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Thoughts on the Selichot Prayers on Kol Nidre Night

Before sundown on the eve of Yom Kippur, we gather in the synagogue for the Kol Nidre prayers. This formula annulling vows made between ourselves and God that we failed to keep during the past year or, as it currently reads, that we pre-emptively annul before we make them in the coming year (Admittedly, it is kind of confusing and there is a longstanding rabbinic debate on which is more appropriate.) precedes the evening service for the holiday. I have written about this controversial prayer in a previous piece three years ago when I first started this blog. After the Kol Nidre prayers conclude, we turn to the evening service for the holiday, the Sh’ma and its blessings followed by the appropriate Amidah for Yom Kippur. The section I want to explore this week are the prayers for forgiveness, the Selichot, that follow the holiday Amidah in the evening service of Yom Kippur.


Throughout the day on this Day of Atonement, we include two groups of prayers in our recital of the Amidah, Selichot, prayers asking for forgiveness, and the Vidui, confessional prayers (Ashamnu and Al Chet primarily). During the silent Amidah we add the Vidui at the end of the Amidah, while in the repetition during the day, both the prayers of Selichot and Vidui are incorporated into the middle blessing of the Amidah, the Kedushat Hayom. In spite of the fact that we do not repeat the Amidah in the evening service, nonetheless, it is customary to follow the silent prayer with both Selichot and the Vidui prayers.


First there are a series of Selichot. As with the Selichot service that many of us are familiar with that we hold on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, these Selichot are made up of liturgical poems interspersed with the repeated refrain leading into the well-known thirteen attributes of God’s compassionate forgiveness (Adonay, Adonay, El rachum v’chanun, etc.) that we sing before taking out the Torah on holidays as well. There seem to be a variety of customs regarding the selection of poems as well as the number of times one repeats the thirteen attributes. Lev Shalem has them repeated three times. The previous Conservative machzor, the so-called “Harlow Machzor,” had two repetitions, while the Machzor Hadash which we were using previously in our congregation only had one. I was surprised when I looked at the “Silverman Machzor,” the volume many of us used when we were growing up and which some congregations still use, to see that while they include three different selichot, there is only a single recital of the thirteen attributes. 


The notes in the sidebars of our Lev Shalem Machzor are quite interesting. The commentator begins by noting that the Selichot and Vidui are in a complementary relationship. “Vidui (confession) is the human realization that we have sinned and failed – that our lives are imperfect. S’lihah (forgiveness) is the divine assurance that our confession (repeated ten times on Yom Kippur) is received in love. Note that the assurance of God’s forgiveness precedes our confession.”


The Selichot on Yom Kippur evening begin with an anonymous medieval poem which views Yom Kippur as a progression from evening to morning and then on to evening once more, from Kol Nidrei through the day to Neilah. Each stanza of the poem is comprised of three lines each beginning with words from the holiday insertion into the Avodah blessing of the Amidah, the Yaaleh v’yavo prayer. Thus line one of each stanza begins with Yaaleh, may it rise up. Line two begins with v’yavo, may it arrive. Line three starts v’yeraeh, may it appear or as Lev Shalem translates, may it transform. Each of these lines in turn ends with mei-erev, from the evening, miboker, from the morning, and ad erev, until evening. In the middle of each line we find a whole series of synonyms for our prayers, arranged in a reverse alphabetical acrostic: tachanuneinu, shavateinu, rinuneinu, koleinu, etc. (tav, shin, reish, kuf, on to alef.) In the final stanza with have three alefs, enkateinu, elecha, and eileinu, May our prayers rise up at evening, coming to You at dawn, and transforming us at dusk. As we sing this lively melody, you may wish to look at the opposite sidebar which presents an alternative translation for this hymn.


The following couple of pages presents a series of biblical verses mostly calling on God to show us mercy: “All flesh comes to You, You who hear prayer. All flesh shall come to worship You, Adonai, they shall come to bow down before You, Adonai.” Some of these verses may be familiar from the Psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, including L’chu neranena ladonay. These opening verses are followed by a passage from the book of Job asking where one can find wisdom. We then chant a short poem about body and soul. “Haneshamah lach, the soul is Yours, the body is Your creation. Have compassion on Your handiwork. The soul is Yours, the body is Yours. Deal with us according to Your nature.” The lines which follow ask for God’s forgiveness as we emphasize our own insignificance. “Grant relief to this driven leaf. Have compassion on that which is but dust and ashes.” Once again, I should note, that different volumes present additional verses or choose some different lines at this point.


Following these introductory verses, we come to the first passage leading into the thirteen attributes:  “Adonay, Adonay, God, merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and granting pardon.” To this we add, “V’salachta la-avoneinu ul’chatateinu unchaltanu, Forgive our transgressions and our sins; claim us for Your own.” This is followed by a refrain heard throughout the day, “S’lach lanu Avinu ki chatanu, Forgive us, our Father, for we have sinned; pardon us our Sovereign, for we have transgressed – for You, Adonai, are kind and forgiving; You act generously to all who call on You.”


