The comprehensive 1229-page “Koren Selihot Minhag Lita, Hebrew and English Edition” contains a wealth of information about many aspects of Judaism. Since reciting Selihot is done before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and is a significant, often repeated part of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, and these holidays teach essential lessons, Jews should read this book to become knowledgeable about what tradition understands Selihot is designed to accomplish. Non-Jews will also benefit from this book, especially its easy-to-read, very informative 69-page “Introduction to Selihot,” along with the extensive explanations of the 100 Selihot, often as long as half a page, by Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, one of the Orthodox Jewish leading rabbis and scholars. They, like the Jewish readers, will gain insights into Jewish thinking and practices.
Meaning of Selihot
Selihot, also spelled in English as Selichot, is defined as forgiving and, by extension also, gracious, merciful, clement, pardon, and leniency. It occurs 47 times in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, meaning forgive, as when Moses petitioned God to forgive the Israelites for making the Golden Calf, God replied, “I have forgiven (salachti) them as you requested” (Numbers 14:20). The term is used nowhere in the Bible to suggest a Penitential ceremony or hymn as it is used in the Selihot ceremonies.
When did the recitations of Selihot begin?
We have no evidence of when the practice of Selihot began. Some scholars suggest that it started to develop after the destruction of the first Jewish Temple in 586 BCE, when Jews felt God was punishing them for misdeeds and decided they must atone for their wrong behaviors. This idea is pure speculation.
Just as the New Year is considered a good time in many cultures to reflect on behavior and make resolutions to improve, Judaism does so today by having Jews engage in various practices that remind them to change and improve or squash past misdeeds. These practices include transferring guilt to animals, going to water during Rosh Hashanah, giving charity, saying prayers, reciting confessions, and more. The Selihot service around the time of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and during these holidays and its recitations is one of them. Different communities engage in it in different ways and times.
For example, there are different practices among Ashkenazi (Jews generally from European counties), Sephardim (Jews mostly from Muslim lands), and Hasidim. This book follows the practice of the community Lita. From the first day of the Jewish month Elul, the month before Tishre when Rosh Hashanah occurs, many but not all groups of Jews blow the shofar (ram’s horn) every morning to awaken people to repent and improve. Sephardim and many Hasidim add a prayer L’David Hashem Ori from the first day of Elul until the day after the holiday of Sukkot, which has the same goal. Ashkenazi Jews do not do so. From 2 Elul until the day before Yom Kippur, Sephardim wake up early and say Selihot. Ashkenazi Jews start to recite Selihot on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until the day before Yom Kippur. If Rosh Hashanah occurs two days after Saturday, Selihot begins on a Saturday night a week earlier. We do not know why each group decided how to behave, but Rabbi Schacter offers several suggestions.
What does this book contain?
There is a wealth of material and information in the 1229 pages. Along with the Introduction and many explanations and commentaries, there are the Selihot in Hebrew and modern English for seven days, the Fast of Gedaliah, which occurs the day following Rosh Hashanah, Selihot for the second day of repentance, as well as the third, fourth, and fifth day, and Erev Yom Kippur. There is also the Ceremony of the Annulment of Vows, when a petitioner appears before three men, and all four say certain things. The book also has an index in Hebrew and English of the 100 Selihot, the biblical source of quotes in the hymns are identified, and there is some biographical information about the authors of the various hymns.
What are Selihot?
Rabbi Schacter identifies, explains, and reveals the relevance today of many of the themes that appear and reappear in the Selihot. He does so with his ideas and more often by referral to the opinions of many ancient sages and writings in Midrashim and the Talmuds.
One theme is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy that God revealed to Moses in Exodus 34:4-5.
Another is the story in Genesis 22 called the Akeida, Isaac’s binding and near sacrifice by his father, Abraham.
Also, Zekhut Avot and Berit Avot, the effect of the lives of ancient Jews on Jews today.
So too, Tzidduk Hadin, a review of some past calamities that occurred to Jews and how a human should understand the disasters and the involvement of God in them.
Likewise Confession, the recital of wrongs we committed or might have committed.
There are as well considerations of the connection between God and the Jewish people, the power of repentance, the desire to fulfill God’s will, handling the derision and persecution by non-Jews, the use of intermediaries to God such as angels and deceased sages, our search for God, and more.
In short, Koren Press has given us a treasure of meaningful thought-provoking information in Rabbi Schacter’s excellent and informative book.