Sunday 20 September 2020


A Guest Post by Rabbi Boruch Clinton:

For the longest time I've struggled to understand the selichos recited in Ashkenaz shuls. I don't mean that I've struggled to translate their difficult words: that's a problem shared universally by everyone I've met and it's hardly unique to me. Rather, I mean that I've never been able to fully understand the role that certain parts of selichos are supposed to play in my teshuva efforts.

Let me be more specific. The extended passages filled with familiar verses from Tanach (like שומע תפלה ) or that closely reflect patterns already suggested by Chazal (like מי שענה, clearly based Taanis 15a) are all straightforward. Likewise, the confession ( אשמנו ). What we're supposed to draw from all those sections is pretty obvious.

The trouble begins in the paragraphs commonly known as " סליחות ." Why were so many of hem written using such obscure and difficult language? I've written a book of essays on the navi Yeshaya and given shiurim on Kinnos, so I'm certainly not unfamiliar with poetic and challenging Hebrew. But the selichos included in the Ashkenaz versions for עשרת ימי תשובה are, as the אבן עזרא famously noted in his commentary to קהלת, in an entirely different league.

Thinking about these things lead me to other questions: Who wrote those selichos? Who was their original intended audience? Who decided to include them in the order of selichos and what did the Jewish community look like at that time?

I'll note that I believe there's essentially no value whatsoever in just reading the words without any understanding. That there might be some magic powers contained in the words that invisibly shift individual and national fortunes at some cosmic level simply by being uttered - and overriding G-d's will in the process - is, in my understanding, so foreign to traditional Jewish thinking that I won't even address it here. If you're not being inspired to change by the content of what you're reading, you're not really participating.

Growing up, as they have, in a generation blessed with easily available translations and commentaries, my kids might find it hard to imagine a time when even a casual understanding of selichos was, for most people, simply impossible. But until thirty years back, that was where we all lived. So what really lies behind this minhag?

Enough generalities. I'll illustrate my point by taking a look at just a few lines from the first selicha ( אין מי יקרא בצדק ) from the first night of selichos:

אין מי יקרא בצדק

איש טוב נמשל כחדק

"There is no one who can justly call You: a good man is compared to 'chedek'."

The word חדק might be referring to a thorn (as used in מיכה ז:ד and משלי טו:יט ), in which case the gemara ( עירובין קא ) referenced by the Artscroll commentary would make some sense...except that ר' הושע בר חנניא who was, in that source, insulted with the expression, responded that it should actually be seen as a great praise. In the context of our selicha, that seems out of place.

But could the word not also be a reference to the river חדקל and, by extension, to one or more ancient Jews of Babylonia or even to אדם וחוה in גן עדן? Suddenly, even a healthy familiarity with relevant sources leads us to ambiguity and confusion. What did the original author mean? Are we supposed to make our own choices from all the possibilities? 

And how are we supposed to even think coherently about it if we're speeding through the text at upwards of 20 syllables per second (don't laugh: I've timed it).

Moving on:

בקש רחמים בעד שחוקי הדק

בשום פנים אין בדק

"Seek mercy for those ground to dust: there is nothing searched"

The word בדק is vowelled to rhyme with צדק and חדק above. But are we to parse the word literally or, as the Artscroll would seem to have it, ignore the vowel and understand it as though it was "נבדק"? Or - as a separate commentary suggests, might it be a reference to בדק הבית, implying that there's no one among us willing to stand up and support G-d's holy work (which is a much better fit with the vowellization)?

In some cases, you might argue that "either way, the general sense is clear." But I don't believe that's quite true in this instance, because neither reading feels like a good match with the actual words in their larger context. After all, it's not clear whether the איש טוב above refers to someone who is genuinely good but misunderstood, or to someone who is revealed to be undeserving. What then, should the subject of אין בדק actually be?

גבר תמים ונבר אפס

גמר חסיד וצדיק נרפס

"There is no uncorrupted or pure man: the chasid is completed and the tzadik is 'nirpas'"

It's certainly true that גמר could mean "gone" as the Artscroll has it. But I'm at a loss on נרפס, which Artscroll translates as "trampled." That would be נרמס, not נרפס. One commentary evokes the talmudic expression " מרפסן איגרא " but that would be strange in the context of the Hebrew prefix (the נ in נרפס ) it uses here.

Its use in תהלים סח:לא suggests the word here might mean "muddied" (or, perhaps, "humbled"). But if the person we're talking about is indeed a צדיק, how are we to take his apparent fall? Or could he meaning be that the people we consider צדיקים are all fakes?

At any rate, these are certainly not ideas that should be decided carelessly - and certainly not at breakneck speeds.

Was there ever a generation whose members were so well versed in the full range of Torah literature and Hebrew grammar that they could be reliably expected to come up with cogent and inspiring interpretations on the fly at each time they recited these selichos? Were these poems even intended for use in such a context?

Of course, there's nothing stopping us from properly preparing by investing many hours of serious study of all the text that's read throughout the days of selichos. We could at least work out enough possible interpretations to make a go of it. Well, there's nothing stopping us besides the fact that very few of us have enough time in our busy lives. The two to three weeks of selichos covered each year probably contain thousands of lines and countless unusual word conjugations, many of which leading to deep ambiguities of meaning. Besides, I'd suspect that relatively few individuals have the background and resources to "make a go of it."

And when all that's said and done, do we even know enough about these texts to be sure that their study all qualifies as לימוד תורה?

So who is all this really about?

Your turn, now.


  1. In other words, how is slichos to get us emotional by reading medieval poetry?

  2. I found your post meaningful as we got a letter from the police permitting us to break curfew last Saturday night at chatzos. I was wondering if it was really necessary to engage government for a special dispensation and risk creating a chillul haShem in the eyes of those who saw us driving but did not know about the letters in the cubby - for something like selichos which anyway we could have said at 4 am when the curfew lifted.

  3. Good post!

    Perhaps in the old days not as many סליחות were said. One local area may have had one סליחה, written by a local גדול, one פזמון perhaps, and other areas different ones, by their local gedolim. Over time, and with the advent of printing, publishers could have collected different versions and put them together, making for a larger collection, and making people think that they needed to say "everything" to be יוצא.

    People should say less and with more כוונה, rather than the reverse. Although this advice is right in the beginning of שו"ע או"ח it is unfortunately ignored or not taken seriously by far too many. But some still take it into account. In ישיבת רבנו חיים ברלין in NY, I understand that they say only one סליחה on a typical עשי"ת day, or some similar הנהגה. Additionally, people should study what they are saying, before, or at least during the Selichos.

    As to the question of who they were written for, well, our liturgy was written by great men on very high levels, the thinking being that better to have things written on high levels, which people can strive to understand, and have the prayers and passages hopefully grow on them over time, than going downward to the level of the not so highly educated masses, leaving little or nothing to strive and rise up to later.

    טוב מעט בכוונה מהרבות בלא כוונה

  4. L., I couldn't agree with you more. One thing, when you wrote:

    > "...better to have things written on high levels, which people can strive to understand, and have the prayers and passages hopefully grow on them over time, than going downward to the level of the not so highly educated masses, leaving little or nothing to strive and rise up to later."

    I would observe that it's possible to be both exalted *and* simple. Just look at the magnificent work the אנשי כנסת הגדולה did with our core prayers.

  5. Shemer Isbitts
    I only attempt small amounts - those that invoke meaning and try to connect to the Almighty -zehu

  6. Are there any good commentaries or academic papers on slichot in English?