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7 Things to Know About S’lichot

7 Things to Know About S’lichot

The word forgiveness written in the sand with a heart as the dot over the letter i

S’lichot (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. S’lichot 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), s’lichot services (sometimes spelled selichot) 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 s’lichot 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 s’lichot experience as well, and the same special nusach (musical melodies and modes) used throughout the High Holidays also are used during s’lichot 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, s’lichot services are held on the Saturday night before the one immediately preceding Rosh HaShanah. In the Sephardic community, s’lichot prayers are recited throughout the month of Elul.
  1. Immediately before the s’lichot 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. This year, s’lichot services will be held on Saturday evening, September 16 in many synagogues. Find a Reform congregation near you and inquire about their s’lichot services.

Shana tova u'metukah, a good and sweet year to you.

Jane E. Herman , a.k.a. JanetheWriter, is the senior writer and editor at the Union for Reform Judaism. She is a graduate of Lafayette College in Easton, PA, and holds a master's degree in public administration from the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. She grew up at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ, and now belongs to Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. A proud New Yorker, she loves books, fountain pens, social media, Words with Friends, mah jongg, and all things Jewish. She blogs at JanetheWriter Writes.

Jane E. Herman
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