SELIḤOT (Heb. סְלִיחוֹת). The word seliḥah means "forgiveness," and in the singular is used to indicate a piyyut whose subject is a plea for forgiveness for sins. In the plural, the word is used for a special order of service consisting of non-statutory additional prayers which are recited on all fast days, on occasions of special intercession, and during the Penitential season which begins before *Rosh Ha-Shanah and concludes with the *Day of Atonement.
The Mishnah (Ta'an. 2:1–4) gives the order of service for public fasts, usually proclaimed during periods of drought. It provided, inter alia, for the addition of six blessings to the normal eighteen of the daily *Amidah, and gives the concluding formula before the actual blessing for each:
May He Who answered our father Abraham on Mt. Moriah answer you…, may He that answered our fathers at the Red Sea… Joshua in Gilgal… Samuel at Mizpah… Elijah in Carmel… Jonah in the belly of the whale… David and his son Solomon…
The first mention of a distinct order of Seliḥot occurs in Tanna de-Vei Eliyahu Zuta (23 end):
David knew that the Temple was destined to be destroyed and that the sacrificial system would be abolished as a result of the iniquities of Israel, and David was distressed for Israel. With what would they effect atonement? And the Holy One blessed be He said, "When troubles come upon Israel because of their iniquities, let them stand together before Me as one band and confess their iniquities before Me and recite before Me the order of Seliḥot and I will answer them"… R. Johanan said, "The Holy One blessed be He revealed this in the verse 'and the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, the Lord, the Lord God, manifest and gracious etc.' (Ex. 34:6 which gives the thirteen divine attributes). This teaches that the Holy One blessed be He descended from the mist like a sheli'aḥ ẓibbur, enveloped in his tallit and stood before the ark and revealed to Moses the order of Seliḥot."
It was not until the ninth century that such an order of Seliḥot is found, in the Seder of R. Amram, and these two passages, the "May He Who answered" and the scriptural verse quoted
above, together with a number of others, are the essential elements in it, as in all subsequent Seliḥot.
During the course of time, however, a considerable number of piyyutim, of which the Seliḥah is the most important, were added to this basic formula. There are a great number of different rites in many individual communities, as distinct from countries evolving their own order of Seliḥot. Seliḥot composed by great personalities such as Saadyah Gaon, Gershom b. Judah, Rashi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, etc. are included in orders of Seliḥot. The Seliḥot were at first inserted, as indicated by the Mishnah, after the appropriate sixth blessing of the Amidah (the prayer for forgiveness for sins), but the Palestinian custom of reciting them after the Amidah prevailed (Sh. Ar., oḤ 566:4) and became the almost universal custom. The Italian and Roman rites, however, retain the old custom. Originally Seliḥot were recited only on fast days, both statutory and special, proclaimed in times of trouble, their recitation being a form of ẓidduk ha-din, the justification of God. Since God was just, the calamities were the result of Israel's sins, and the evil could be averted by confession and praying for forgiveness for those sins. Their extension to what is at the present time the most widespread recital of Seliḥot, those of the Penitential days, derived from the custom of fasting on the six days before Rosh Ha-Shanah, when Seliḥot were said in connection with the fast, and the custom of saying Seliḥot was then extended over the *Ten Days of Penitence (including the Day of Atonement, but not Rosh Ha-Shanah; cf. Mordekhai, Yoma, beginning). The Sephardim follow the custom of reciting Seliḥot for the 40 days from Rosh Ḥodesh Elul to the Day of Atonement, but the Ashkenazi custom is to commence reciting them on the Sunday before Rosh Ha-Shanah or of the preceding week should Rosh Ha-Shanah fall on Monday or Tuesday. (Sh. Ar., oḤ 581 and Rema in loc.). The Seliḥot for the first day are usually recited at midnight and thereafter before the morning service.
In addition to the Seliḥot on statutory fast days and the Penitential season, Seliḥot have been composed for semiofficial voluntary fasts undertaken by pious individuals. They are "BaHaB" – fasts undertaken on the Monday, Thursday and Monday following the festivals of Passover and Sukkot (ibid. 492) and, during a leap year, on the Thursday before the eight Sabbaths during which the scriptural portions from Shemot to Teẓavveh (called from their initial letters *Shovavim Tat) are read, and on Yom Kippur Katan. Seliḥot are also recited by the members of the ḥevra kaddisha at their annual service, and to avert plague affecting children.
A critical edition of the Ashkenazi Seliḥot with notes was published by D. Goldschmidt. An edited version of the Seliḥot service for the whole year, along with an English translation, was issued by Abraham Rosenfeld of London (1957). For the different kinds of piyyutim in the Seliḥot see *Tokheḥah; *Akedah; *Teḥinnah; *Bakkashah.
Idelsohn, Liturgy, 251–3; A. Rosenfeld, The Authorised Selichot for the Whole Year (1957), ix–xvi.
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]