Jerrold Landau
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Seliḥot are penitential prayers recited during the Yamim Noraim period, on public fast days, Yom Kippur Katan, and as part of the Yom Kippur service. The term literally means “apologies.” Through Seliḥot, we apologize to Gd, so to speak, for our wrongdoings. The central essence of Seliḥot is the recitation of the 13 attributes of Gd (Exodus 34:6-7), repeated numerous times throughout the service. Gd declared His attributes to Moses on Mount Sinai, as Moses ascended the mountain once again to beg forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf. In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b), we are told that Gd wrapped Himself in a tallit, and demonstrated the order of prayer to Moses, saying:  “Whenever Israel sins, they should perform this order of prayer, and I will forgive them.” This is preceded by the statement “If this had not been written in the Torah, we could not make such a statement!” This Talmudic passage is the source of the Seliḥot service [72].

The Seliḥot service can take on several different forms, based on the occasion and custom. On the weekdays of the Yamim Noraim, Seliḥot form a complete separate service, on par with Shaḥarit, Minḥa, Maariv, Musaf, and Neila – albeit voluntary rather than obligatory. The identifying feature of a separate service is the conclusion with the Full Kaddish, petitioning Gd to accept the prayers of the House of Israel [73]. On public fast days according to most customs, as well as on Yom Kippur Katan, Seliḥot do not form an independent service, but rather are recited as a prelude to Taḥanun following the Amida. In accordance with a minority of customs on public fast days, as well as in all services on Yom Kippur, Seliḥot are added into the repetition of the Amida – in the Slaḥ Lanu blessing on weekdays, and in the middle blessing of the Amida on Yom Kippur. Although there is no repetition of the Amida on Maariv of Yom Kippur, the Seliḥot nevertheless take on the form of the repetition of the Amida, much like the Magen Avot bracha of Friday night.

Seliḥot follow a definitive structure, and many parts are common to all customs. However, the poetic piyyutim interspersed within the structure vary widely in accordance with custom. For the Yamim Noraim, there is a Sephardic custom, a Nusaḥ Sephard custom (known as Nusaḥ Poland), an Ashkenazic (German / Lithuanian) custom, and a Hungarian custom [74]. My discussion will focus more on the general structure, and will not provide a complete overview or summary of each individual piyyut. (For that purpose, many works exist, such as Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld’s Authorized Seliḥot, Artscroll, the Metzuda Seliḥot, and others).

The piyyutim of Seliḥot can be classified by structure or content. Each style of piyyut has a specific name, which can be found in the  introduction to each piyyut in many editions of Seliḥot. These names include:

  • Seliḥa: a general term for a piyyut of Seliḥot.
  • Petiḥa: introduces the Ki Al Rachamecha formula, which itself is an introduction to the first recital of the 13 attributes. The term Petiḥa means “opening” – as it indeed opens the main segment of the Seliḥot service. It is not to be confused with a directive to open the Aron Kodesh, which is an easy error to make.
  • Shniya: a Seliḥa with two stiches per verse.
  • Shlishiya: A Seliḥa with three stiches per verse.
  • Shalmonit: A Seliḥa with four stiches per verse. The term comes from shalem (complete) as each verse has a complete complement of stiches. The term may also come from the name of Rabbi Shlomo HaBavli, the author of many piyyutim.
  • Pizmon: A Seliḥa recited responsively by the prayer leader and congregation. It usually contains a refrain. According to many customs, the Aron Kodesh is opened for the recitation of the Pizmon. There is usually one Pizmon per Seliḥot service.
  • Akeida: A Seliḥa with the theme of the binding of Isaac.
  • Ḥatanu: A Seliḥa in the Zechor Raḥamecha section, with the refrain  חָטָֽאנוּ צוּרֵֽנוּ סְלַח לָֽנוּ יוֹצְרֵֽנוּ
  • Teḥina: A petition inserted into the Taḥanun section.
  • Zechor Brit: A Seliḥa inserted after the first verse of the Zechor Lanu section.

The main essence of the Seliḥot service, the recitation of the 13 attributes, is only to be said with a minyan. If one is praying alone, one can recite the 13 attributes with the trope, as if reading from the Torah, but should not recite them as a petition. The introductory formula for the 13 attributes should also be skipped. Furthermore, certain Aramaic portions are to be skipped when praying without a minyan. Seliḥot are designed to be recited as a communal prayer, and lose much of their essence when recited alone.


Seliḥot for the Yamim Noraim

Seliḥot are recited prior to the weekday Shaḥarit service during the Yamim Noraim period. They may be recited after Maariv, but are preferably recited after the middle of the night and before daybreak. In accordance with Ashkenazic and Nusaḥ Sephard custom, Seliḥot begin on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah, or one week earlier if Rosh Hashanah falls too early in the week to allow for four Seliḥot services to take place. Seliḥot continue through the Aseret Yemei Teshuva – albeit Ḥabad stops reciting Seliḥot after Tzom Gedalia [75], and  according to some other customs they are not recited on Erev Yom Kippur. Sephardic communities recite Seliḥot throughout the entire month of Elul, starting with the day following Rosh Ḥodesh.

The Seliḥot service of the Yamim Noraim follows the pattern of a Minḥa service, opening with Ashrei and a Half Kaddish, followed by the piyyutim interspersed with the 13 attributes in lieu of the Amida, then followed by Taḥanun, and concluding with a Full Kaddish. The detailed structure is as follows (I will base the structure on Nusaḥ Sephard / Poland, but will note the differences in Nusaḥ Ashkenaz):

1. Ashrei, followed by Half Kaddish.

2. A long litany of pesukim that set the tone: The opening words are Shomea Tefilla [He Who hears prayers]. Most of these pesukim come from Psalms, with some from Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Chronicles and Job. The overriding theme is the might and power of Gd. Toward the end, there are some sentences that do not stem from Tanach. These start with: The soul is Yours and the body is of Your making, have mercy on Your works. In essence, that statement sums up the entire approach of prayer for the Yamim Noraim. This section of Seliḥot is constant for all the days, other than Erev Rosh Hashanah, when three additional pesukim (the same three pesukim following the first 30 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah) are added; and Erev Yom Kippur, where most of this section is omitted at Seliḥot in the morning, and deferred to Maariv on Yom Kippur evening.

3. The introduction to the first recitation of the 13 attributes. This consists of several parts:

  1. The opening declaration: Forgive us our Father, for we have erred in our great foolishness, pardon us our King, for our sins are many.
  2. A Petiḥa piyyut that varies by day. This is recited on the first day, Erev Rosh Hashanah, and the days of Aseret Yemei Teshuva other than Erev Yom Kippur. As noted above, the term Petiḥa found in most Seliḥot books is not an instruction to open the Aron Kodesh.
  3. Ki Al Raḥamecha Harabim: This is recited on the same days as the Petiḥa. It tells how we await Gd’s forgiveness and salvation, how Gd made a covenant with us, and how He came down to Mount Sinai to demonstrate the order of prayer to Moses.
  4. Kel Erech Apayim: The formal introduction to the first recitation of the 13 attributes. We ask Gd to return from His anger, as on the day He descended on the cloud to demonstrate the 13 attributes. This introduction is very familiar in Nusaḥ Sephard from the daily Taḥanun.
  5. The 13 attributes, followed by a brief plea for Gd’s forgiveness, for He is a good, forgiving Gd.
  6. A set of several pesukim that vary according to the day. These pesukim usually have something in common with the theme of the upcoming piyyut.
  7. Kerachem Av Al Banim: A set of five pesukim from Psalms, the same each day.
  8. Selaḥ Na: Numbers 14:19 (from Moses’ plea for Gd to forgive the sin of the spies), and Numbers 14:20: And G-d said: I have forgiven in accordance with your word.
  9. Hatei: Daniel 9:18-19.

4. The piyyutim:  Each piyyut is followed by the 13 attributes. This forms the main body of the service. Up until Erev Rosh Hashanah, and on Erev Yom Kippur, there are three sets (two Seliḥot and a Pizmon). On Erev Rosh Hashanah, there are 15 (17 in Nusaḥ Ashkenaz). On Tzom Gedalia and the fifth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva there are seven. On the second, third, and fourth days of Aseret Yemei Teshuva, there are 6. On the days with more than three sets, the last three are always a Shalmonit, Pizmon, and Akeida (Nusaḥ Ashkenaz reverses the Pizmon and Akeida). The preceding ones are generally Seliḥot, Shniyot, and Shlishiyot. Each piyyut is followed by:

  1. Kel Melech Yoshev Al Kisei Raḥamim [Gd, the King Who sits on the seat of mercy]: This is the formal introduction to the 13 attributes. It is analogous to Kel Erech Apayim, which introduces the first recitation, as noted above. All other recitations are introduced with Kel Melech. This introduction notes that Gd tends to forgive sins, and acts righteously with all creation. He directed us to recite the 13 attributes, so we ask Him to remember the covenant of the 13 attributes, as He informed the most modest of all men (Moses) in ancient times.
  2. The 13 attributes, followed by a brief plea for Gd’s forgiveness, for He is a good, forgiving Gd. (Equivalent with the first recitation, as noted above.) The final recitation of the 13 attributes, as well as the recitation prior to the Pizmon ends here. Otherwise, the post-piyyut recitations continue as follows:
  3. A set of several pesukim that vary according to the section and the day. These pesukim usually have something in common with the theme of the upcoming piyyut (as noted above for the first recitation).
  4. Kerachem Av Al Banim: A set of five pesukim from Psalms, the same each day (dquivalent with the first recitation, as noted above). The post-piyyut formula ends here in Nusaḥ Sephard. Nusaḥ Ashkenaz continues with Selaḥ Na and Hatei (as during the first recitation).

