply into their soul and study the ways in which they have measured up or missed the mark during the year, atone for misdeeds, ask forgiveness for the wrongs they have done and thus set new goals for the coming year.
As per history, King David was anguished when he prophetically foresaw the destruction of the Holy Temple and the cessation of the offering of the sacrifices. He wondered. “How will the Jews atone for their sins?”
To his question G‑d replied: “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
Thus with the imminent approach of the new year and the Days of Awe, ones preparations for the High Holidays move into highest gear. Hence, one start off with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, with the reciting of the Selichot, which is a series of penitential prayers and liturgy.
According to Ashkenazic custom, the first Selichot are recited on the Saturday night after halachic midnight, and a minimum of four days of Selichot must be observed. Therefore, if the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Thursday or Shabbat, the Selichot should start on the Saturday night directly preceding the New Year. However if Rosh Hashanah falls on Monday or Tuesday, then the Selichot should commence on the Saturday night approximately a week and a half before Rosh Hashanah. Following the midnight service, the Selichot are recited daily (except on Shabbat) before the morning prayers, until Rosh Hashanah (aside for the Sunday morning immediately after the first Selichot, which is covered by the midnight recitation several hours earlier).
However Sephardim recite the Selichot throughout the month of Elul.
Moreover it is important to attend synagogue for Selichot, as its text contains several important passages which may be said only in the presence of a minyan or the quorum of ten Jewish men. Though the Selichot service can be recited alone, however, several important parts of the service can only be recited with a minyan. The service is usually recited as a minyan any time after midnight until morning, before morning prayers are recited. Thus the service is never recited before halachic midnight because the first part of the night is considered to be a strong time of judgment.
Thus most of the Jewish communities continue reciting Selichot throughout the Ten Days of Repentance (the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). However, according to Chabad custom, Selichot should not be recited during these days (with the exception of the third of Tishrei, when Selichot are recited as part of the commemoration of the Fast of Gedaliah).
The story is told about the fourth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, who once asked his famous father, the Tzemach Tzedek, the reason behind the observance of this custom, to which his father replied “My son, now is no longer the time for words. Now we must translate words into deed . . .”
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