“King David was anguished when he prophetically foresaw the destruction of the Holy Temple and the cessation of the offering of the sacrifices. ‘How will the Jews atone for their sins?’ he wondered. God replied: ‘When suffering will befall the Jews because of their sins, they should gather before me in complete unity. Together they shall confess their sins and recite the order of the Slichot, and I will answer their prayers.’” – Midrash.
On Sunday, Sept. 21, people will travel to their synagogues midway through the night. And they will continue to return very early every weekday until Yom Kippur. They will come to take stock of their behaviour over the past year and prepare themselves for the coming one – and to recite Slichot. Today, a look at these traditional prayers of forgiveness – and some modern aids – thanks to the web.
The central phrase in the Slichot service is the recitation of the 13 Attributes of Mercy that were spoken as Moses received the second set of tablets at Mount Sinai. “God passed by before (Moses) and proclaimed, ‘Merciful God, merciful God, powerful God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin and error, and Who cleanses.” (Exodus 34:6)
Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz asks why we spend so much effort reciting God’s attributes. Shouldn’t we focus on our own spiritual growth rather than invoking this phrase? He then suggests that in order to grow, we need to make sure our own lifestyles reflect these Godly attributes. “For example, the Talmud says that if you are patient with others, then God will be patient with you. You can only demand that God employ all these attributes if you apply them in your own relationships.”
For some Jews, Slichot have already started. Sephardim have been rising early since the start of the month of Elul (back on Aug. 28) and will continue to do so for 40 days (excluding Shabbat) until Yom Kippur. You can read a description of what it is like to arrive bleary-eyed in the early mornings at San Francisco’s Magain David Sephardim Congregation.
They don’t look too sleepy at Rabbi Avraham Benhaim’s minyan. You can peek in on his Sephardi Slichot via YouTube. Rabbi Benhaim’s service seems quaint compared to the one held in Be’er Sheva for 15,000 early morning Slichot participants. When you watch the video, you can get a feel for the vibe in the air but nothing could simulate what it was like to hear 100 shofars blasting simultaneously that morning.
And although there may not have been as many participants, there was certainly electricity (and a lot of music) in the air at the Slichot service with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. You can watch the full 86-minute service online. (The “Yotzer” at the 35-minute mark is breathtaking.)
There are several ways to get the text of the service:
• You can download the entire 199-page Chabad Slichot book in Hebrew only.
• The clearly laid out Metzudah Siddur can be viewed online. However, the site has been designed to prevent printing.
• You can go mobile. RustyBrick, a leading producer of Jewish apps, has created a great iOS one for Slichot. ($2.99 – Lita & Edut Hamizrach customs are available.) Rimon Publications has produced an interlinear Hebrew-English version for Android devices. ($4.94)
• Or you could just do it the old-fashioned way and purchase a book.
Even people conversant in Hebrew may be daunted by Slichot with its “Piyutim,” intricate poetical compositions redolent with biblical allusions. Not a problem says Rabbi Dr. Raymond Apple. “What moves most people is not the intellectual as much as the emotional content of the service. And in terms of the feelings aroused by the time of year, the mood of the moment, the melodies and refrains, and even the fact that Slichot probably create more genuine piety than any of our other prayers, it must be said that this is truly one of our most successful liturgical experiences.”
Rabbi Mark Hurvitz of Congregation Etz Chaim in Ramona, Calif., has taken many of the concepts of Slichot and given them a modern spin. His “Slichot Grid” looks like a Bingo card except that the squares contain comments like: “I have done things to others that I would not want done to myself” or “I’ve said: ‘I won’t.’ But then did.” The goal is to ask people to sign a square that is true about themselves and presumably promote discussion about repentance and forgiveness.
For more practical suggestions about getting yourself into shape, check out Aish HaTorah’s Growth Worksheet. The Union for Reform Judaism has created several downloadable booklets about Slichot, which use textual study, meditations, plays and a lot of music to get the message across.
Once you’ve finished your early morning recitation of Slichot, why go to sleep when you could watch a video or two? Larry Mark, editor of JewishFilm.com has created a list of Films for Slichot-time viewing. About The Quarrel, Mark comments, “Two men meet in a park in a rainstorm. They chose different paths. Can forgiveness be reached?” For Crimes and Misdemeanors, he says, “One of Woody Allen’s best is a jumping-off point to discuss sins and getting caught, choices, consequences, the lack of consequences, acceptance and human nature.” And here’s his take on Bill Murray’s never-ending Groundhog Day: “Repeating past mistakes over and over… until tshuvah is made.”