5. Zechor Raḥamecha [Remember Your mercy]: A set of pesukim dealing with Gd’s remembrance and asking Him for redemption. This is the point where the Seliḥot service moves away from the repetition of the 13 attributes, and moves toward the Vidui [confession]. In Nusaḥ Ashkenaz, this is followed by a Ḥatanu piyyut on Erev Rosh Hashanah and the first five of the six days of Aseret Yemei Teshuva.

6. Zechor Lanu: A set of requests to Gd for mercy, redemption, and forgiveness. Each verse contains a request, followed by a pasuk that backs it up. On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Tzom Gedalia, and for Nusaḥ Ashkenaz also on the fifth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the day of Shlosh Esrei Midot), the first verse is followed by a Zechor Brit piyyut.

7. Shema Koleinu: A set of requests recited with the Ark open. Five (four in Nusaḥ Ashkenaz) are recited responsively out loud, and the others are recited silently. The first request –  Hear our voice, O Lrd our Gd, have pity and mercy upon us, and accept our prayers with mercy and favour – comes directly from the 16th bracha of the weekday Amida. Several of the others are taken from Psalms, but changed from the singular to the plural –  specifically the very poignant requests: Don’t cast us away from before You, and don’t remove Your Holy Spirit from us;  Don’t cast us away at our time of old age, and don’t abandon us as our strength fails. This section of Seliḥot is packed with emotional impact, and speaks to our hearts. Who among us doesn’t worry about failing and weakening in our old age?

8. The Vidui. Ashamnu is recited three times (according to the custom of the Gra, it is only recited once). Each recitation is followed by a short petition. On Erev Rosh Hashana, the Ashamnu is preceded by a much longer petition, and the petitions between the Ashamnu recitations are also elongated.

9. Various quotes on repentance from the Tanach. In Nusaḥ Sephard, these quotes are from Micah, other than Erev Rosh Hashanah, where the quotes are from David, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Ezra. In Nusaḥ Ashkenaz, the elongated set is recited every day.

10.  A set of four piyyutim, recited each day, all asking for Gd’s mercy and His response to our prayers:

  1. Kel Raḥum Shemecha [Your name is the Gd of Mercy]: This piyyut asks Gd to act for the sake of His name, His truth, His covenant His greatness, etc.
  2. Aneinu Hashem Aneinu [Answer us, Gd, answer us]: A repetitive piyyut, with each short stich beginning and ending with the word Aneinu. We ask Gd to answer us for the sake of his various attributes and names.
  3. Mi Sheana [He Who answered]; We ask Gd to answer us, as He answered: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, our ancestors at the Red Sea, Moses, etc. This piyyut is a historical review of Biblical figures who called out to Gd and were answered.
  4. Raḥmana Deanei [The Merciful One who answered]. This short, Aramaic section asks Gd to answer us who are poor, broken hearted, and of broken spirit.

 11.  Taḥanun. The standard weekday Taḥanun is recited, with the following insertions:

  1. Maḥei Umasei [He Who wounds and heals]. A brief Aramaic section asking for Gd’s healing, so that we not be completely destroyed in exile. This section is to be omitted when there is no minyan present, since it is written in Aramaic, and prayers in Aramaic are only accepted in a minyan (apparently prayers in a language other than Hebrew have a more difficult time ascending to the Divine Presence).
  2. A Teḥina piyyut, included on Erev Rosh Hashanah, and the days of Aseret Yemei Teshuva other than Erev Yom Kippur. There is a different Teḥina for each of the six times it is recited. The themes of these esoteric piyyutim are usually based on the goings on in the celestial spheres.
  3. Machnisei Raḥamim: We ask the angels that raise up our prayers and bring them before Gd. We then state that we have prayed fervently to Gd, mentioned the righteousness of our holy ancestors, and have asked for mercy. Some object to the recitation of this section, as it appears to address the angels directly and implies that the angels act as intermediaries in raising our prayers up to Gd’s attention. Most people recite it nevertheless, not concerning themselves with the mechanics of how our prayers ascend. We pray to Gd, and somehow, in ways we do not understand, our prayers reach the Divine Presence.
  4. Maran Divishmaya  [Master in Heaven]: A brief Aramaic section stating that we have approached Gd like a captive, and like a slave. We ask that Gd hear our petitions. As with the preceding Aramaic section, this is omitted if there is no minyan present.

12.  The Full Kaddish. This marks the end of the Seliḥot service. As noted earlier, the Full Kaddish stamps the Seliḥot as a complete, formal prayer service.


Each year, there are between ten and fourteen Seliḥot services during the Yamim Noraim period, depending on the day of the week upon which Rosh Hashanah falls. I will now present some of the highlights of the Seliḥot service of each day. This overview is not intended to be comprehensive. It is based on the custom of Nusaḥ Sephard / Poland, although there are overlaps with other customs.

First day: The Seliḥot of the first day are often recited in the middle of the night, following Shabbat, with a great deal of fanfare. In structure, the first day Seliḥot are similar to those of the following days until Erev Rosh Hashanah, with the addition of a Petiḥa piyyut. The Petiḥa of the first day, Eich Niftaḥ Pe Lefanecha [How can we open our mouths to You], is a graphic confession of sin. We state that we have reviled Gd’s straight paths, cleaved to abominations, and followed vain illusions. We therefore beg for Gd’s mercy. The following Seliḥa asserts that there is no person who can call out in justice, for humans are faulty by nature. The Pizmon, Bemotzaei Menuḥa [At the conclusion of our Day of Rest], states that we have now begun to entreat Gd on a Saturday night, and asks that Gd listen to our prayers. The refrain is: To hear our cry and our prayer.

Second day: The first Seliḥa begs for Gd’s mercy even though our sins might be exceedingly great. The next Seliḥa opens by asserting that Gd’s attributes are not like those of flesh and blood, so we have reason to expect mercy. The Pizmon calls upon the angels to entreat Gd on our behalf. The refrain of the Pizmon is: Perhaps Gd will have pity on the impoverished, destitute nation, perhaps He will have pity. It is interesting that the refrain addresses Gd in the third person.

Third day: Our eyes are turned to Gd in every corner that He has scattered us. The refrain of the Pizmon is: For You are great at forgiveness, and the Master of mercy. Unlike the Pizmon of the previous day, we now address Gd in the second person. Toward the end of this Pizmon, we ask that Gd destroy Edom (Seir and his son-in-law, who is Esau), and let the saviours ascend to Zion. We ask that the prayers of our people ascend to Gd’s abode in heaven. (As an interesting note: This was the Seliḥot service recited by the Jewish people on the infamous day of September 11, 2001.)

Fourth day: This and the following four Seliḥot services are not recited every year. The Seliḥot for the fourth and fifth days would not be recited if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Thursday. The second Seliḥa asks where Gd’s great and mighty wonders have gone. It reviews the miracles of the Exodus and expresses the hope that Jerusalem and the Beit Hamikdash be rebuilt. The Pizmon states that we call out to Gd as morning approaches. The refrain is: My King and Gd, for I pray to You (Psalms 5:3).

Fifth day: The first Seliḥa states that we call out to Gd from far-off, from the streets and marketplaces. The second Seliḥa once again asks where Gd’s might and zeal have gone, for we have been chased out of Gd’s inheritance. The Pizmon once again starts by asserting that we call out to Gd in the early morning to confess our sins. The refrain is: My soul at my petition, and my nation at my request (based on Esther 7:3 as she was pleading for her life before her husband the king).

Sixth day: The Seliḥot service of the sixth day is only be recited if Rosh Hashanah falls on a Monday or a Tuesday. The second Seliḥa laments the fact that the redemption has been so long in coming. The Pizmon is: Help us, our Gd of salvations.

