Book Review | Reviving Selihot, Judaism’s Midnight Prayer Service

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A group of young women pray selihot outside at night in Israel.

The Koren Selihot, Minhag Lita
Introduction and commentary by Rabbi Jacob Schacter
Translation by Sara Daniel
Koren Publishers, 1229 pages, $44

Selihot, the pre-High Holidays service traditionally held at midnight the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashanah, has fallen on hard times in recent years, at least in non-Orthodox communities.

I can remember going to Selihot services at midnight when I was a child and feeling the awe in the room. Nowadays, people are afraid to be out that late at night, so most congregations hold their services soon after sunset. Some rabbis teach before services, and for these congregations this book will be a valuable resource.

Rabbi Jacob Schacter of Yeshiva University has done two useful things in this edition of the Selihot prayerbook. First, he has written an introduction that identifies the main themes of the selihot, or prayers for mercy and forgiveness (which are recited throughout the High Holidays, not only at the Selihot service) and considers what they mean to us today. He has also gathered all the poems that are found in the Lithuanian tradition and written a brief but helpful commentary on them.

He begins with a central prayer of the Selihot service, the recital of the Thirteen Attributes of God, and considers some of the evening’s main themes, the Binding of Isaac and the concept of Tsiduk Hadin—accepting God’s verdict, whatever it may be. Some questions he discusses may be controversial to the modern reader. Should we say the prayer that asks the angels to usher in our prayers to God—or does this constitute a prayer to other beings and therefore a violation of our faith in the one God? How should we feel about the selihot that ask God to punish the non-Jews for their cruelty towards us? Is this the understandable response of a persecuted people or a prayer that we should delete since it no longer applies? Is the prayer that says God is together with us in exile a source of comfort? Or is it too bold an anthropomorphism for us to hold on to today?

More generally, what is the essence of prayer? Is it the saying of words or is it the intention of the heart that is most important? And is it enough to pray in the synagogue or must our words bring us to action when we leave? Schacter takes on each of these important questions in this almost-book-length introduction, bringing together an extraordinary range of views culled from within the tradition. There are almost 200 footnotes in the introduction alone, with citations that range through the entire treasury of classic sources—century by century—and into modern and contemporary works as well. One may expect to find the views of such sages as the Rebbe Maharash (1834-1882) and quotations from Rabbi Schachter’s mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), but it’s surprising also to encounter the words of modern academic scholars Shalom Spiegel and Arnold Band, Israeli novelist S.Y. Agnon (1887-1970), Satmar Rebbe Yoel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) and even Presbyterian theologian George Foot Moore (1851-1931). I cannot think of many works by Orthodox scholars in which these names can be found side by side with the names of the classic figures of the past.

To translate selihot from Hebrew to English is no small task: Not only are they written in poetic form, but they contain allusions in almost every line to passages in the Tanach, the Talmud and the Midrash that are very hard to transmit to another language. Translator Sara Daniel conveys these difficult texts in a clear and comprehensive manner. For example, the poem that begins with the confession Licha Hashem hatsdaka v’lanu boshet hapanim comes out in her translation as: “You are right, and we are shamefaced.” Further on in the poem, she renders the Hebrew, “Without goodness or worthy deeds we come before You. Like paupers, like the destitute, we knock at your door. Please do not turn us away empty-handed.” These are words of few syllables, blunt and crystal clear, obviously aimed not only at the mind but at the heart. Who can read them without feeling their power?

The result is a commentary that is halachic without being pedantic, together with a translation which is accurate without being cumbersome. Let us hope it will help revive the Selihot service throughout Jewish life and that it will help us all to repent.

Jack Riemer is a rabbi and the author of So That Your Values Live On: a Treasury of Jewish Ethical Wills, Finding God in Unexpected Places and other books of Jewish thought.

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One thought on “Book Review | Reviving Selihot, Judaism’s Midnight Prayer Service

  1. Ruth Usem says:

    I love having and reading my MOMENT MAGAZINE!
    I find this article about Selichot informing and interesting – – it makes me want to participate
    this Saturday.

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