Why Do We Say Selichos?

By Moshe Schonbrun

Throughout the world, thousands of Jews will go out deep into the night on Motzei Shabbos to recite selichos in preparation for Rosh Hashana. Why do we say selichos? How does it prepare us for Rosh Hashana? Why begin on Motzei Shabbos?

The Rama (581) states that we always begin reciting Selichos on a Motzei Shabbos or Sunday, as implied in the words of the opening stanza of “Bmotzei yom menucha”. The Mishna Berurah elucidates that since many people attempt to fast for ten days before Yom Kippur, and one may not fast on Rosh Hashana and Shabbos, starting selichos from the week beforehand will allow one to accrue ten days of contemplative and meaningful fasting. The Mishna Berurah offers a second reason, based on a halacha regarding sacrifices. For four days before bringing a Korban to draw close to Hashem, the animal must be placed in observation for any disqualifying flaws or blemishes. On Rosh Hashana, a person should be bringing themselves as a Korban. Therefore, for at least four days prior, they must rid themselves of all their potentially disqualifying flaws by doing Teshuvah.

The Aruch Hashulchan (581:3) offers a third reason. Sunday, the first day of the week, is the first day of Creation. The essential purpose of all of Creation is for a human being to develop a relationship with Hashem. Therefore it is quite suitable for us to begin forging restorative paths of healing and Teshuvah on Sunday.

Rav Yosef Bar Moshe, the author of the Leket Yosher and a talmid of the famed Terumas Hadeshen, proffers another explanation. Motzei Shabbos and Sunday are close to Shabbos. During the week, most people attend to a seemingly endless number of responsibilities. On Shabbos though, a person has more time to learn Torah and to enjoy all the pleasures that come along with Shabbos. Therefore, it is prudent and valuable to daven right after Shabbos when we are flowing with joy and happiness. Walk into a yeshiva on a late Friday night after the seudah, and there will undoubtedly be scores of people shtieging into the morning. The most fantastic day of aliyah and learning is always Shabbos. The Meiri, the holy and monumental Rishon from Catalan, writes (Chibbur Hateshuvah 2,89), “The fruit of day is night; the fruit of the week is Shabbos.”

Rav Yerucham Olshin, the legendary Rosh Yeshiva of Beis Medrash Govoah of Lakewood, questions this explanation. Why would selichos need to be said in joy and happiness? Isn’t selichos comprised of requests and confessions?  The Rosh Yeshiva answers that Selichos are an encounter with Hashem, and just like any other Tefillah when you are meeting with the Master of the World, you should be bursting with elation- Hashem wants to meet you! He explains that this is why selichos is formatted just like Shacharis (See Levush 581). It begins with a collection of pesukim (Pesukei D’zimra), the Selichos with the 13 middos of Rachamim is like the summit of Shemona Esrei, and we conclude with Tachanun and Kadish. This being the case, it is quite understandable the imperative to joyously recite selichos, encountering our Creator with love built up over a Shabbos.

Perhaps I can suggest an additional symbolism in the timing of the selichos. Working in the addiction recovery field has brought me to experience people’s deepest pain in the rawest of fashions. Individuals seeking treatment for substance use disorders have typically reached unimaginable depths of pain and sorrow. One unique aspect of the field is the flow of the admissions department. Contrary to most other call centers, in a recovery center, the calls in the middle of the night, before dawn breaks, and on weekends are the most crucial and urgent calls. During the day, potential clients may call to learn more about the clinical program, inquire about the holistic arts offerings, or to simply discover the daily menu. In the dark of night, unhindered by any self-delusions and invincibilities, the cry for help and support emerges desperately.. 

Throughout the year, we may navigate our relationship with Teshuvah similarly to the way a functioning addict of the daytime approaches potential treatment. We investigate a little, seek some recommendations, and perhaps stop by to take an insider’s look. I may even get to the point where I schedule an upcoming day to admit in the near future, but I remain on the outside- lonely, isolated, and cold. Then comes the night of Selichos. In the heart of the night, we encounter Teshuva in the rawest of ways, crying out to Hashem for assistance. 

The words of Selichos, with their poetic piyutim and complex prose, can be hard to plumb to understand the profound implications and intentions of the words. But like the slurring alcoholic, a distinct message comes through the verbose phrasing: I want to change! I want to authentically connect to something beyond myself! 

The words of all the different selichos, piyutim, and pizmonim that have been established custom to recite contain difficult phrases. Rav Yaakov Emden and other great luminaries are bothered: Why weren’t these prayers set in a more precise language, similar to Shemoneh Esrei in a concise and clear language? 

Rav Itche Meyer Morgenstern explains that our great leaders composed selichos this way to stop our over-intellectualization and rationality that could go into the Teshuva process. The night of selichos arrives and a Jew yells out for Teshuva and connection- not as somber logical negotiation, but as an incoherent stab of longing. We need to learn to accept kabbalas ol malchus shomayim by speaking with Hashem and yelling to Him, even if we don’t know what we are saying. Like someone under external influence, we just need to scream and beg Hashem to bring us into residential treatment immediately- Shivti b’veis Hashem– even though it’s in the middle of the night, a weekend, and before the morning has risen. 
Selcihos ends with the paragraph of “Va’anachnu lo Neida”. We may be slightly too tired on a late Motzei Shabbos or early morning rise to fully know the words we expressed, but one thing we know for sure: We want our Teshuvah to be genuine and filled with the joy of returning home. We want to touch Divinity and have it touch us too.

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