Seventh day: This Seliḥot service is recited on a Sunday morning on the relatively rare years when Rosh Hashanah falls on a Tuesday. The first Seliḥa begs Gd not to destroy us in His anger. The refrain of the Pizmon is the same as that of the fifth day: My soul at my petition, and my nation at my request. We ask that our voices be sweet before Gd, and that He respond to us in goodness, for we have nobody else to whom to turn.

Erev Rosh Hashanah: The Seliḥot of Erev Rosh Hashanah are given a special name: Zechor Brit [Remember the Covenant], based on the unique piyyut inserted in the Zechor Lanu section. The lengthy Seliḥot service now features a Petiḥa, numerous Seliḥot of various genres, two Shalmonit piyyutim, an Akeida, elaborations on the Vidui, and a Teḥina. Several of the piyyutim begin with the word Adon, and stress aspects of Divine judgment. Adam Eich Yizke (a Shniya Seliḥa) states that man awaits death every day. His end will be in a dark grave. His days are few and evil. Therefore we must lament and plea for mercy – perhaps Gd will save us from tribulations. The first Shalmonit, on the other hand, discusses life rather than death. Each verse begins with the word Ḥayim [life]. The second Shalmonit is based on the 13 attributes. We entreat Gd on the basis of each proper attribute, as we ask for mercy. The Pizmon portrays Gd as the Judge of the entire earth, as we ask for mercy through our prayers rather than through offering sacrifices. The Pizmon is introduced with several pesukim, recited responsively, expressing the theme of Gd as the Judge. We ask that Gd not enter into judgment with us, as no living being can be vindicated. However, if Gd must judge us, we ask that He do so fairly (quoting Abraham as he argued with Gd regarding the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah). The Zechor Brit piyyut, classified as a Pizmon, is recited with the Aron Kodesh opened. It is a plea for redemption from exile. It has a double refrain: Return the exile of the tents of Jacob, and save us on behalf of Your name;  Return in mercy to the remnant of Israel, and save us on behalf of Your name. Just after Shema Koleinu, there is a long Yehi Ratzon petition asking for a good year that will mark the end of our exile.

Seliḥot for Aseret Yemei Teshuva: There are always six Seliḥot days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The first five of the Seliḥot services are more complex than those of the days preceding Erev Rosh Hashanah. Each service includes a Petiḥa, six or seven cycles of piyyutim with the 13 attributes, and a Teḥina. The last three of the 13-attribute piyyutim are always a Shalmonit, a Pizmon, and an Akeida. The fifth day is known as Shlosh Esrei Midot [the 13 attributes]. It is considered appropriate to recite that service on a Monday or Thursday, so if that day is a Tuesday or Friday, the service of the fourth and fifth day are interchanged. The Seliḥot of Erev Yom Kippur are much abbreviated, given the plethora of Seliḥot that will be recited on Yom Kippur itself, starting in the evening.

Tzom Gedalia: Although this is one of the four fast days commemorating events surrounding the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, only one piyyut, or possibly two, are dedicated to that theme. The rest focus on repentance, as befits the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. The first Seliḥa opens with: I have come to entreat Gd when He can be found. This relates to the concept that Gd is much more approachable during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva than any other time of the year. It is a paraphrase of Isaiah 57:14, the opening pasuk of the Haftarah of public fast days that will be read later that day at Minḥa. The second Seliḥa focuses on the events of Tzom Gedalia, lamenting the fact that the remnant of the people went into exile after the murder of Gedalia the son of Aḥikam, two months after the destruction of the First Beit Hamikdash. The brief Shalmonit repeats the word shuva [return or repent] in various forms and contexts. The Pizmon overviews several Biblical figures who sinned, repented, and were forgiven. These include: Adam, Cain, Reuben (who defiled his father’s bed), Aḥab (who broke through the bounds of the world with his excessive evil deeds), and the people of Nineveh. The refrain is: You showed the path of repentance to the rebellious daughter. As on Erev Rosh Hashanah, there is a Zechor Brit piyyut, different than the analogous piyyut on Erev Rosh Hashanah, but with the same double refrain. The inclusion of this piyyut is likely due to the theme of restoration of exile – a fitting theme for a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. The Teḥina begs the Torah to plead on our behalf.

Second day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva: The first Seliḥa opens with a call to Gd to answer us, as we ask for mercy as an indigent at the door. The second Seliḥa opens with the assertion that we are going to return to our first husband (i.e. Gd). The refrain of the Pizmon is: Between Keseh (Rosh Hashanah), and Asor (the Tenth – i.e. Yom Kippur) we cast off the evil leaven. This borrows from the concept of chometz on Pesaḥ, where leaven is considered a symbol of the excessive materialism that accumulates during the year. The Teḥina appeals to the gates of the seven heavens to open to let our prayers through.

Third day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva: The first Seliḥa repeatedly asks the question why our sins are not forgiven, why we are not finding grace, why our redemption is delayed, etc. The third Seliḥa stresses the power of Gd: there is no Gd but You, Your rule is for all generations… You answer in the time of difficulty… Your years never end… The Shalmonit contrasts the peace and contentment of the nations of the world with the tribulations of the Jewish people in exile. At one point, it notes that we are surrounded by the Islamic world (how do Kedar, Dedan and Sheba surround me), and states that they refer to a man who never prophesied as a prophet [76]. I am unsure as to how such a blunt statement evaded the censors – albeit there is no analogous statement referring to the Christian saviour and deity. The Pizmon contains a simple, brief refrain: Gd hearken to our prayers.

Fourth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva: The Petiḥa asks why our redemption has not come, why the Beit Hamikdash has not been rebuilt, why there is no comforter for Zion… The first Seliḥa begins with: I will call out to the mighty, awesome Gd, so Gd, do not turn Your face away from us on the day of tribulation. The second Seliḥa notes that Abraham, as well as Ḥanania, Mishael and Azaria, were thrown into a fiery furnace and saved, and Daniel was saved from the lion’s den. On their behalf, we pray that our sins be forgiven. The third Seliḥa opens with an anticipation of Yom Kippur, which is rapidly approaching: I am devastated in my great anguish, before the day that my sin will be accounted for, what can I say to my Master. The refrain of the Pizmon is: Gd, please be our helper (Psalms 30:11).

Fifth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva (Shlosh Esrei Midot): This is the last of the long Seliḥot services of the Yamim Noraim season. As noted above, it is to be recited on a Monday or Thursday, so it will switch place with the Seliḥot of the fourth day to ensure that this will be the case. The Petiḥa urges the Nation of Gd to gird and strengthen themselves to call out to Gd, confess their wrongdoings, and return to Gd. The third Seliḥa states that we have declared a fast day to entreat Gd with prayers, so He can heal our wounds. It ends with a request for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash. The Pizmon, which gives its name to the day itself, has the refrain of the 13 attributes. It laments the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, begs for Gd’s mercy, and states that we rely on the 13 attributes as well as the gate of tears as we plea before Gd. It concludes with a request that we be saved from all cruel decrees, for our eyes are turned only to Gd.

Erev Yom Kippur: In anticipation of the long services of the upcoming evening and day, the Seliḥot of Erev Yom Kippur are quite abbreviated. The opening pesukim are cut down significantly. There are two brief Seliḥot, followed by a Pizmon. The two Seliḥot focus on Gd’s judgment, and are repeated from the Erev Rosh Hashanah Seliḥot. The Pizmon opens with a request that the fast day of Gd’s people be deemed acceptable, and that the minimization of our flesh through fasting be considered as a sacrifice on the altar. We beg to be sealed in the Book of Life. The refrain is: This sign will be tomorrow (based on Exodus 8:19, from the plague of Arov). Zechor Lanu is omitted, Ashamnu is recited once instead of three times, and the usual closing piyyutim are omitted. Most of the omissions will be recited during the Seliḥot that follow Maariv on Yom Kippur.

The melody of Seliḥot is typical of parts of the Yom Kippur service. Many recite the opening Kaddish of the first Seliḥot service to the same powerful tune as the Half Kaddish prior to Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The first Seliḥot is often accompanied by significant cantorial renditions. Given that it is one of the very few elaborate services that takes place on a day with no prohibition of labor, many recordings exist. Here is a small collection of links to recordings of Seliḥot in accordance with different customs [77].

