Selihah (penitential prayer) leaf written in Hebrew. 8th or 9th century. Dunghuang manuscripts

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. G-d 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 Selichot, and I will answer their prayers.” (Midrash)

Selichot: Which literally means forgiveness, are a series of penitential prayers recited in preparation for the High Holidays: Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. G-d’s “Thirteen Attributes” are a central theme throughout the prayers. These atrributes derive from G-d’s explanation to Moses, following the sin of the Golden Calf, of His system for relating with the world. “Merciful G-d, merciful G-d, powerful G-d, 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 34:6-7)

Originally, Selichot prayers were recited early in the morning, prior to dawn. There was a custom in Eastern Europe that the person in charge of prayers would make the rounds of the village, knocking three times on each door and saying, “Israel, holy people, awake, arouse yourselves and rise for the service of the Creator! It later became common practice to hold the first Selichot service, considered the most important, at a time more convenient for the masses of people. Therefore, the Saturday night service was moved forward to midnight.

Serphardic communities begin saying Selichot on or the day after Rosh Chodesh Elul.