Many Jews have a custom, extending back to the times of the Ge’onim, to wake up early during the Ten Days of Repentance to recite Seliḥot. This is done primarily to inspire people to repent, ask God for forgiveness and atonement, and beg Him to be merciful to His exiled and suffering people. We ask that He not look at our sins and transgressions, but rather that He remember His covenant with our ancestors and with us. We ask Him to remember the sacrifice of Yitzḥak and all the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to sanctify His name. We also pray for the ingathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the return of the Shekhina to Zion. It is customary to recite Seliḥot specifically during the Ten Days of Repentance because it is a time of judgment and prayer is more readily accepted then. It is proper for every individual to join the community and pray fervently for the Jewish people, for the Shekhina to dwell among us, and for God’s name to be sanctified in the world. Through this, one’s personal prayers will be accepted as well.
Indeed, we find that the prophets encouraged the Jews to gather together in times of trouble to fast, pray, and beg God to have mercy on His people and His land. Thus, we read:
Blow a shofar in Zion; solemnize a fast; proclaim an assembly! Gather the people; bid the congregation purify themselves. Bring together the old, gather the babes and the sucklings at the breast. Let the bridegroom come out of his chamber, the bride from her canopied couch. Between the portico and the altar, let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep and say: “Oh, spare Your people, Lord! Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the peoples say, ‘Where is their god?’” Then the Lord will be roused on behalf of His land and have compassion upon His people. (Yoel 2:15-18)
Together with reciting Seliḥot and prayers, we must repent and improve our behavior. Thus, during this time period, it is customary to recite Seliḥot, to study works of musar (ethical improvement), and to have sermons that exhort us to repent. Some have the custom to have sermons before Seliḥot, to rebuke and inspire.