Reciting selihot (סליחות; singular סליחה, selichah) is a time-honored and meaningful minhag (religious custom.)
They are “a special order of service consisting of non-statutory additional prayers which are recited on all fast days, on occasions of special intercession, and during the Penitential season which begins before Rosh Ha-Shanah and concludes with the Day of Atonement.”
When to recite them?
The choice of prayers and when to recite them is more in the realm of custom than law. The selihot service is not mentioned in the Mishnah or Talmud. It is a custom which began in the Geonic period (ca. 500-1000 CE)
Rabbi David Golinkin explores the various customs in When Should Selihot Be Recited? Responsa in a Moment concluding “All of these customs are legitimate since they are customs not based on biblical or talmudic law. The usual attitude of the Talmud and halakhic authorities to such customs is “nahara nahara ufashtey” i.e. every river follows its own course. In other words, every locale follows its own customs and they are equally legitimate.”
A traditional Sephardic minhag is:
Recite selihot for the 40 days from Rosh Ḥodesh Elul to the Day of Atonement
A gtraditional Ashkenazi minhag is:
Recite selichot on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah
unless Rosh Hashanah is early in the week: in that case then selichot are moved up a week, so there are always at least four nights of selichot.
Selichot are not recited on Rosh Hashanah, and instead are resumed on the 3rd of Tishrei. They continue until (and including) Yom Kippur.
Selihot are recited at least four nights, possibly more. If Rosh Hashana is on Wed. night or later in the week then selichot start that week: Sat. Sun. Mon. Tues.
If not, then their recitation moves back a week and there are more days.
Selichot do not have to be said at midnight, and can be said until dawn (meaning they would begin in the early hours of Sunday.
Newer minhag: Many congregations now have formal selichot services only on the first night (always a Saturday).
Unless otherwise stated, prayerbooks listed below are bilingual in English & Hebrew. Also, most of these published before 2000 are likely out of print, although one usually can find used copies from online booksellers.
Selihot, Prayer Book Press of Media Judaica, Morris Silverman, Hillel Silverman, 1954/1982
Selihot Service Translated in Prose and Verse, Ed. Ben Zion Bokser, The United Synagogue of America 1955
Currently some Conservative/Masorti synagogues have their own Selihot booklets; others may use books from other publishers. Many use the Rabbinical Assembly’s Selihot, Edited by Gershon Hadas, originally edited in 1966.
Gates of Forgiveness: The Union Selichot Service, Chaim Stern, 1979
The newest offering from Reform Judaism is Mishkan Halev: Prayers for S’lichot and the Month of Elul, Ed. Janet Marder and Seldon Marder, CCAR Press, 2017
In the 1960’s some Modern Orthodox congregations used Selihot, edited by Philip Birnbaum, Philip, Hebrew Publishing Company, 1952.
From 1979 and onwards many Britist and American Modern Orthodox synagogues used Abraham Rosenfeld’s, The Authorised Selichot for the Whole Year, Judaica Press, 1979
The newest Modern Orthodox Selihot is Koren Selihot for the First Night, Minhag Anglia, Koren Publishers, 2016. I would recommend this book for any Ashkenazi Jew, of any denomination, who would like a comprehensive set of selihot with clear, accurate translations and comprehensive notes.
If readers know of Sephardic or Mizrachi or selihot compilations that have English & Hebrew, please let us know on our Facebook havurah..
The Metsudah Selichos, Avraham Davis, Metsudah Publications, 1985, 912 pages
There are many printings of Selichot, mostly in Hebrew. Here are a few of the more popular ones with newer English translations:
Selichot According to Chabad Custom, J. Immanuel Schochet , Kehot Publication Society, 442 pages
Selichos: 1st Night, Ed. Avie Gold, Nosson Scherman, Meir Zlotowitz, ArtScroll, 1992
Recording of selichot services
A recording of the choir singing selichot prayers at Temple Tifereth Israel, Winthrop MA, in 1970 with Cantor Mazovetzsky.
Questions & Answers