7 Things to Know About Selichot

Jane E. Herman

Selichot (which literally means “forgiveness”) are penitential prayers recited before and during the High Holidays and other fast days throughout the year.

Like other activities during Elul, the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holidays, they offer an opportunity for personal reflection and to seek forgiveness from those we may have wronged during the year just ending.

  1. Selichot prayers focus on God’s benevolence, compassion, and the “Thirteen Attributes” with which God is said to govern the world. God proclaimed the Thirteen Attributes to Moses following the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 34:6-7), expressing God’s tremendous capacity for forgiveness. These words echo throughout the High Holiday liturgy.
  1. Among Ashkenazi Jews (and in many Reform congregations), selichot services (sometimes spelled s'lichot) are held late on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah. Because Shabbat has ended and a new week has begun, this time is considered particularly auspicious for penitential prayers.
  1. In addition to the selichot prayers themselves, often recited by candlelight, many synagogues offer a full evening of programming that may include mystical practices associated with s’lichot and/or discussions or a film focused on forgiveness, setting the stage for the upcoming Days of Awe.
  1. Music is part of the selichot experience as well, and the same special nusach (musical melodies and modes) used throughout the High Holidays also are used during selichot services, again setting the mood for individuals to reflect on the past year and the changes they wish to make in themselves in the coming year.
  1. When the first day of Rosh HaShanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday, selichot services are held on the Saturday night before the one immediately preceding Rosh HaShanah. In the Sephardic community, selichot prayers are recited throughout the month of Elul.
  1. Immediately before the selichot service, it is customary to change the Torah covers to those specifically designed for the High Holidays. The special covers are usually white, representing purity and the wish that through repentance, our sins will be made white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).
  1. To learn when selichot services take place in any given year, visit our Jewish Holidays page for an annual calendar, then find a Reform congregation near you and inquire about their selichot services and other High Holidays offerings.

Shanah tovah u'metukah, a good and sweet year to you.