Friday, September 7, 2007


As the month of Elul draws to a close, the mood of repentance becomes more urgent. Prayers for forgiveness called selichot (properly pronounced "s'lee-KHOHT," but often pronounced "SLI-khus") are added to the daily cycle of religious services. Selichot are recited in the early morning, before normal daily shacharit service. They add about 45 minutes to the regular daily service.

Selichot are recited from the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If Rosh Hashanah begins on a Monday or Tuesday, selichot begins on the Sunday of the week before Rosh Hashanah, to make sure that there are at least 3 days of Selichot. The first selichot service of the holiday season is usually a large community service, held around midnight on Motzaei Shabbat (the night after the sabbath ends; that is, after nightfall on Saturday) . The entire community, including men, women and older children, attend the service, and the rabbi gives a sermon. The remaining selichot services are normally only attended by those who ordinarily attend daily shacharit services in synagogue.

A fundamental part of the selichot service is the repeated recitation of the "Thirteen Attributes," a list of G-d's thirteen attributes of mercy that were revealed to Moses after the sin of the golden calf (Ex 34:6-7): Ha-shem [1], Ha-shem [2], G-d [3], merciful [4], and gracious [5], long-suffering [6], abundant in goodness [7] and truth [8], keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation [9], forgiving iniquity [10] and transgression [11] and sin [12], who cleanses [13]. Why is "Ha-shem" listed twice as an attribute? And why are three of these "attributes" Names of G-d? Different names of G-d connote different characteristics of G-d. The four-letter Name of G-d (rendered here as "Ha-shem") is the Name used when G-d is exhibiting characteristics of mercy, and the Talmud explains that this dual usage indicates that G-d is merciful before a person sins, but is also merciful after a person sins. The third attribute is a different Name of G-d that is used when G-d acts in His capacity as the almighty ruler of nature and the universe.

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