Having gone through the difficult effort of reciting Seliḥot from ten to fourteen times (if Ḥabad, from five to nine times, and if Sephardic, approximately 29 times), focusing on the meaning of what one is reciting, and approaching Gd with seriousness, one can hope to be inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and sealed in the Book of Life on Yom Kippur. [78]


Seliḥot for Public Fast Days

Seliḥot are recited on the fasts of 10th of Tevet, Taanit Esther and 17th of Tammuz. On Tzom Gedalia, the Seliḥot are part of the Yamim Noraim series, and Seliḥot do not form part of the liturgy for Tisha B’Av. Seliḥot also exist for the lesser-observed fasts of:

  • Behab: The Monday / Thursday / Monday series of fasts in the early parts of Ḥeshvan and Iyar. Generally, the first Monday of Behab will follow the first Shabbat of the month. Many Siddurim, most notably Artscroll, contain these Seliḥot. The purpose of these fasts is to atone for sins that might have been committed during the long festival seasons of the preceding month.
  • Shovavim (or Shovavim’Tat in a leap year): the six Thursdays through the parshiyot of Shmot-Mishpatim in a regular year, with the addition of the two extra weeks of Teruma and Tetzaveh in a leap year. The name is an acronym for those parshiyot. This period extends from late Tevet through Shvat in a regular year, and into Adar I in a leap year. Siddur Otzar Hatefillot contains this full set. The main observance of these days is in a leap year. The stated purpose is that in a leap year, a gap of more than six months exists between the two annual Behab periods. Sefer Hatodaah (end of section on Tevet) notes that even though the primary custom is in a leap year, the custom has been extended to the six weeks of Shovavim in a regular year as well. This makes sense in terms of another stated purpose of these fasts, to protect against illnesses of children and miscarriages. Obviously, such tribulations do not differentiate between a leap year and a regular year. If Rosh Ḥodesh or Tu B’Shvat occur on a Thursday, those weeks are skipped, and the period is extended out (albeit Ki Tisa is skipped, as the theme of the Golden Calf renders it a non-propitious timeframe for such prayers for protection). On the other hand, if Yom Kippur Katan were to be observed on a Thursday of this period (a common occurrence, as this will be the case if Rosh Ḥodesh is on Friday, Saturday or Sunday), the Shovavim(‘Tat) Seliḥot would be recited in the morning, and the Yom Kippur Katan Seliḥot in the afternoon – providing a powerful double dose of prayer and repentance for the day.
  • 20th of Sivan: A day commemorating persecutions in France, the Crusades, and Tach Ve’Tat (the Chmielnicki persecutions). The long set of Seliḥot can be found in Siddur Otzar Hatefillot. See [79] for discussions of the significance of this day, which is rarely observed nowadays.
  • The Ḥevra Kadisha fast: It is a custom for members of the  Ḥevra Kadisha to observe a fast one day a year, and then to have a feast on the night following. This is often observed on the 7th of Adar, although some customs (including that of my hometown of Ottawa, Canada) observe it on the 15th of Kislev [80].

The Seliḥot for all these days are usually recited after the Amida, prior to Taḥanun. A less common custom is to recite them as an insertion in the repetition of the Amida, during the Slaḥ Lanu bracha.

The general framework for these Seliḥot is similar to those of Yamim Noraim, although certain parts are not included. No Kaddishim are recited, as this is not an independent service. The  Seliḥot pattern runs from point #3 to #10 as described above in the Yamim Noraim structure, with the exception that only one Ashamnu is recited rather than three in the Vidui section (point #8). The preliminary litany of pesukim is not included, and Taḥanun is recited immediately following Seliḥot as part of the regular Shaḥarit service. Three piyyutim are recited (point #4) interspersed with the 13-attributes, the same number as on the days preceding Rosh Hashanah (other than Erev Rosh Hashanah itself). The third piyyut is a Pizmon. The Seliḥot of the 20th of Sivan are an exception, with a longer set of piyyutim at this point, similar to the Aseret Yemei Teshuva. Unlike those of the Yamim Noraim, the piyyutim of the Seliḥot of the fast days do not vary by custom.

A Ḥatanu piyyut, Kel Na Refa, may be inserted in its appropriate place in Zechor Lanu. This piyyut asks Gd to heal the illnesses of the children of our people. We ask Gd to answer us as He answered Abraham on Mount Moriah, our ancestors at the Red Sea, Joshua in Gilgal, Samuel in Mitzpah, Elijah on Mount Carmel, Jonah in the innards of the fish, David and Solomon in Jerusalem, and Mordechai and Esther. Some recite this at the Seliḥot services of all fast days, whereas others recite it only on Shovavim (or Shovavim’Tat), or if there is an epidemic taking place [81]. This piyyut also has its place at Minḥa of Yom Kippur.


These are some of the highlights of the Seliḥot for the fast days:

Tenth of Tevet: The first Seliḥa, Ezkera Matzok [I will recall the distress], reviews the three tribulations of the month of Tevet: The Torah was translated into Greek on the 8th, Ezra died on the 9th, and the siege of Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash began on the 10th. Ezekiel (24:1-2) was told to memorialize that very day. The Pizmon reviews the siege and the destruction, and ends by looking forward to the time when the four fast days (as noted in Zecharia 8:19) will turn into days of joy and gladness.

Taanit Esther: The first Seliḥa overviews the decrees of Haman. It notes that the cause of the decree was that the Jews had partaken of the feast of Aḥashverosh. Elijah, the patriarchs, and Moses all intercede with Gd on behalf of the Jews. Mordechai then hangs Haman and his ten sons, and Esther records the miracle, to be read annually in the fashion of Hallel. The Pizmon requests that Gd hear our prayers as He did in the days of Mor and Hadas (Mordechai and Esther). It mentions the sudden turn of events when the decree was reversed and the oppressors were destroyed.

Seventeenth of Tammuz: The first Seliḥa reviews the five tribulations marked by the Seventeenth of Tammuz: the breaking of the tablets by Moses, the burning of the Torah scroll, the erection of a statue in the Beit Hamikdash by Apostomos, the breaking into the walls of Jerusalem, and the end of the daily offering. It ends with the hope that the Seventeenth of Tammuz be turned into a day of salvation and comfort. The second Seliḥa states that we are embittered with weeping over the hand that was stretched out for destruction, and notes that this was due to the fact that we angered Gd. It again reviews the five tribulations and ends with the hope that all the fasts be turned into festivals of joy. The Pizmon reviews the five tribulations for a third time. The refrain is: the day that the enemy overpowered and the city was broken through.

Behab: The same set of Seliḥot are said for both of the Behab periods of the year. Many of the  piyyutim are culled from the Seliḥot of the Yamim Noraim. On the first Monday, the three piyyutim come from (reference point being from Nusaḥ Sephard / Poland): day 3 prior to Rosh Hashanah, day 5 of Aseret Yemei Teshuva, and the Pizmon of day 2 prior to Rosh Hashanah. On the Thursday, the first two piyyutim are not included in the Yamim Noraim Seliḥot. They are: Taanit Tzibur [They designated a public fast day to petition for our needs], and Anshei Amanah Avadu [The people of faith (or truth) have been lost] [82]. The Pizmon is from day 3 prior to Rosh Hashanah. For the second Monday, the first piyyut is not included in the Yamim Noraim Seliḥot. It is Afafuni Mayim ad Nafesh [Water surrounds us to our soul]. The second piyyut and the Pizmon come from the fifth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva. The Pizmon is the Hashem Hashem piyyut based on the 13 attributes.

Shovavim’Tat: The eight sets of piyyutim for these Thursday fasts are largely culled from the Seliḥot of the Yamim Noraim, as well as Behab. The week of Beshallaḥ appears to be an exception, with a unique set of piyyutim. The three piyyutim of Va’eira are the first two of the first Monday of Behab, and the Pizmon of the Thursday of Behab. The piyyutim of Tetzaveh are the same as the second Monday of Behab. As noted above, the Ḥatanu piyyut Kel Na Refa is considered especially appropriate for Shovavim’Tat, given its petition for a protection against childhood illnesses, which are rampant in the mid-winter period.

20th of Sivan: The set of six piyyutim do not overlap with the Yamim Noraim, other than the final Akeida piyyut, which is equivalent with that of the fifth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva. There is also a special Kel Malei Raḥamim for that day.


Yom Kippur Katan

The day prior to Rosh Ḥodesh is known as Yom Kippur Katan, and a special set of Seliḥot is added to the Minḥa service. Given that Rosh Ḥodesh is considered as a time of atonement (on account of the sin-offering of the Musaf, and as evident from the opening of the middle bracha of the Musaf service), it is considered appropriate to pray for forgiveness prior to the actual day. The Seliḥot occupy the place of Taḥanun following the repetition of the Amida, even though Taḥanun itself is omitted on Erev Rosh Ḥodesh. The structure of these Seliḥot differs from the Shaḥarit Seliḥot of other fast days. If Rosh Ḥodesh falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the observance is moved to the preceding Thursday to avoid a day of fasting on Erev Shabbat.

Yom Kippur Katan is observed eight times a year – nine in a leap year. It is omitted on the eve of:

  • Rosh Ḥodesh Tishrei (i.e. Erev Rosh Hashanah), as the period itself has an abundance of Seliḥot, and a Yom Kippur Katan observance would be superfluous.
  • Rosh Ḥodesh Ḥeshvan, as Yom Kippur Gadol (i.e. the real Yom Kippur) was observed during the preceding month, so additional prayers for penitence are not needed.
  • Rosh Ḥodesh Tevet, on account of Ḥanuka.
  • Rosh Ḥodesh Iyar, as fasting is not appropriate during the month of Nisan.