In different machzorim and different traditions the prayers which follow vary. In our machzor, Lev Shalem, the next poem introducing the second cycle of Selichot, is another anonymous poem that begins, “Ki hinei kachomer b’yad hayotzer,” picking up on a phrase from the book of Jeremiah, “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.” (Jeremiah 18:6). The poet proceeds to compare Israel to all sorts of materials in the hands of various craftsman. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, who thickens or thins it at will, so are we in Your hand, Guardian of love (chesed notzer).” The poem proceeds to speak of us as stone in the hand of the mason, iron in the hand of the blacksmith, the steering wheel in the hand of the sailor, glass in the hand of the glazier, cloth in the hand of the draper, and silver in the hand of the smelter. Each of the seven stanzas ends with the prayer, “Labrit habeit v’al tefen l’yetzer, recall Your covenant; do not heed the accuser.” The yetzer is shorthand for the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, which often leads us astray.


This poem is followed by selections from the Psalms, a series of verses, recognizing our total dependence on God and our fragility and hoping for divine forgiveness. Once again, following this interlude, we come to the thirteen attributes with their introductory verses and their concluding prayers.


The third cycle, in Lev Shalem, is introduced by a piyyut taken from the Italian liturgy, Baruch Elohei Elyon, written by a 13th century poet, Rabbi Binyamin ben Avraham min HaAnavim. I was curious to see if Anavim was spelled with a vav, “the humble,” or a vet, “from the grapes.” (Was his family in the wine business?) So I checked the Hebrew Vikipedia and it turns out to be a vav. This poet is the author of a number of volumes not well-known at all, but was the older brother of a much better known authority, Rabbi Tzidkiah HaRofe, the author of Shibolei Haleket, an important compendium of Jewish law. This poem follows the same themes we have seen earlier, speaking of our humility and God’s mercy, each stanza calling for God’s forgiveness as if we were offering the worship of the High Priest in the Holy Temple. We ask that our prayers and fasting substitute for the offerings and sacrifices of the past. Each stanza concludes with a line based on Exodus 9:5, where God instructs Moses to tell Pharaoh, “Machar ya’aseh Adonay et hadavar hazeh, tomorrow God will do this thing.” In this case, we are not talking about bringing on a plague, but rather, the granting of forgiveness. 


Other machzorim choose different poems in this spot, most notably one finds the poem beginning “Omnam ken” which Israel Zangwill translated famously as “Ay, ‘tis thus, evil us.” That poem concludes each stanza with the word “Salachti, I have forgiven.” Its author, the 12th century Rabbi Yom Tob of York, was killed in 1189 in the York massacre, commemorated in our Tisha B’Av kinot. Another poem found in some machzorim has a series of stanzas with the first line beginning, S’lach na, Forgive, we pray, and the second line beginning with la’avon, for the sin. This poem was authored by the well-known 13th century Rabbi Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg, the Maharam, who may have been an ancestor of our recently departed member Buddy Whisler, who bore the Hebrew name Mairum derived from Maharam. Whichever poems are chosen, the passage of the thirteen attributes concludes each cycle. Silverman has Ki Hinei Kachomer, S’lach na, and Omnam Ken, one after the other followed by the thirteen attributes a single time.


After these three cycles in our machzor, there is in more traditional machzorim a lengthy prayer which recurs throughout the day, leading into the Sh’ma Koleinu. Lev Shalem has shortened the passage significantly, but the message remains clear as we seek God’s forgiveness and call on Him to purify us this day. This passage ends with the prayer, “Bring us to Your holy mountain and make us joyful in Your house of prayer, as Isaiah prophesied, ‘For My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.’”


At this point, the ark is opened and the cantor chants the verses of Sh’ma Koleinu, hear our voice, each line of which is repeated by the congregation. I notice that the order of the verses varies in different machzorim, but the four which Lev Shalem puts in larger print are the best known lines. “Sh’ma Koleinu, hear our voice, Adonai our God, be kind, and have compassion for us. Willingly and lovingly accept our prayer.” This is followed by the closing line from Lamentations that you may recognize from the prayers of returning the Torah to the ark, “Hashiveinu Adonay elecha v’nashuva, Turn us toward You, Adonai, and we will return to You, renew our days as of old.” The next two lines often bring older cantors to tears, “Al tashlicheinu milfanecha, do not cast us away from You; take not Your holy presence from us,” and “Al tashlicheinu l’eit ziknah, do not cast us away as we grow old; do not desert us as our energy wanes.” Several more lines are customarily recited in an undertone before the ark is closed.


The Selichot section ends with a closing prayer: “Our God and God of our ancestors, do not abandon us, do not forsake us, do not shame us, do not annul Your covenant with us. Draw us close to Your Torah, teach us Your mitzvot, show us Your ways. Open our hearts to revere Your name, circumcise our hearts to love You; then, we will turn to You faithfully, with a perfect heart. And as befits Your own great name, pardon and forgive our sins, as the psalmist wrote: ‘For the sake of Your own name, forgive my sin, though it be great, v’salachta l’avoni ki rav hu.’”


As we transition into the Vidui, confessional prayers, we join in a rousing chorus of “Ki anu amecha.” This well-known prayer begins with the words, “Our God and God of our ancestors, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement, s’lach lanu, m’chal lanu, kaper lanu.” It goes on to provide a series of terms partnering us with the Almighty, “For we are Your people and You are our God; we are Your children and You are our parent; we are Your servants, and You are our master; we are Your congregation and You are our portion.” The prayer continues in this manner for several more lines and concludes with the words, “We are the one You address and You are the One to whom we speak, anu ma’amirecha, v’ata ma’amireinu.” The pattern of anu, we, and ata, You, then continues into the Vidui section, which we will look at on another occasion.


On this Day of Atonement, once again we offer our prayers for a good and sweet year, a year of blessing, good health, happiness, and peace. G’mar chatimah tovah!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Edward Friedman

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