Today is December 13, 2019 -
by Hazzan Michael Krausman
The official liturgical kickoff of the High Holy Day season is the Selichot service. Selichot is a poignant collection of prayers of repentance and supplication that is recited for a week preceding Rosh Hashanah in the Ashkenazi community and for an entire month by the Sephardim. In most Ashkenazi synagogues, the beginning of the period of Selichot is marked by a special late evening service held on the Saturday evening preceding Rosh Hashanah. Selichot prayers facilitate the worshiper’s ability to acknowledge those areas in which improvement may be required and embark on a path that leads to repentance or Teshuvah and Mechila or forgiveness.
Although many of these prayers originate from earlier times, some as far back as the time of the Mishna (5th century BCE-1st century CE), the first actual collection of Selichot, can be found in the Siddur of the great Ninth Century sage, Rav Amram. Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, who served for many years as a Hazzan is a noted compiler and editor of prayer books. In the introductory section to his comprehensive, annotated compendium of Selichot prayers first published in England in 1956, Rabbi Rosenfeld indicates that some of those moving supplications date as far back as the seventh century of the Common Era. Remarkably, the service compiled by Rav Amram is very close to the Selichot service we still perform in modern times.
There are various types of poetry which make up the Selichot service, including some which have repeated refrains and some which are alphabetical acrostics. Most of these prayers are comprised of biblical verses stitched together by very gifted liturgical poets. These writers include Sa’adia Gaon (882-942) and Rav Amram Gaon (821-875) who also authored texts that appear in our Machzor (High Holy Day prayer book). Also included in the Selichot service is the Vidui or confessional and portions of Tachanun – prayers of supplication. Serving as a refrain between all of this prayer and poetry is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of God introduced by the prayer “El Melech Yoshev Al Kisei Rachamim, God is the Monarch who is seated on the throne of mercy.”
El Melech Yoshev is first found in the siddur of the 9th century liturgical pioneer, Rav Amram Gaon as noted above. Rabbinic literature suggests that God spends some time seated on the throne of justice and some time on the throne of mercy. As the introductory verse suggests, this composition depicts God as a merciful, compassionate monarch who forgives our sins and mitigates the severity of the punishment we really deserve. The image is evoked of Moses as he conferred with God in on Mount Sinai. Moses asked how he as a human could approach our Creator. The answer can be found in the text of El Melech Yoshev: God instructs us to recite [and model] God’s attributes. Just as the best way to honor our physical parents is to practice and emulate their qualities, principles and values, our divine parent requires that we strive for holiness by being guided by God’s characteristics. Mercy, compassion, justice, slowness to anger, performance of acts of loving kindness and the pursuit of truth are examples from the litany of divine qualities that are recited throughout our services. Moses learned that not only is this emulation the best way to serve the Lord but also the path which can lead to developing our personal relationship with God.
As we prepare for and experience the Holy Days, we can be mindful of the fact that since there are many ways to communicate with the Almighty, possessing a tremendous knowledge of the prayer service, while being a goal towards which we should strive, is not an absolute requirement. By participating in the silent meditation or humming a melody along with the Hazzan, or by offering sincere personal prayers, one can be a vital part of the communal offering of prayer. Most importantly, as we prepare to enter the Holy Day Season, we must bear in mind the lesson learned and transmitted by Moses as described in the El Melech Yoshev Prayer: striving to reach closer to the Almighty by incorporating into our lives God’s Holy attributes is the essential way to enhance the bond we have with our Creator.
Laurel, Zev, Zach and I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of our Beth El family and their dear ones a year of Health, Peace and Blessing: A Goot Gezunt Yohr.