Question What is the Halachic source for Selikhot? Is saying Selikhoth obligatory like other mitzvoth?
Answer 1. Saying S’lihoth is a minhagh (custom). The Geonim, Rambam (T’shuva 3:9) and Tur (OH 581) mention rising early (at night) between Rosh HaShanna (RH) and Yom Kippur (YK) to pray and beseech HASHEM as a universal Jewish practice.
2. Hazal, based on many p’suqim, teach us that sometimes HASHEM is very near, ‘online’ if you like, but at other times He is distant and ‘offline’ or nearly so (P’siqta d’Rav Kahana ‘Dirshu’). The Hakhamim explicitly mention the days between RH and YK – a period when the world as a whole, as well as each individual, is judged – as a time when HASHEM is very much ‘online’. Only a fool would squander such an opportunity.
3. Does this make it obligatory? It is difficult to answer this question. Most rabbis would simply answer “yes”. The problem is that many good G-d fearing Jews find S’lihoth – particularly Ashkenazi S’lihoth – very trying. (It isn’t PC to say this, but there you have it).
4. I recommend attending S’pharadi or Temani S’lihoth. These communities say S’lihoth in unison, singing and chanting in familiar and moving melodies. This is how they conduct communal prayers throughout the year, and this is how things were done in ancient times (see Rambam’s description of communal prayer in MT T’philla Chap. 9). The experience is totally different and much more satisfying than the Ashkenazi ‘every-man-for-himself’ version. In addition the language used in S’pharadi and Temani liturgy is more plain and straightforward, and thus more comprehensible to the average person, as compared to the often cryptic and highbrow language of Ashkenazi liturgy. Also, as opposed to Ashkenazi S’lihoth where the liturgy changes daily and thus leads not infrequently to confusion, the S’pharadim recite the same prayers each day, and the S’lihoth thus become familiar and lend themselves to being sung or chanted.
5. Failing this, one can say S’lihoth in private. One can use the standard texts (except for the Thirteen Midoth), or say whatever is on one’s mind in one’s own words. If this strikes you as somewhat Breslevesque… you’re correct.
6. The essential thing – not just during the days or T’shuva but throughout the year – is to connect to HASHEM and to pray from the heart. Prayer without kawanna (heart-felt sincerity and fervour) is of no value whatever. May HASHEM open our hearts to Him.
22 September 2009