Slihot: Preparing for the Day of Judgment

A meaningful recitation of the slihot can be both moving and inspiring, preparing one with the proper mindset for the approaching Days of Awe.

Slihot at Western Wall, September 4, 2018 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Slihot at Western Wall, September 4, 2018
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Among my earliest childhood recollections are those of my father taking me to synagogue before sunrise during the week between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to recite slihot. It was only years later that I first tried to penetrate the great complexity and beauty of these prayers and began to understand their meaning.
Last Saturday night, Jews the world over will be gathering in their synagogues for the first of 13 slihot services. Their Sephardic brethren will have already started reciting slihot on the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul.
Nature and origin of slihot
Slihot (from slihah, forgiveness) are prayers of penitence, confession of sin, and pleading for divine mercy and forgiveness. In addition, they give expression to the intense Jewish suffering and cruelties visited upon Jews by their enemies.
With the exception of Yom Kippur, where they constitute an integral part of the liturgy, slihot are recited as a discrete service in the early dawn hours prior to the regular morning prayers. Between 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., slihot are recited each day except for Erev Rosh Hashanah, where the number of slihot is close to 20, making for an extended service. Originally, slihot were recited only during the days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, since these were days of fasting. They were later extended to the week before Rosh Hashana to serve as an appropriate preparation for the Day of Judgment.
Dates of composition
Slihot constitute a specific and unique type of prayer whose origins can be traced to the time of the Mishnah (2nd century) when they were recited on public fast days and times of natural disaster, such as drought or famine. These early slihot were rather simple in form and style, consisting of a series of biblical verses dealing with sin and forgiveness. Many slihot were composed before the 7th century, but were not recorded due to an early prohibition of copying sacred writings. It was in the 9th century that Rav Amram Gaon incorporated some slihot into his well-known siddur.
The great majority of slihot recited today originate from the 8th to the 12th centuries, a time of great outpouring of poetic and liturgical compositions in western European countries, including the Rhineland, France and Italy. The Ashkenaz slihot evolved in several different forms, according to the customs in different geographic regions, such as minhag (custom) Ashkenaz, minhag Polin and minhag Lita. It is the Lita version that I reviewed for this discussion.
Poetic structure
Most slihot are arranged in stanzas of four rhyming lines, the fourth line often constituting a familiar biblical quotation. Stanzas with three or two lines are less common. Each service includes a pizmon, a poem with a refrain, the lines being recited alternately by the reader and the congregation. The contents and meaning of the slihot are not easy to access even by those well versed in the Hebrew tongue. Much of the language is not direct but allusive, requiring extensive knowledge of scripture, Talmud and Midrash, to catch its meaning. The lines are couched in cryptic terms, interwoven with numerous biblical and rabbinic references. For example, the forefathers, who are cited quite frequently, might be represented by such terms as “he who was bound on the altar” or “ he whose likeness is engraved on the heavenly throne” to refer to Isaac and Jacob respectively.
The poetry is masterful and extremely complex, consisting of terse isolated parts of biblical verses which, though lifted out of context, blend harmoniously and poetically in expressing the poet’s ideas. As such, they reflect great skill on the part of the poet as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical and rabbinic texts. And yet, the slihot are so much more than cleverly arranged poetry, considering that they were composed by some of the greatest scholars of their day, including such luminaries as Saadiah Gaon, Rabeinu Gershon, and Rashi.
Most of the slihot are arranged so that the first letters of each line form an alphabetic acrostic, at the end of which the poet has signed an acrostic of his name. This has enabled scholars to identify many but not all the paytanim (poets)
The 13 attributes
Since earliest times, all slihot have revolved around a major theme that constitutes the very essence of the entire service, namely the 13 attributes of God, as recorded in Exodus 34:6. Each slihah is preceded and followed by a recitation of the verse “ The Lord, The Lord, merciful and gracious... forgiving iniquity and transgression.” The importance of this verse is described in its midrashic interpretation by the Talmud (Bav.RH 17b): When Moses beseeched God to forgive His people for the sin of the Golden Calf “the Holy One wrapped Himself (in a tallit) like a prayer leader and demonstrated to Moses the order of prayer, saying, ‘Whenever Israel sins, let them perform before me this procedure and I shall forgive them.’”
The slihot have come down to us in a variety of forms. The “Akeida” for example, describes the story of the binding of Isaac (Gen 22:1-19), often with intense poetic beauty, asking God to remember His people in the merit of Abraham’s sacrifice. Considering the times when these poems were composed, the Akeida might well have served as a metaphor for the thousands of Jews who were martyred al kiddush hashem (for the sanctification of God). Another type of slihah, “ Machnisei Rachamim,” constitutes an emotional plea to the angels, beseeching them, most urgently, to transmit our prayers before the heavenly throne. Such prayers have elicited much controversy in that they imply the need of an intermediary, instead of enabling us the address God directly. Nevertheless, they have been retained in the standard editions.
Slihot as polemics
The periods when many of the paytanim lived included times of devastating edicts and unspeakable repression of Jews, as during the First Crusade, prompting the poet to cry out to his Creator to take note of Israel’s suffering. At the same time, he would vilify his tormentors for the Jewish blood that they spilled. These polemics consist of short, subtle phrases, many of them verbatim quotes from scripture, which, when incorporated into the poetry, left no doubt concerning their intended meaning. Such phrases as “they exchanged their hope for a man-made god” or ”they worshiped a buried god” were clearly directed against the Church. Yet another phrase, “they call a man who never prophesied a prophet” is a reference to Islam, the citing of Ishmael’s son in the previous line indicating the poet’s intention. Special contempt was expressed against Christianity in seeking to convert Jews to their religion, a belief labeled as “idol worship.” These polemics, though stated with subtlety, did not escape the censors’ eyes and were expurgated in their time. And yet, many have come down to us in their original form.
The above discussion suggests that a meaningful recitation of the slihot can be both moving and inspiring, preparing one with the proper mindset for the approaching Days of Awe.