The Selichot Experience In The Eyes Of A Ba’al Teshuvah

By Cosmic X from Jerusalem

I believe that the first time that I said selichot I was at 770 Eastern Parkway on a Saturday night with “the Rebbe”. Someone gave me the selichot booklet with old yellowed pages. I could not follow what was going on. At the end the Chasidim started singing something, I think it was some of the Aramaic that we say at the end of the selichot. I understood nothing, and I couldn’t even hum along with them since I did not know the tune. I had this embarrassed kind of feeling that one gets when you are the only one in the room that does not know what is going on. But this wasn’t a normal room. This was 770, with hundreds of black-frocked Chasidim singing and dancing while poor Cosmic X stared confused. (That weird, embarrassed and confused feeling was my lot quite often during the first year of Teshuvah.)

The rest of the selichot that year were not any better. It meant waking up earlier than usual to pray in the local synagogue. These guys had been saying the selichot since they were little kids, and they knew how to finish them off with blinding speed. (I’m not sure how many of them understood what they were saying.) All this was of course was a prelude to the Shacharit Indianapolis 500, which would be over in 25-30 minutes.

Later on when I moved to Israel my Hebrew vocabulary expanded, and my understanding of the selichot improved accordingly. The more I learned Torah, the more I understood what the authors of the Piyutim were alluding to. The composers of the selichot were great rabbis, who knew how to weave their incredible knowledge of Torah, Talmud, Midrashim and the Hebrew language into amazingly creative poetry. I also purchased an excellent book a few years ago that explains all of the selichot in depth, and I’ve really come to appreciate them. They are a true delicacy!

The bottom line of this post is that you get out of the selichot what you put into them. Take the time to learn the selichot, and find a minyan that prays at a speed that you feel comfortable with. If you are a beginner, don’t get discouraged. Selichot can and should be a meaningful experience.

Originally posted here.

24 comments on “The Selichot Experience In The Eyes Of A Ba’al Teshuvah

  1. I long ago wrote a post here, using my stone-and-chisel, that addressed in part my beginner’s dread of selichos when first exposed to them in those stone age years.

    I still dread them, notwithstanding the happy spin of that post. This is true even though now my reading and comprehension are immensely better than they were 30+ years ago, though admittedly my feet and the very worldly burden placed on them by gravity are neither of them feeling “better” about anything.

    The fact is that I can only “appreciate” selichos when I’ve already put some distance between myself and them, as I wrote in that article. This is true for all “character-building” experiences, of course, which is why (besides my decision to major in economics) we so seldom volunteer for character-building experiences.

    This morning — the “long selichos” of erev Rosh Hashana — was just agony for me. In the Chaim Berlin yeshiva in Brooklyn they say the introductory matter, the first “Selicha,” the last “Pizmon” and then from Shema Koleinu through the end. They do this over the same amount of time — at least — that other yeshiva-speed minyonim spend doing the whole boat, so it’s not an abridgment so much as a change in focus. That worked great for me, and it’s a plan I tend to stick to, or at least leave as some kind of option, regardless of what the minyan I’m in is actually doing. The only difference is I’ll stop in the middle and join in on the “Keil Melech’s” and 13 Attributes each time the minyan hits them, which seems like the thing to do.

    I still dread it. The way I get through it, ultimately, is the same thing I do the morning of Tisha B’Av: Realize that for my children, it’s not so hard at all; it’s natural to them; it’s more or less what it’s supposed to be, given the realities of generational decline; and that every sharp pain from my dogs is one less lash waiting for me in the World to Come.

  2. I have to second the concern about saying selichos and the speed of the chazzan/minyan. I just davened selichos in a small Jersey Shore community near my parents. Even though I, like others here, am not familiar with selichos from birth (and frankly neither were fellow minyan members, most of whom are also BTs), I was frustrated by the unusually fast pace the chazzan took each day. I was barely able to say every other paragraph without falling behind. And this is the default experience in both shuls in my hometown community, which is out-of-town and largely BT. While we don’t have the obligation to say every word as Michael aptly points out, it would be more meaningful if could slow down a tad. But alas, everyone wants/needs to get to work and “get through” shacharis. Alas.

  3. One of the best pieces of advice I got every for Slichot was from my Rosh Yeshiva who announced that although the Yeshiva will be reciting Slichot slower than most shuls, if you can’t keep up, start each piyut and read as much as you can with as much Kavana as you can apply (use translation if that helps), and when the Chazan reaches the 13 midot, skip and recite the midot with the congregation and then go on to the next piyut.

    The 13 midot should be only recited with the congregation, and as for the piyutim, better to recite half a piyut with kavana or understanding, instead of mumbling through the whole thing and not get anything out of it.

    This advise applies especially in a “regula” shul where the pace is faster than most yeshivot.

    Slichot are not like other parts of davening, there is no obligation to recite every single word.

  4. What was the name of the book about selichot that you mentioned in the original blog post that explained about the piyyutim in depth? I would love to read it.