It is interesting, whether coincidental or not, that on the four occasions where Yom Kippur Katan is omitted, the following month has no shortage of Seliḥot. Rosh Ḥodesh Tishrei is in the midst of the Yamim Noraim Seliḥot period. Ḥeshvan and Iyar both have Behab near the beginning of the month. Tevet has the fast of the 10th of Tevet, as well as the onset of Shovavim (Tat) in the latter part of the month.


The structure of the Yom Kippur Katan service is as follows:


1. Prior to Ashrei: The service starts with Psalm 102, Tefilla LeAni [The prayer of the afflicted person when he faints, and pours out his words to Gd]. A piyyut entitled Yom Zeh Yehi Mishkal [Let this day be weighed against all my sins, let them be nullified as moon has shrunk…] is then recited. Then Psalm 8 is recited. This is followed by the regular Minḥa service for a fast day, up to the end of the repetition of the Amida.

2. A set of four piyyutim, surrounded by the usual introductory Kel Melechand the 13 attributes. There are five repetitions of the 13 attributes. Prior to the first recitation, several pesukim are recited, and then the prayer leader and congregation declare three times: Return to us, O Gd, and we shall return, renew our days of old (final verse of Lamentations). The piyyutim are as follows:

  1. Masat Kapai, asking that our prayers be accepted as the afternoon offering. Each verse ends with a reference to the term Minḥa (generically meaning an offering or a gift, and specifically referring to the daily afternoon offering in the Beit Hamikdash).
  2. Elokai Basar [My Gd, the flesh of Your people bristles from Your fear]. Once again, each verse ends with a reference to Minḥa. Most of the pesukim that form part of the 13 attribute recitation that follows contain the word tov [good].
  3. The Pizmon Bat Ami Lo Teḥeshe [Daughter of my people, do not be silent]. The refrain is: Those that offer the Minḥa to Gd in righteousness.
  4. An Aramic piyyut Raḥmana Idkar [O Merciful One, Recall]. We ask Gd to recall the faithfulness of Abraham Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Pinḥas, David, Solomon, and forgive us on their behalf. This piyyut forms part of the daily Yamim Noraim Seliḥot of the Sephardic custom.

3. A petition for Gd to not destroy us.

4. The confession of Rabbeinu Nissim. A long, heartfelt petition in very clear, non-poetic Hebrew, also included in the Tashlich service of Rosh Hashanah. Some also have the custom of reciting this prior to Minḥa of Yom Kippur.

5. The threefold recitation of the Ashamnu Vidui, as on the Seliḥot of the Yamim Noraim.

6. A sixth recitation of the 13 attributes, introduced by the Kel Erech Apaim formula. Usually that formula is used for the first recitation. It is interesting that for Yom Kippur Katan, it is used for the final recitation. It is also uncharacteristic that there is a recitation of the 13 attributes following the Vidui.

7. Shema recited once, Baruch Shem Kevod three times, and Hashem hu Haelokim seven times, as at the conclusion of Neila. This is followed by a single recitation of Hashem melech, Hashem malach, Hashem yimloch leolam vaed. The Aron Kodesh is open during these recitations.

8. Aneinu: A short piyyut asking Gd to answer our prayers. It is an abridged version of the Aneinu piyyut of the Seliḥot of the Yamim Noraim (See #10b in the Yamim Noraim structure above).

9. The service then continues with Avinu Malkeinu and Taḥanun if Yom Kippur Katan has been moved up to a Thursday. These would be skipped on the actual day of Erev Rosh Ḥodesh. Then Psalm 20 is recited, and the service concludes with the usual Aleinu.


Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is the day of atonement and forgiveness. As such, Seliḥot form a central theme of the prayers of the day. Each service contains a Seliḥot section toward the end of the fourth blessing in the repetition of the Amida. At Maariv, the Seliḥot are recited at the conclusion of the silent Amida, since there is no repetition. The Seliḥot of Maariv and Neila contain piyyutim with the recitation of the 13 attributes. Shaḥarit, Musaf, and Minḥa do not include the 13 attributes, according to most customs. The Seliḥot of all services other than Neila contain the extended Vidui of Yom Kippur, with both Ashamnu and Al Ḥet.

The Vidui section of Maariv, Shaḥarit, Musaf, and Minḥa follows a common format, as follows:

  • Zechor Raḥamecha: the same as in the weekday Seliḥot.
  • A Ḥatanu piyyut, different for each service. This is usually omitted for Maariv and Shaḥarit, universally recited for Musaf, and somewhat frequently recited for Minḥa.
  • Zechor Lanu: similar to the weekday Seliḥot, with the addition of a pasuk applicable to Yom Kippur.
  • Shema Koleinu: the same as in the weekday Seliḥot.
  • A petition for Gd to not abandon us, to bring us close, and to forgive us
  • Ki Anu Amecha: a piyyut asking Gd to forgive us because we are His nation, and He is our Gd, we are His children, and He is our Father, we are His servants, and He is our Master, etc.
  • Ashamnu.
  • A petition for forgiveness recited by the prayer leader. This contains a section recognizable from the early part of the daily Shaḥarit service: what are we, what is our life, what is our kindness, what is our righteousness? etc.
  • Al Ḥet. This is the main part of the Vidui.
  • Various Biblical quotes and concluding petitions, varying by service.


The absence of the 13 attributes during Shaḥarit, Musaf, and Minḥa is interesting. The focus of the Seliḥot on Yom Kippur is the Vidui section rather than the 13 attribute section – other than at the very beginning and end of the day. Maḥzor Rabba notes prior to Zechor Raḥamecha at Shaḥarit, Musaf, and Minḥa that some congregations have the custom of reciting Seliḥot at this point. However, it gives no indication as to what these Seliḥot might be. The Artscroll Maḥzor, generally quite expansive in its content, makes no such note. I have heard from various sources, including from my son who currently attends Ner Israel of Baltimore, that such Seliḥot are indeed recited in some communities.

Begging the forgiveness of my more traditional minded readers, I will now quote an unconventional source. Mahzor Lev Shalem, the modernized Maḥzor of the Conservative movement (replacing the older Silverman version) is quite creative in how it deals with piyyutim [83]. In the introduction, it notes that piyyutim have popped in and out of the prayer service over the centuries (albeit not quite at the velocity with which that Maḥzor has introduced such changes). Prior to Zechor Raḥamecha, Mahzor Lev Shalem opens the Seliḥot section of Shaḥarit, Musaf, and Minḥa with the usual Kel Melech introduction, and a recitation of the 13 attributes. The commentary states that this formally stamps this section with the Seliḥot formula. I am generally loath to condone the liturgical innovations of the Conservative movement, but I must admit that in this case, they may be correct.


Let us now look at each of the five services of Yom Kippur in turn.


The Seliḥot are recited immediately following the silent Amida. Nevertheless, they form an intrinsic part of the service. They can be looked at as a form of repetition of the Amida, similar to the sevenfold Magen Avot bracha recited after the Amida on Friday night. The proof that the Seliḥot are intrinsic to the Maariv service is that the Full Kaddish is not said until after the Seliḥot. Thus, the Seliḥot are bundled in with the Amida as a prayer service. This is in contradistinction to the reading of the Megilla on Purim, Eicha on Tisha B’Av, the Hakafot of Shemini Atzeret and Simḥat Torah, which all take place following the Full Kaddish, proving that they are add-ons to the service [84].

