The Selichot and the Days of Awe

As spiritual preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (collectively, the “Days of Awe”), the Selichot — prayers and liturgical songs of repentance — are recited and sung on four days before Rosh Hashanah, which is the Jewish New Year or Day of Judgment/Day of Remembrance.[1] When Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or Tuesday (as this year, on September 14, or rather September 13-15 to be technical), the first Selichot begins after midnight Saturday night nine or ten days before (so, this year, the early morning hours of September 6). In fact, Rosh Hashanah falls within the period of repentance known as the “Season of Teshuva” or “Days of Favor” lasting 40 days from the first day of the month Elul until Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During Rosh Hashanah, we hope that our names might be written in the Book of Life; whether written in that book or elsewhere, the Judgment entered on Rosh Hashanah is sealed (though most believe not permanently!) on Yom Kippur. In anticipation of this, the “Sheima Kolenu” is often sung at first Selichot:

,שמע קולינו יהוה אלוהינו | Shema koleinu adonai eloheinu, | Hear our voice, O Lord our God;

חוס ורחם עלינו | chus verachem aleinu, | spare us and have mercy upon us,

וקבל ברחמים וברצון את תפילתינו | vekabel berachamin uvratzon et tefilateinu. | and accept our prayer in mercy and favor.[2]

Chazzan Chaim Adler, chief cantor at Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem Great Synagogues. Recorded at first Selichot Service September 2009, at Jerusalem Great Synagogue.

According to legend, the “reason for the [40 day] season” of Teshuva in late summer/early fall, encompassing the Selichot and ending on the last day of Yom Kippur, is to commemorate Moses’ 40 day sojourn on Mt. Sinai when he communed with God to receive the second set of tablets, this one containing the Ten Commandments. Moses had smashed the first set of tablets containing a “testimony” written with the finger of God (Ex. 32:15-16) when he returned to the camp of Israel and found them riotously worshiping an idol of a Golden Calf.

Moses took it upon himself to beg God for forgiveness, both for himself and on behalf of his entire community. Moses told the people, “But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin” (Exodus 32:30, NRSV). If God would not forgive their sin, Moses said “blot me out of the book that you have written” (Ex. 32:32). “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book'” (Exodus 32:33), as terse an answer as Moses perhaps expected from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who had unleashed such dreadful plagues on the Israelites’ Egyptian slave masters.

So Moses went back up into the mountain to seek favor in God’s sight, both for himself and on behalf of all the people. “Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” (Exodus 33:12-20, NRSV.) After 40 days, Moses returned on what we now know as the last day of Yom Kippur with the Ten Commandments on a new set of stone tablets written by the hand of God. He delivered the following message to Israel: “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name. . . . I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:17-19, NRSV.) This was about as gracious an answer as Moses could perhaps expect from the God who had saved his people from their awful plight and who remembered the promises made to their ancestors.

This is what the Selichot and the Days of Awe can mean for us during the 40 days season of Teshuva. May we seek forgiveness of our sins and favor of the Lord. May we find grace and mercy, and our names inscribed in the Book of Life.

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MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

The Selichot

Exodus 32:30-35 (NRSV), Exodus 33:12-20 (NRSV), Psalm 27:1-6, Isaiah 55:6-7, Jeremiah 3:12-15 (NRSV), Romans 9:15 (NRSV), 2 Corinthians 5:10-19, 1 Nephi 4:2, Alma 5:33-35

The Collect: Heavenly Father, Thou who hast provided a space for Thy children to repent and seek entry into the Book of Life, help us in Thy Church, as we become new creatures in Christ, to have the confidence to follow the conscience Thou hast given us and enlightened even in the face of danger or disadvantage as the consequence for doing what is right and let us emulate Moses in doing Thy work, through the revelation of Thy Son Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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[1] “The first day of the seventh month (Leviticus 23:24) is the Biblical ‘day of blowing the horn’ (Numbers 29:1) that is now known as the two-day Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish ‘Day of Judgment’ or ‘Day of Remembrance’.” Previously, in a Mormon Homily for Rosh Hashanah, I considered the deliverance of Helaman’s 2,000 young soldiers during Rosh Hashanah (or, rather, Yom Teruah, the Feast of the Trumpets, as it is known in the Old Testament — Rosh Hashanah in its current form arises from the compendium of ancient Jewish oral tradition known as the Mishnah) as Lamanites pursued Helaman’s army from the first day of the seventh month until the third day when the pursuit stopped because Helaman’s ally Antipus had overtaken the pursuing Lamanites with his own army, and Helaman’s soldiers voted to return and deliver Antipus’s weary army from the destroying Lamanites (Alma 56:38-42). The deliverance of Helaman’s soldiers in the ensuing battle — not one of them died though all were wounded — evidenced their faith and exact obedience to God and to their military leader Helaman, who also happened to be their High Priest.

[2] Translation from The Standard Prayer book by Simeon Singer (1915) (public domain), http://www.zemirotdatabase.org/view_song.php?id=251

Comments

  1. Loved this post. I learned so much! Repentance is something I need to work on, so this was helpful. Thank you. Also, thanks for sharing that bit about the corresponding dates in the BoM. That’s pretty cool.

  2. Thanks for this, John.