Prayer is not said for God’s benefit. He is all knowing and sees every part of our being. Prayer is a gift of God that allows us the opportunity for sober self-reflection and a relational connection to our Creator and to one another.
Selichot is the feminine plural form of Selichah, meaning “forgive”. Selichah is used in colloquial speech to say “excuse me” or “sorry” etc. Thus, Selichot are prayers that acknowledge God’s attributes and confess our missing the mark [sin]. With the prayers of Selichot we approach God in a state of kavanah (humble intention), seeking His forgiveness from a position of contrition. We pray both individually and corporately, so as to remind every believer that sin affects both our individual and corporate relationship to God and one another.
In the Sepharadi tradition Selichot are said from the beginning of the month of Elul, while in the Ashkenaz tradition they are said on the Sunday (Saturday after Havdalah) preceding Rosh Hashanah through to Yom Kippur.
The Selichot service begins with sober self-examination (Romans 12:3). Worshippers examine their deeds of the past year, seeking forgiveness, making amends and choosing to live differently. The central theme of the prayers is Teshuvah (To return, repent). In Messiah we understand that we are expected to live out our faith through a daily repentant practice that keeps a short account before God (1 John 1:5-8; Hebrews 10:14), however, this does not negate our need for a yearly reminder of our need to consider all of life in light of the Holiness of our Merciful King.
Rabbinical Judaism has all but dispensed with the need for the shedding of blood for the atoning of sin, in spite of the Torah’s requirement (Leviticus 17:11; Cf. Hebrews 9:22). Thus, the rabbinical practice of Selichot relies on Jewish mysticism and the petitioner’s actions to qualify forgiveness and freedom from sin. This is error. Neither our prayers nor our actions purchase our redemption and forgiveness. To the contrary, it is only by the shedding of blood and only through God’s acting in love toward us that we receive forgiveness through His Messiah Yeshua, the Ram of Yom Kippur and the Lamb of Pesach. This does not invalidate Selichot but it does change the way a follower of Yeshua approaches these sacred prayers.
Categories of Selichot [Ashkenaz tradition]:
- Selichah (סליחה) — Hebrew for "forgiveness." This is the default Selichah and comprises the vast majority of the Selichot service.
- Pizmon (פזמון) — Hebrew for "chorus." These central Selichot vary according to the day and contain a chorus which is repeated after each stanza. The chorus by definition, is said by the community as a whole. Thus Pizom reminds us that we need to be contrite concerning the corporate sin of our community.
- Akeidah (עקידה) — Hebrew for "binding", a word which specifically refers to the Binding of Isaac. This Selichah contains the theme of the Akeidah as a merit for God answering our prayers. It begins to appear on Rosh Hashanah eve and is placed immediately before or after the Pizmon. The significance for the follower of Messiah is obvious: the ram of the binding of Isaac is a figure for our Messiah Yeshua. He is both the Yom Kippur Ram and the Pesach Lamb.
- Chatanu (חטאנו) — Hebrew for "we have sinned." Starting on the evening before Rosh Hashanah and continuing through Yom Kippur, this Selichah is said after the final recitation of the Thirteen Attributes and before the Vidui confessional. It contains as its refrain, "חטאנו צורנו סלח לנו יוצרנו", "We have sinned, our Rock, forgive us, our Creator". Thus, we continue to acknowledge both our individual and corporate sin and seek forgiveness from the only One Who can give it, “Our Creator”. As king David said “Against You alone have I sinned”. Ultimately all sin is an act of rebellion against God: rebellion being the progeny of idolatry.
- Techinah (תחינה) — Hebrew for "Grace, favour, petition". This Selichah is prayed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah in the Tachanun (supplication), [also called nefilat apayim ("falling on the face")] section and other days in some rites, at the very end of the Selichot service.
* Thus, Selichot begins with forgiveness [1. Selichah], because it is understood that God’s Mercy precedes His judgement. It is followed by a corporate [2. Pizmon] acknowledgement of God’s attributes and our need to repent as a people. The need for a substitutionary sacrifice [3. Akeidah] is acknowledged (Though not properly understood by modern Rabbinical Judaism). Confession of sin is made, both individual and corporate [4. Chatanu]. Finally, we fall on our faces (nefilat apayim) as supplicants seeking grace and unmerited favour [5. Techinah].
* This is the Gospel, hidden in plain sight until that time when it will be unveiled and made known to all Israel (Romans 11).
The Thirteen Attributes of God
Prayer is not said for God’s benefit. He is all knowing and sees every part of our being. Prayer is a gift of God that allows us the opportunity for sober self-reflection and a relational connection to our Creator and to one another. In acknowledging Who God is by way of alluding to His Names and attributes, we receive comfort even before we offer our petition before Him. The prayers of Selichot draw our attention to the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy revealed to Moses by God following the sin of the golden calf (Exodus 34:6-7).
“And HaShem passed before him and proclaimed, ‘HaShem [YHVH: Mercy], HaShem (1), El [God] (2), Rachum [merciful] (3) and Chanun [gracious] (4), Erekh Apayim Slow to anger (5), and Rav-Chesed abounding in kindness (6) and Emet truth (7), Notzer-Chesed: keeping mercy for thousands (8), Nosei Avon: Carrying perversity (9) and Pesha: rebellion (10) and Chata’ah sin (11), by Lo yenakeh: not clearing the guilty (12), Poked Avon: visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.’”
- YHVH, HaShem: Mercy [listed twice, denoting the immutable Mercy of God both before and after we sin]
- El, God: Judge
- Rachum: Mercuful
- Chanun: Gracious
- Erekh Apayim: Slow to anger
- Rav-Chesed: Abundant in kindness
- Emet: Abundant in truth
- Notzer-Chesed: Keeping mercy
- Nosei Avon: Bearing perversity
- Nosei Pesha: Bearing rebellion
- Nosei Chata’ah: Bearing sin, missing the mark
- Lo Yenakeh: not clearing the guilty (Not showing partiality)
- Poked Avon: Visiting perversity on the guilty (Acting Justly)
It is a worthwhile exercise to contemplate the thirteen attributes of God and consider how the Person of God participates in our Teshuvah (returning): In Hebrew terms this is known as Kavanah (intention). There is great comfort to be found not only in His mercy but also in His bearing our iniquity and His justice etc.
“And Adonai passed before the face of Moses and proclaimed, ‘Adonai, Merciful El, Judge and Almighty One, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, carrying perversity and rebellion and sin, not clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.’ (Exodus 34:6-7)”
“We have sinned, our Rock, forgive us, our Creator
May You forgive our iniquities and our wrong doings, and make us your heritage (Selichot).”
“We pray in the Name of our King Messiah Yeshua our salvation: thankful that His shed blood has atoned for our sin.” (Messianic Jewish)
Copyright 2018 Yaakov Brown