Rabbi Raffi Bilek
How to Get More Out of Selichos
Updated: Sep 18, 2022
With the yom tov season nearly upon us, the selichos season is nearly upon us as well. (And if you’re Sefardi, you’re already in full swing. How does that rice on Pesach taste now?) Generally people seem to be more excited about the yom tov part than about the selichos. Funny how that is.
Selichos aren’t exactly a favorite ritual for most people. I have rarely heard even the deepest, most committed Jews express a real full-throated of enthusiasm for them. I can’t claim that I myself am totally thrilled to say them. But while I used to absolutely dread them, I’ve managed to develop a little more appreciation for the enterprise of selichos, such that I do feel like they contribute to my experience of the Yamim Noraim. Here are some suggestions that I hope will help you too.
(Most of these ideas are ones I have received from my teachers. I have put an asterisk by suggestions that come from me and that have not been vetted by bigger people. I believe them to be valid practices, but I just want to be transparent about this.)
1. Get into the right mindset.
I once asked one of my rebbeim what we are supposed to get out of selichos (given that at the time I was getting pretty much nothing). He replied, “we should know that there are things we have to say sorry for.” I think it’s a good principle to go into this with. I may not have very good concentration in (or even understand) every section I read; but at least I can keep in mind that I am trying to spur myself to teshuvah and to develop some serious humility as we head into Judgment Day.
Another rebbe once told me that he makes selichos meaningful to himself by pulling out the register he keeps of all the ways he’s fallen short throughout the year. Looking over that reminds him how much he needs forgiveness. (I thought it a great idea, but I confess I’ve never had the resolve to keep a written record myself.)
2. Learn it up.
The selichos are notoriously cryptic and hard to understand. It helps if you spend some time learning through a few of them so you know what you’re saying. I know, I know – who has time for that, right? Especially with an extra half hour devoted to selichos! So then do it during selichos time!* While everyone is saying the first selichah, read up on the second one and get yourself in gear. (See also next section.)
Also, there’s nothing wrong with saying them entirely in English. The point of the selichos is to arouse us emotionally; they are not berachos or Torah reading in which every word must be read. If you read every word and feel nothing, you haven’t really done your selichos right.
The most important part of selichos is the 13 middos (Hashem, Hashem, Kel Rachum vaChanun...). Make sure you understand what those are about. (Also, stop and join the crowd when they get to those.) I’ve created my own sheet, based on various sources, which I read from when saying the 13 middos (and vidui). You can download it here if you’d like to check it out. (If you print it out on one sheet and fold it, it comes out right.)
Which brings us to the next suggestion:
Here’s an important point: you don’t need to say the entire thing. The daily selichos liturgy is not short. Start small. If you’re getting nothing out of selichos right now, get something rather than nothing – do 5 minutes* at first, and you can build up from there. Say just one selicha instead of all of them, and focus on it. Understand what you’re saying, think about it, feel it. That is far more important than muttering through the whole book while thinking about your to-do list.
You only need to say vidui once, and of course here too you’re better off thinking about each word rather than blitzing your way through it (again, see this sheet). For the rest of the pesukim and piyyutim, pick parts that speak to you rather than trying to cover ground. For example, I personally skip most of the Aramaic parts at the end* (except the very last one, racahamana de’aneina – I find that part pretty powerful).
4. Make it more comfortable.
Shortening your selichos from half an hour to 5 or 10 or 20 minutes will probably make it feel less burdensome. Another option I encourage, if this is available to you and works for you, is to go at chatzos instead of before shacharis. I did this for a few years when I lived in Eretz Yisrael and I found it much easier to be alert and have kavanah. It’s also just a more soulful time of day than 6 AM when you’re groggy and pressured to get to work.
Of course, not all communities have such an option, and since saying the 13 middos is the key section of selichos, and needs a minyan, it’s probably not a better option to say it alone at chatzos than to do it with a minyan in the morning (but ask your own rav, of course). (I also have to recommend against saying selichos at evening minyanim, as some places do. The whole selichos enterprise has some kabbalistic underpinnings, and the first half of the night kabbalistically is really not appropriate for asking for mercy, since it is a time of din.)
Finally, I sit during most of selichos*. The custom is to stand, but I don’t have a whole lot of stamina, and I have some funny foot issues, so standing for an extended period really does make me quite uncomfortable, which makes it hard to focus well on the emotional connection. (I stand for the 13 midos, including the kel melech intro part, and vidui.)
Look, selichos is not the easiest, most relatable part of the Jewish experience. Hopefully these ideas will help you get a little more out of saying selichos and offer some added prep for the Big Days ahead.
Kesiva v’chasima tovah!
*Looking for a footnote here? See the intro about the whole asterisk thing.