  5. RYBS stated that Slichos during Elul and Aseres Ymei Teshuvah are a form of Tefilah that are preceded by Ashrei, Chatzi Kaddish, the 13 Midos as a form of Shemoneh Esreh followed by Tachanun and Kaddish Shalem. IMO, taking pre Bar Mitzvah children is counterproductive due to their attention span and especially if they have not had any shiurim or the like in school on the importance of slichos and the unique nature of the Tefilos of the Yamim Noraim, which RYBS thought that Slichos were an indispensable part of preparing for the Yamim Noraim. It is a shame that many adults mumble through the Slichos and the Tefilos of the Yamim Noraim despite the huge amount of excellent seforim and English Judaica that go a long way in rendering these Tefilos and Piyutim understandable. I can’t reccomend the Machzorim based upon RYBS’s teachings and the Noraos HaRav booklets on Selichos, the Piyutim
    the Tefilos and the hashkafic themes of Rosh HaShanah and Yom HaKippurim

  6. “Part of that was because he was tired,”

    David, I think the sleep factor can really be a big one for kids. There is something eerily mystical about the contents of Slichos and the original Minhag to say them at propitious hours of the night reflect that. The Neshamas of children can sometimes pick that up… BETTER than the adults!

    But they need to be rested and keyed in to the idea that H’ is r-e-a-l-l-y listening to us in a special way right now. The gates are open to a broken heart…

  7. I was listening to an Aish tape from Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz about Selichos and he made the following point:

    Only during Shemoneh Esrai are we standing before and talking directly to Hashem. In Shomoneh Esrai we are try to elevate ourselves closer to Hashem.

    In all other parts of davening including Selichos we are talking about Hashem.

    In Selichos in particular we are describing what a lowly state we are in and how much we need Hashem’s help. This was the situation after the Golden Calf when Moshe was pleading and Hashem taught him the 13 Attributes of Mercy which is the most important part of Selichos.

    — End Rabbi Berkowitz

    Perhaps Selichos is difficult because in our age of low-self-esteem consciousness and focusing on how everybody is really wonderful (which is true from many perspectives) we are quite uncomfortable saying how lowly and in need of real help we really are.

    Just to contrast, in Tisha B’Av Kinnos, which is also difficult, there are two themes: 1) that we are lowly and deserve the punishment 2) that we have greatness and deserve to be redeemed. In Selichos we are basically just have theme 1).

  8. “one of those fourth-generation offset printed all-Hebrew selichos and just wanting to die, die, die” Oh yeah, those are great, especially when you need to flip back and forth in between the selichos to get to the yud gimel midos and the other refrains.

    When I took my son to Selichos, we only had one artscroll selichos and I kept giving it to him and he kept giving it to me. I think he knew how awful they are and didn’t want me to deal with it. Poor kid!!!

  9. This issue is a great prism for a lot of issues. I remember going to selichos at the local yeshiva for the first time somewhere around Year Three and getting one of those fourth-generation offset printed all-Hebrew selichos and just wanting to die, die, die. I was so happy when selichos season was over!

    Too bad it wasn’t. I thought Rosh Hashana had killed it. Nope — all the way through Yom Kippur. Just awful.

    A major departure point for me on this was when a while later I was learning in the Chaim Berlin yeshiva, where they do not speed through them and they only say the beginning matter (which you will pick up after a couple of years) and, each day, the pizmon plus one selicha — then the finishing matter which, once you learn what is traditionally skipped, you also pick up.

    This not only showed me an hashkofic approach that resonated powerfully with me — in some cases, less, slowly and properly, is an acceptable alternative (and, to me, a very attractive one) to more, meaninglessly and faster. I took this into selichos for the rest of my life, and to yomim noraim davening too as regards piyutim, etc.

    Unfortunately you won’t find this approach even in Artscroll. Ironically, the English translations, in my view, only make the whole thing more intimidating except for the language part. All those words… all those concepts… it seems hopeless. (That’s why I never bring my dad to shul and expect him to entertained for hours by sticking an Artscroll Siddur in front of him. I am sure it is hopelessly boring to someone who is either not motivated or is overwhelmed.)

    I think it’s better to learn the core parts of the selichos in Hebrew, even if literal meaning lags behind, so you can surf the waive of repetition and communal chanting, a process which “softens” up your emotions and exposes your soul to the elevating and combined effects of communal prayer and mesorah.

    This can take you a long way. Even after over 20 years and a yen for languages, I’m only beginning to understand the words I’m saying. But the process… the environment… the sound… the attitude… the effort… these, I believe, can make selichos work for any of us.

  10. My 11 year old son asked to come to selichos motzei shabbos. I would have preferred to have him go to my regular minyan which has a (fairly rare) minhag to daven the first day of selichos on Sunday morning. But, since I was going, I took him. He did NOT want to be there.

    I tried to explain to him the purpose and format of selichos and point out the portions that I thought would be familar tpo him (the 13 midos, tachanun, shema koleinu, etc). I think he found pretty much the whole thing to be boring. Part of that was because he was tired, part was because they had a chazzan that was quite lengthy (though good) and I think a large part wass because he had no preparation. If someone has the opportunity to review the selichos before saying them, the experience is so much more meaningful.