The part of the Maariv Seliḥot that precedes the standard Vidui section consists of the following sections:


  • Yaale Taḥanunenu: May our plea rise up from the evening, and our cry come to You in the morning, and our song appear before You until the evening. This piyyut is based on the three phrases from the Yaale Veyavo prayer (Yaale, Veyavo, Veyeraeh). The Aron Kodesh is opened for this piyyut, as it is for the three piyyutim within the 13 attributes.
  • A litany of pesukim, starting with Shomea Tefilla, and ending with Haneshama Lach. This is the same as the pesukim section of the weekday Yamim Noraim Seliḥot (see point #2 there), although it skips the first few pesukim (incidentally, the pesukim that are skipped are the ones that are recited in the Erev Yom Kippur Seliḥot – thus, between the Erev Yom Kippur Seliḥot and the Maariv Seliḥot, the entire litany is recited.)
  • Darchecka: A brief plea: It is Your way to be slow to anger for both the bad and the good… Our Gd, act in Your name…  [85] Some congregation add a longer piyyut at this point.
  • The 13 attributes. They are recited four times, interspersed with three piyyutim. The Kel Melech introduction is used for each of them. (Unlike other Seliḥot services, such as on the Yamim Noraim weekdays and fast days, the first recitation of the 13 attributes is not introduced with Kel Erech Apaim. The same introduction is used for all four recitations.) The format of the recitation of the 13 attributes matches point #4 in the structure of the Yamim Noraim Seliḥot described above. Nusaḥ Ari is strict about only having three recitations of the 13 attributes, based on Kabbalistic reasons. Therefore, they recite the first and second piyyut without the 13 attributes between. The three piyyutim are:
    • Selaḥ Na: asking Gd to overlook our sins, and using many synonyms and innuendoes for the Jewish people.
    • Amnam Ken [It is indeed true that we are governed by our inclination]. We ask Gd to reject the slanderer (i.e. Satan), to silence the accuser, to let the defender take his place, to recall the merits of Abraham, etc.
    • Ki Hinei Kaḥomer: This Pizmon states that we are like clay in the hands of the potter, like a stone in the hands of a mason, like an axe in the hands of a smith, like an anchor in the hands of the sailor, like glass in the hands of the glazier, like a textile in the hands of the embroiderer, like silver in the hands of the silversmith. Therefore we ask Gd to look at the covenant and not at our base instincts. The refrain is: לַבְּרִית הַבֵּט וְאַל תֵּֽפֶן לַיֵּֽצֶר. [Look upon the covenant and do not pay attention to the drives]. [86]

The Vidui section then follows. The Ḥatanu piyyut, Otcha Edrosh [You I shall entreat], recited by some congregations, was composed by Rabbi Shimon bar Yitzḥak HaGadol of Mainz. It is a complex, triple acrostic, with the ending word from the first line of each verse repeated at the beginning of the following line of the verse. It covers various concepts of repentance in a general fashion, and ends with the hope that Gd will overlook our wanton sins, for the entire nation is at fault. The set of Biblical quotes following the Vidui are the same as those recited during the Seliḥot of Erev Rosh Hashanah. The Seliḥot then conclude with the set of four piyyutim that are recited prior to Taḥanun during the Yamim Noraim Seliḥot, and at the end of all the fast day Seliḥot (see point #10 in the structure of the Yamim Noraim Seliḥot): Kel Raḥum Shemecha, Aneinu Hashem Aneinu, Mi Sheana, and Raḥmana Deanei.



The Seliḥot begin with Zechor Rachamecha, and follow the general pattern described above. The Ḥatanu piyyut, Adabra Taḥanunim [I shall utter supplications], was composed by Rabbi Kalonymus ben Yehuda. As with the Maariv version, it is omitted by most congregations. Artscroll places it in the Additional Piyyutim section at the end of the Maḥzor. Its verses form an acrostic, followed by the author’s signature. The last word of each verse is also the opening word of the following verse. The first few verses describe our outcry to Gd on Yom Kippur, and end with the hope that our prayers be accepted.

Following the Vidui, there are several pesukim dealing with repentance. Then there is a piyyut based on the word yom [day], describing the aspects and power of Yom Kippur. This is followed by a piyyut with the refrain Mi Kel Kamocha [Who is like You, O Gd]. The brief verses are based on the themes of several blessings of the weekday Amida. Different versions of these two piyyutim exist for Musaf and Minḥa. The Seliḥot then conclude with several pesukim expressing our hopes that our sins be wiped out.



The Seliḥot of Musaf are equivalent to those of Shaḥarit, albeit with different Ḥatanu, Yom, and Mi Kel Kamocha piyyutim. The brief Mi Kel Kamocha of Musaf deals with descriptions of aspects of Gd: powerful and beautiful, Creator of heaven and earth, etc. The Ḥatanu piyyut, Eileh Ezkera [These I will remember] is universally recited, and is one of the most famous of all Yom Kippur piyyutim: the Ten Martyrs of the Roman government.

Eileh Ezkera describes the martyrdom of ten great sages. Although it portrays their martyrdom as a single episode, it is clear from history that some of the rabbis were martyred at the time of the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, and others during the Hadrianic persecutions several decades later. The piyyut is not meant to be a literal historical depiction, but rather a dramatic, poignant account of the martyrdom, making use of literary license to evoke deep feelings. A similar piyyut exists as a kinah on Tisha B’Av.

The Roman ruler learns that the sons of Jacob had kidnapped and sold their brother into slavery, and claims that the Torah legislates the death penalty for such a crime. Since the crime has never been punished, the ruler takes it upon himself to impose the punishment for the crime committed by their ancestors. The sages ask for a few days to determine whether this is truly a Divine decree. Rabbi Yishmael then purifies himself, pronounces the Divine name, and ascends to the celestial realms to ascertain the situation. He is met by the Man Dressed in Linen (an angelic guide portrayed in Ezekiel 12 and Daniel 10, considered in our tradition to be the angel Gabriel). The Man Dressed in Linen informs him that the decree must be accepted, as he has heard from behind the partition (the pargod, the Divine curtain that divides between the knowable and unknowable aspects of the celestial realms) that such is the decree. The piyyut then continues by graphically describing the cruel deaths of the sages.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel was the first to be killed. His head was cut off, as if he were an ox. The skin of Rabbi Yishmael’s head was then flayed off, and he only cried out when the executioner reached the place of the tefillin. Rabbi Akiva’s flesh was ripped off with combs. Rabbi Ḥananya ben Tradyon was burnt alive. The other martyrs were Rabbi Ḥutzpit the Expounder, Rabbi Eleazar ben Shamua, Rabbi Ḥanina ben Ḥachinai, Rabbi Yeshevav the Scribe, Rabbi Yehuda ben Dama, and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava.

Contemplating the deaths of the righteous, as well as the persecutions that our people suffered, leads us to thoughts of repentance. Furthermore, the death of the righteous is considered to bring atonement. These are the main reasons given for the inclusion of such a piyyut in the Yom Kippur service.

This piyyut addresses the ageless issue of why bad things happen to good people. This question is the major theological questions that has perplexed the religious persona of all eras. It has caused many to lose faith over the centuries, and many others to maintain their faith despite the question. Moses grappled with this question. When he asked to see Gd’s ways (Exodus 33:13), he was told that a human being cannot see Gd and live. Gd states that He is merciful to whom He is merciful and gracious to whom He is gracious (in other words, He tells Moses that it is impossible for him to understand Gd’s ways). Moses was then told that he could see Gd’s back, but not Gd’s face (i.e. he could understand something about Gd in retrospect, but not directly). Aaron must have grappled with this question, as he is silent in the face of the loss of his two sons. Job also is perplexed with this question as he faces his own horrific tribulations. On Yom Kippur, this piyyut reminds us that we too must grapple with this question, even though there are no easy or completely satisfactory answers. It is a question that cannot be avoided. [87]

The concept of accepting the Divine decree in an unquestioning fashion is mentioned twice in this piyyut. The first is in the statement of the Man Dressed in Linen to Rabbi Yishmael: You must accept this decree, for I have heard from behind the pargod that this is the way it will be. Later on, the piyyut depicts the celestial Seraphim crying out bitterly about the unfairness of the situation. A voice from Heaven responds: If I hear another sound, I will turn the universe into water (i.e. I will reverse the process of creation). It is a Divine decree, and must be accepted.

A stirring cantorial rendition exists of Tiher Rabbi Yishmael, the section of the piyyut where Rabbi Yishmael ascends to heaven to determine the veracity of the decree, and then comes back down to inform his fellows of the decree. [88]



The Seliḥot of Minḥa are equivalent to those of Shaḥarit and Musaf, albeit with different Ḥatanu, Yom, and Mi Kel Kamocha piyyutim. The Ḥatanu piyyut is Kel Na Refa, the piyyut praying for a cure for children’s illnesses that is included by some in the Seliḥot of fast days, especially Shovavim’Tat. In contrast to the Ḥatanu of Musaf, which delves into deep and unsettling theological concepts, we turn our attention at Minḥa to the wellbeing of our children. This piyyut is skipped by many congregations, although it is more commonly recited than the Ḥatanu of Maariv and Shaḥarit. The Yom and Mi Kel Kamocha piyyutim are both quite short. The four verses of Mi Kel Kamocha refer to the actions of Gd.



The Seliḥot of Neila open with three responsive statements, followed by six sets of piyyutim (or partial piyyutim) surrounded by seven recitations of the 13 attributes. As in the Maariv Seliḥot, Nusah Ari (Ḥabad) includes the same set of piyyutim, but only has three recitations of the 13 attributes. The Vidui section is of a different format than that of the preceding four services.

The three opening responsive statements ask that Gd open up the gates for us at the time of the closing of the gates. We beg to be let into Gd’s gates at the time that the day is declining into sunset. We then ask Gd to forgive, be merciful, and cancel our sins.

