We have been hearing this word for a week now. Selihot (סְלִיחוֹת) generically are communal penitential prayers for forgiveness. We say them on fast days, and we say them beginning after the end of the Shabbat which is the week before Rosh Hashanah, or when Rosh Hashanah begins on a Sunday night or a Monday night we begin after the end of the Shabbat prior to the one before Rosh Hashanah.
Some congregations follow a tradition of reciting the prayers at midnight on that day. We err more on the Conservative side! (We had a community gathering among six synagogues last Saturday, very musical and spiritual, at 8:30 in the evening.) The purpose is to get us in the mood for being penitent.
We proceed to recite the Selihot prayers every morning before Shaharit, the morning service.
The standard liturgy includes Ashrei, a Hatzi Kaddish, piyyutim (פִּיּוּטִים, poems) for the day, the Thirteen Attributes of God (beginning [Hashem, Hashem], El rahum vehannun…), and various other Yom Kippur prayers.
The Mahzor Vitry, which we have discussed in this column, described the custom as rising early, before the sun, to beg for mercy. The prayers were mentioned in the Mishnah. King David even instituted a prayer for forgiveness when he realized that the Temple would be destroyed. Perhaps in a future column, we can look into the various types of Selihot, including Pizmon, Akeidah, Hatanu, and Tehinah. The Hebrew word selihah (the singular) means “pardon” or “forgiveness.”
May you be written for a happy, healthy, forgiven year.