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In the Ashkenazic (European) tradition Selichot are begun from the Sunday (often the Saturday night) before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. This officially starts the High Holiday season that encompasses Rosh Hashannah (Spiritual New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) through Sukkot (Festival of Booths) and Simchat Torah (Honoring the Law by rewinding the scrolls to the beginning of Genesis where we start reading again).

Selichot are special prayers for forgiveness, said on fast days and also during the period preceding Yom Kippur.

At the Selichot service, worshipers begin to examine their deeds of the past year, seeking forgiveness from G-d and promising to improve their behavior in the New Year. The prayers are specifically tailored to help worshipers direct their hearts and minds to the process of teshuvah (Hebrew for repentance).

The Tanna deve Eliyahu Zuta, a midrashic work that dates at the latest to the ninth century, mentions a special service for forgiveness instituted by King David when he realized that the Temple would be destroyed.

“How will they attain atonement?” he asked the Lord and was told that the people would recite the order of Selichot and would then be forgiven. God even showed David that this act of contrition would include a recitation of the “Thirteen Attributes of God,” a descriptive passage from Exodus that expresses God’s merciful nature:

“The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, rich in steadfast kindness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment…” (Exodus 34:6‑7).

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