All seven recitations of the 13 attributes begin with the Kel Melech introduction, and follow the format usual for the Seliḥot of other occasions. The first four piyyutim are really two piyyutim, each divided into two sections, separated with a recitation of the 13 attributes. The first piyyut, divided into two,  authored by Shlomo HaKatan, states that nobody can stand up to Gd’s judgements. We ask that Gd take our lowly state into account and grant mercy. The second piyyut, authored by Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor of Orleans, begins by asserting that our needs are great but our knowledge is inadequate, so we are unable to express our needs properly. We therefore beg that Gd understand our situation and answer us before we even call out. We ask that Gd seal us in the Book of Life, and serve as our Protector.

The fifth piyyut occupies the place of the Pizmon. Rather than an independent Pizmon, this spot is filled by a collection of verses from various Pizmonim of the Yamim Noraim, plus one full Pizmon. As we approach the climax of the Teshuva period, we review the petitions of the previous weeks. The selections are as follows:

  • Two verses from the Zechor Brit piyyut of Erev Rosh Hashanah
  • The opening verse from four Seliḥot:  a) the Teḥina of Erev Rosh Hashana according to Nusaḥ Ashkenaz (Enkat Mesaldecha – Let the outcry of those who praise You ascend to Your throne of glory); b) the Pizmon of the third Seliḥot day (second according to Nusaḥ Ashkenaz); c) the Pizmon of the third day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva (Nusaḥ Sephard); and d) the Pizmon of the fourth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva (Nusaḥ Sephard)
  • The full version of the Hashem Hashem Pizmon (Shlosh Esrei Midot) of the fifth day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva (also recited on Behab and Shovavim).

The final piyyut consists of the opening and closing verses of the Az Ke’einei Avadim Hoshana prayer of Hoshana Rabba. The first verse begs for mercy, forgiveness, and Divine assistance. The last verse asks for the gates of Heaven to be opened (on Hoshana Rabba, this would be a petition for rain, whereas at Neila it is a petition for Divine mercy). We ask that Gd help us and not enter into a dispute with us. The content of these verses is very appropriate for Yom Kippur. Furthermore, Hoshana Rabba is considered a time of repentance, when the verdict of Yom Kippur is confirmed. By looking ahead toward the continued prayers for mercy that will be recited in the coming weeks, perhaps we are asserting that, even though Neila marks the formal conclusion of the the Teshuva period, sincere repentance is acceptable throughout the year [89].

Zechor Rachamecha and Zechor Lanu, recited at this point in all other Yom Kippur services, are not said at Neila. Following the final recitation of the 13 attributes, Ki An Amecha is said, followed by the Ashamnu Vidui. As in the silent Amida, Al Ḥet is not recited. Instead, the two sections Ata Noten and Ata Hivdalta are said. These sections, also recited in the Vidui of the silent Amida of Neila, include a general plea for mercy, as well as a selection of pesukim describing the efficacy of repentance. We have confessed our specific sins in the preceding four services. As Yom Kippur draws to a close, we place our fate into Gd’s hands. Gd desires our repentance. We close with the verse of Ezekiel 18:32: I do not desire the death of a person who is to die, says Gd, but rather – repent and live. We then assert that Gd is a King Who forgives and pardons like none other. Yom Kippur will be over in a few moments, and we hope that our prayers for forgiveness of the past several weeks have been accepted.



For most people, myself included [90], Seliḥot are very much associated with the period of the Yamim Noraim, with three brief echoes throughout the year: on the 10th of Tevet, just as the memories of the past Yom Kippur are fading; close to the midpoint of the year at Taanit Esther; and on the 17th of Tammuz, as the year is winding down and Elul and the Yamim Noraim are approaching the horizon once again. In Nusaḥ Sephard and the true Sephardic custom, there is a brief taste of Seliḥot on every day that Taḥanun is recited: as Taḥanun is preceded by the Kel Erech Apaim introduction, the 13 attributes, and Ashamnu [91].

For those who follow the full repertoire of Seliḥot for all occasions, the Seliḥot service is a relatively constant part of the annual cycle of prayer. The following table summarizes the occasions of Seliḥot throughout the year.




# of Seliḥot days for the month





Yamim Noraim (6, 1 if Ḥabad)

Yom Kippur (counted as 1 for the entire day even though there are 5 occasions throughout the day)

7    (2 for Ḥabad)


Behab (3)

YK Katan Kislev (1)






10 Tevet (1)

Shovavim (2)

YK Katan Shvat   (1)

4   (3 if YK Katan and Shovavim coincide)


Shovavim (4)

YK Katan Adar (1)

5 (4 if YK Katan and Shovavim coincide)

Adar I (in a leap year)

Shovavim’Tat (2)

YK Katan Adar II (1)


Adar (or Adar II)

Taanit Esther (1)

YK Katan Nisan (1)






Behab (3)

YK Katan Sivan (1)



20 Sivan (1)

YK Katan Tammuz (1)



17 Tammuz (1)

YK Katan Av (1)



YK Katan Elul (1)



Yamim Noraim (4, 6, 7, or 8,  or 24 if Sephardic)

4, 6, 7, 8  (24 if Sephardic)



Approx. 33-39 (36-42 in a leap year) – Ḥabad will have fewer, and Sephardic will have more.


As noted above, Gd Himself taught us, through Moses, how to approach Him through the recitation of the 13 attributes during times of trouble. Whether we reserve this for the Yamim Noraim and main fast days, or whether we recite them on some of the other special occasions, or even to a small degree on most weekdays as part of the regular Taḥanun, we hope and pray that they will have their promised effect in the celestial spheres.




72. The Gemara is obviously bothered by the vivid anthropomorphism of Gd dressing up as a prayer leader wearing a tallit. This is not the only anthropomorphism of this nature. There is a Midrash, based on Exodus 33:23 (a few pesukim prior to the 13 attributes), stating that Gd wears tefillin. According the Midrash, our tefillin contain praises of Gd, whereas Gd’s tefillin contain praises of Israel (Who is like Your nation Israel, one nation in the land). None of these statements are meant to imply that Gd has any form of corporeality, and are probably meant to convey a message of Gd’s concern for the People of Israel.

73. Every full formal service ends with Kaddish Shalem, a Full Kaddish. On days when Musaf is recited, the Kaddish Shalem before the Torah reading concludes the Shaḥarit service, and another Kaddish Shalem follows Musaf. This explains the directive, confusing to some, that a Kaddish Shalem is to be recited after Hallel, except on Ḥanuka (other than Shabbat and Rosh Ḥodesh Tevet) when a Half Kaddish is recited instead. This may sound arbitrary – but it can easily be explained by the fact that Ḥanuka is the only occasion upon which Hallel is recited, but which does not have a Musaf service. (In modern Zionistically oriented communities, this directive would apply on Yom Haatzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim as well).

74. For the Yamim Noraim, Nusaḥ Sephard / Poland includes 19 piyyutim that are not in Nusaḥ Ashkenaz. Nusaḥ Ashkenaz contains numerous piyyutim that are not in Nusaḥ Sephard. The Hungarian Nusaḥ contains 24 piyyutim that are not in Nusaḥ Ashkenaz. Many of the other piyyutim that are recited by multiple customs follow a different order – i.e. they are recited on different days in accordance with the different customs. Thus, one must ensure that one’s Seliḥot book matches the Nusaḥ of the service that one is attending – otherwise one can get very confused. On the fast days, the piyyutim do not vary by custom.

75. The reason that I have heard for the Ḥabad custom of not reciting Seliḥot during Aseret Yemei Teshuva, other than Tzom Gedalia, is that one is presumed to already have been sealed in the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and the continuation of Seliḥot would indicate that we doubt that presumption. This is a questionable reason, as Yom Kippur will follow in a few days, with its full slate of petitions and Seliḥot. Another reason I have heard is that the Aseret Yemei Teshuva is not the time for excessive prayer, but rather for action and good deeds. This seemingly runs contrary to the Rambam’s statement in chapter 3 of Hilchot Teshuva that everyone has the custom of arising in the night during these ten days to recite petitions prior to daybreak. Yet, this is the reason brought down by the Tzemach Tzedek. See . Each community should follow its own custom, as all proper customs are valid.

76. I recall very clearly serving as the prayer leader for Seliḥot on September 11, 2002, exactly one year after the infamous September 11, 2001 events. The mood of the world was particularly somber that day. It was the third day of Aseret Yemei Teshuva, and I recall noticing these words as I was reciting the service, and thinking – how appropriate for the day!

