Peninei Halakha

4. The Contents of Seliḥot

Because the Sages did not explicitly ordain the recitation of Seliḥot, there is no standard rite, and each community added its own supplications and piyutim (liturgical poems). Nevertheless, there is a basic framework that all communities follow and which appears in Seder R. Amram Gaon. We begin with the recitation of Ashrei (Tehilim 145), as every prayer service begins with praise of God. This is followed by a half Kaddish and the paragraphs that begin “Lekha Hashem Ha-tzedaka” (“To You, O Lord, is righteousness”) and “Shome’a tefila adekha kol basar yavo’u” (“Hearer of prayer, all humankind comes to You”; Tehilim 65:3) and additional verses of petition and supplication. We then recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the standard confession (“Ashamnu” – “We are guilty”) and the longer confession (“Ashamnu mi-kol am” – “We are the guiltiest of all peoples”). Toward the end, we recite “Aneinu” (“Answer us”) and “Asei le-ma’an shemekha” (“Act for the sake of Your name”). The service concludes with Taḥanun and the full Kaddish.

  1. Amram Gaon writes that additional verses, piyutim, and supplications may be added to the basic outline. In fact, Jewish communities have added many piyutim to Seliḥot, with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy repeated in between them. There are differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites of these additional piyutim. Also, while Sephardim recite the same Seliḥot every day, Ashkenazim have different piyutim for each day.

When time is short, worshippers may skip the additional piyutim and recite just the basic order set out by R. Amram Gaon. If a congregation is selecting which piyutim to say, they should opt for those that inspire repentance.[2]

[2]. Some say that it is forbidden to recite piyutim that address various angels, as one may turn in prayer only to God (Rambam; Ramban). Accordingly, one should not recite “Makhnisei Raḥamim” (“Purveyors of Mercy”), which is mentioned in Seder R. Amram Gaon and which Ashkenazim usually say at the end of Seliḥot, as it is addressed to angels. Likewise, according to this view, one may not recite the piyutMidat Ha-raḥamim aleinu hitgalgeli” (“Attribute of Mercy, Descend upon Us”) as it is addressed to a divine attribute and not directly to God. However, most poskim permit the recitation of these piyutim, which were composed long ago by Torah giants, and which Jews have been reciting for hundreds of years. The rationale seems to be that as long as the supplicant knows that everything is in the hands of God, he may ask the angels to fulfill their mission, namely, to transport our prayers to God and remind Him of our merits (R. Sherira Gaon; R. Eliezer of Worms; Shibolei Ha-leket §252: Mahari Bruna). Indeed, this is the practice of most communities, which have not expunged such piyutim from the siddur. Others maintain that fundamentally the stringent position is correct. Nevertheless, they do not want to eliminate these piyutim entirely, because of the long-standing custom to recite them. To resolve the dilemma, they adjust the formulations of the prayers slightly, rephrasing them so that it is clear that the prayers are addressing God, asking Him to teach the angels how to transport our prayers to Him (Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-avoda ch. 12; this was the practice of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook). Alternatively, some rabbis took their time reciting the prayers earlier in Seliḥot in order to ensure that they would not have time to recite the problematic ones. Nevertheless, they did not object to the congregation saying them (Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 166).

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Editor: Nechama Unterman