  11. Bob Miller-Please explain. TSBP in its purest sense, is not a “version of what is stated in Chumash”, but is rather how the Baalei Mesorah of every generation interpret and provide new insights whether Lkulah or Lchumarh both into Torah Shebicsav and TSBP via the means of interpretration passed down from Moshe Rabbeinu. In its purest sense, TSBP was never meant to be written down and was only done so because of historical necessity. Like it or not, the Avodas Yom HaKipurim and many halacos in Hilcos Sukkah and Arbaah Minim are based on Halachos LMoshe MiSinai which have no textual basis whatsoever in Torah Shebicxav, unlike Hilcos Nedrarim or Shechitah, which have a few Psukim, but much in TSBP.

  12. The new volume of Noraos HaRav ( Vol.16) has an amazing drasha from RYBS on the tremendous connection between Torah, and especially TSBP and Teshuvah. I highly recommend it. The essence of the drasha is that after the Chet HaEgel and Moshe Rabbeinu being told the Seder HaSlichos as a means towards teshuvah, Klal Yisrael’s Kedusha, which was in the form of a Kedushas Damim and in danger of being lost after the Maaseh HaEgel was transformed into a permanent Kedushas HaGuf which survived even the seemingly awful events in the second half of Sefer Bamidbar. The corollary is that the covenant between HaShem and Klal Yisrael rests on our committment to and study of TSBP. That is why Kol Nidrei, which is based on Hilcos Nedarim. which is heavily based on TSBP, is accentuated on Leil Yom HaKippurim and why we follow Chazal and not the Chumash in many aspects of the Avodas Yom HaKippurim. Sukkos also has many halachos that can only be learned from TSBP.

  13. Ed,

    Even though I’ve been saying selichot for over 20 years, sometimes I am not able to keep up with the Chazzan. The well known rule is that a little bit with kavanna is preferable over a lot without kavanna. Sometimes I skip a paragraph in order to say the 13 midot with the congregation.

  14. Ed

    There are such minyanim.
    Alternatively just say one or two selichot properly and let the speeding traffic overtake you.

  15. >> Take the time to learn the selichot, and find a minyan that prays at a speed that you feel comfortable with <<

    I have never found such a minyan. Most minyanim I’ve attended conduct their services at lightspeed. I once watched a 13 year old Chabad kid blast through the morning davening so fast that I thought he was going to get a ticket.

    Now, Hebrew wise, I’m not the brightest flame on the Menorah, but some of the express train davening I’ve seen at various Chabad houses just leaves me in the dust.

    Slichos? I’m still working on Shmonah Esray.

  16. It would be wise to publicize (or organize if necessary) Selichot services that allow at least the average davener to say all the words in a dignified way. Our advance preparation is partly wasted if in the end we have to do a flat-out mumble to keep up. The Rav in charge might elect to omit some Selichot if it would mean better concentration on the others within the time available.

  17. This may even be a general issue for BBT: Should the thrust of articles abt the beauty of Mitzvah observance be primarily geared to helping those trying to get inside, or also abt building bridges for those observing from outside in?

    I’ve long believed the Klal needs a kiruv approach that actually adds a third: For those glancing over their backs from the inside out!

    Especially today, when so much of what we write is viewed across the spectrum, it seems that despite the best intentions, and sometimes BECAUSE of them, we alienate major sectors of sincere Jews when we don’t address all these groups simultaneously.

    Granted, it’s hard to sound confident and passioante when you’re not sure who’s listening, but is the alternative worth it?

    If Judaism has what to offer our “global village”, I believe, it must find a way of including all these types in the same breath.

  18. Shunamit,

    “Adon HaSelichot” and “Aneinu” are good examples of the difference between the Ashkenazic Selichot and the Sefardic ones. In order to appreciate the Ashkenzic ones a knowledge of Hebrew is not enough. You have to be familiar with the Talmud, Midrashim etc. As for “Adon HaSelichot” and “Aneinu”, any Israeli can understand the “pshat” of them.


    I agree. This is true for all of the Torah.

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “relative outsider”. I was writing for the person who wants to be an insider and is having a hard time. I’m saying be patient, be diligent. In the end you will get there. It’s worth it.

    You raise an interesting question about tapping in “here and now” to Ashkenazic Selichot. I don’t have an answer.

  19. “you get out of the selichot what you put into them”

    Isn’t that the Klal Gadol in TORAH??

    Thank you for sharing the candid insight into your growth process, X. But in all philosophical honesty, what claim are you making for the relative outsider? Why should he invest in Slichos when it might feel more productive to do so at a Buddhist meditation center? Because you’ve graduated the struggle and retrospectively say it was worth it?

    I think alot of fresh Yidden need to hear how they can tap in here and now.

  20. Sigh. Odd how the Sfardim, who get up for slichot all of Elul, generally have positive feelings about it. The sing a lot more and drink tea with mint. From listening to the tunes, I’d say they have a more positive and confident feeling about teshuva in general than the Ashkenazim, for whom it is frequently a melange of dread and mumbling unfamiliar texts.

    You can’t hear their version of “Adon HaSelichot” or “Aneinu” without feeling encouraged.

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