77. Various recordings of Seliḥot: 

Seliḥot tour of Jerusalem:

Sephardic Seliḥot at Petach Tikva Anshei Castilla of Toronto:


With Chazzan Adler at Great Synagogue of Jerusalem:

A collection:

78. If I might add a very personal reflection here: I have often been called upon to lead the various Seliḥot services over the past several decades. This role has a special place in my heart. My great-grandfather, Yeshaya Steinberg (father of my maternal grandmother, and whose name I bear), went up to the Amud to lead the first Seliḥot service, as was his custom, at his synagogue in Winnipeg in 1957. He was 88 years old. Zeidy Yeshaya was a very pious man, prominent in the Jewish community of Winnipeg. Although he and most of his family arrived in Canada prior to the Second World War, he bore the burden of having lost his eldest two daughters and their families in the Holocaust. (They were murdered along with their husbands and children in the notorious einsatzgruppen massacre in the Sosenki forest of Rovno in November 1941). The previous Thursday, Zeidy Yeshaya had gone to the bank to take care of his numerous charitable commitments. After Seliḥot, he shook the hands of all the congregants, saying “Have a good year if I do not see you on Yom Tov.” He then was driven back to my grandparents’ home, where he had lived for the previous several years after his wife died. He went to bed. About an hour later, my grandparents heard him calling out “Chana [his deceased wife’s name], I am coming to you for Yom Tov.” My grandparents went to his room, and found him shaking and trembling. They summoned a doctor, who came and gave him some type of injection to stabilize him. As he was receiving the shot, he passed away. His yahrzeit is on Elul 26. I bear his holy memory as I lead the Seliḥot services.

79. A discussion of the fast of the 20th of Sivan:

80. The Seliḥot for the Ḥevra Kadisha fast can be found here:

81. While serving at the prayer leader for the Seliḥot service on Taanit Esther of 2020, a few days before the shuls (and pretty much the world) shut down due to COVID-19, I added in the Kel Na piyyut to the Seliḥot, and explained to the congregation why I was doing so. As synagogue services had very recently resumed by the 17th of Tammuz, I felt like adding that piyyut, but did not want to prolong the service.

82. Here is a fascinating essay on the Anshei Amanah piyyut: Anshei Amana Link

83. Aside from the older innovations of the Conservative liturgy (see endnote 23), Mahzor Lev Shalem introduces many innovations in the piyyutim. (Note, I include this reference for comparison purposes. I myself only worship in strictly Orthodox fashion.) A subset of these innovations are:

  • The same Hashem Melech piyyut for both days of Rosh Hashanah (they chose that of the second day).
  • Melech Elyon only recited on one day – and moved to an introduction to Malchuyot.
  • No Imru L’Elokim.
  • The Ten Martyrs (the Ḥatanu piyyut of Musaf) has shortened the reference to the martyrs of the Roman period, and added in sections dealing with the Crusades, the inquisition, and the Shoah. (Creative and innovative – and quite understandable – albeit a break with tradition.
  • No opening petitions of the prayer leader for Shaḥarit.
  • Several piyyutim are brought in from other customs, including the Sephardic and Italian customs. A piyyut based on Job is included (and the commentary indicates that the Mishnah indeed states that Job was read to the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, and is thus appropriate for the day).
  • An option to include the matriarchs in the opening bracha of the Amida (understandable in light of the egalitarianism philosophy, yet a major tampering with the basic formula of the Amida).
  • Two version of Hineni, one for a male prayer leader, and the other for a female one (strikes a traditionalist as myself as quite startling, yet given their context, I understand it). The female version starts: Hineni heaniya mimaas, nireshet venifchedet

84. The ViYehi Noam prayers of Motzaei Shabbat may not fit this paradigm, as they are recited prior to the Full Kaddish, but are not really intrinsic to the service. They seem to be petitions asking for the holiness of the Shabbat to accompany us into the upcoming week, and as such, they are closely bound to the Amida.

85. A beautiful rendition of Darkecha:

86. A rendition of Ki Hinei Kaḥomer:

87. I do not purport to be an expert theologian, yet I too have grappled with this question, as has any deeply thinking religious person. My thoughts can be summed up as follows:

  • This World is meant to be a place of challenge, where our ultimate reward is earned. See Pirkei Avot 4:22: (from Sefaria): He used to say: more precious is one hour in repentance and good deeds in This World than all the life of the World To Come; and more precious is one hour of the tranquility of the World To Come, than all the life of This World.
  • The world had to be created as a place of challenge. Had good always been directly rewarded and evil been directly punished, our good deeds would have no meaning. We would be functioning as automatons.
  • Ultimate reward and punishment is a cardinal aspect of our faith. However, it can only fully realized in the World To Come. In This World, the wicked sometimes prosper and the good sometimes suffer.
  • Any attempt to solve this conundrum by stating that Gd is not omnipotent reflects a faulty view of the Divine. Harold Kushner, in his famous book on the subject, suggests that the world is a bit too complex for Gd to handle. This reflects faulty theology – although one cannot blame Harold Kushner, who suffered the loss of a child.
  • On the other hand, there is a concept that Gd purposely restricted His powers in This World, so that human beings can act in accordance with free will. This is the kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum (restriction), and is inherent in the Hebrew word for world – Olam – which has the same root as He’elem [hidden]. Gd is not directly obvious in This World. It is up to us to find Him despite the difficulties.
  • The concept of Hester Panim [Gd’s hidden face] also exists. There are periods in world history where Gd hides His face. When evil breaks out on a massive scale, it often appears random. The concept of Hester Panim is explicitly mentioned in the Torah  (Deuteronomy 31:18 and 32:20).
  • The question of where Gd was in the Holocaust is really the same question as to why bad things happen to good people – albeit in an extreme fashion. The Holocaust is not different in essence from the tragedies that afflicted our people throughout the centuries, including the destruction of the Temples, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Chmielnicki tribulations, the persecutions in eastern Europe, etc. In his book “With Fury Poured Out” Rabbi Bernard Maza (incidentally Jackie Mason’s brother) attempts to deal with this issue. Claiming that Gd was hanging on the gallows in Auschwitz, as Elie Weisel does in his book “Night,” must not be taken literally – although it is a startling expression of Hester Panim. Holocaust survivors who make such statements, however, are not to be castigated.
  • Trying to ascribe specific causes to specific instances of suffering, be they individual or communal, is bound to be mistaken, and is cruel to those suffering. We are not prophets. We had best leave such things in Gd’s hands. It is not our job to speculate on that subject.
  • When faced with our own suffering, be it personal or communal, introspection and repentance are always appropriate responses. When faced with the suffering of others, accusations and theological discussions are out of place. Our job is to commiserate and to help, not to pontificate. Job’s “friends” were strongly castigated for harping on theological arguments in the face of Job’s immense suffering.
  • .As Gd told Moses and Job, in the context of This World, we cannot have all the answers to how Gd runs This World. Once we have attained the World To Come, things will become clear.

88. Cantor Zawel Kwartin singing Tiher Rabbi Yishmael:

Cantor Chaim Adler singing Tiher Rabbi Yishmael, along with an orchestra:

89. This idea that repentance is accepted at other times of the year, and that, despite all the hype, Yom Kippur is not really the final opportunity for repentance, is expressed in other ways as well. The ending of the middle bracha of the Amida on Yom Kippur includes the phrase, “O King, forgiver and pardoner of our sins, Who removed our guilt each and every year.”  We are almost admitting that, even though we are repenting our sins on this Yom Kippur, we will be back next Yom Kippur once again for further atonement, as we know we will be sinning during the upcoming year. A few moments after the end of Yom Kippur, in the weekday Maariv Amida, we recite the bracha of forgiveness, even though our sins have just been forgiven (some might say that our sin at this point is that we are rushing the Maariv service as we are hungry and want to eat). A cynic may regard this as a reflection of the concept of “I will sin, and Yom Kippur will forgive,” an attitude castigated strongly by the Mishnah (Yoma 8:9). A realist, on the other hand, will regard this as reflection of the human condition. We do our best to repent on Yom Kippur, but recognize that we are imperfect and prone to sin. As such, we can look forward to the continued atonement of Hoshana Rabba, and the upcoming Yom Kippur of the next year to once again cleanse our sins.

90. Other than periods in my life where I felt myself to be in a state of tribulation, and therefore decided to take on the less commonly observed fast days for certain periods.

91. Those who recite the 13 attributes and Ashamnu with each Taḥanun service are reflecting the concept that every day of our lives is a time of tribulation, requiring Gd’s mercy. On the other hand, I have been told by someone who staunchly follows the Nusaḥ Ashkenaz practice that the daily recital of these prayers takes “the holy of holies” and renders it into something commonplace. Both reasonings have merit, and both customs are valid. I myself daven Nusaḥ Ashkenaz personally, but most often attend a Nusaḥ Sephard synagogue, where I join the congregation with reciting the near-daily small taste of Seliḥot (which I will admit, does remove some of the mystique of those prayers).


 © 2020 by Jerrold Landau