Through the open windows of our apartment on Ben Zion Street, on many holidays and Shabbatot, I would hear the prayers from the Carlebach minyan down the street. A Carlebach minyan is one that sings the prayers to the beautiful tunes written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, of blessed memory. His settings of the prayers and psalms make them sound like joyous celebrations of life and the Creator—they are lively, and easy to learn and dance to. And dance the worshipers do, in the Orthodox fashion, men in the men’s section of the room, women in the women’s section, joining hands and moving in circles in time to the music. We go to the Carlebach minyan only occasionally, but on a Saturday night just before Rosh Hashanah we decided to go there for the Selichot prayers.
Our friend Aviel invited us to say Selichot at the Carlebach minyan with him. He said he had gone there last year and really enjoyed it. He warned us, however, that, like all Carlebach services, it would be long. Last year they had not finished until 2 AM.
Selichot prayers are special prayers said at the end of the year begging for G-d’s compassion as he decides our fate for the coming year. They are always said early in the morning, before the regular morning service. The custom among Sephardim is to recite them from the beginning of the month of Elul; Ashkenazim say them for the last five to ten days before Rosh Hashanah. The number of days varies because we always start reciting Selichot on a Sunday morning because G-d began the work of creation on the first day of the week. When Rosh Hashanah, which commemorates the creation of man, falls on a Monday, we start Selichot more than a full week beforehand in order to say them at least five days. And by early in the morning, I mean Early. The first set of Selichot are always said as early as possible—just after midnight Saturday.
When we lived in Pennsylvania, I had not often attended Selichot services. The congregation rushed through the prayers, and I could not keep up. I frequently lost my place or had to skip paragraphs to catch up to the parts said in unison. I felt like I got nothing out of them, and preferred to say them at home by myself at my own speed. But since the Carlebach group goes slower, I decided to go with Allen and Aviel. If I got too lost, or tired, I would go home and finish here.
I noticed one difference from most services immediately. The chazzan, the prayer leader, accompanied himself with a guitar. We started with a slow nigun, a wordless melody, which set the mood. With no words to learn, it was easy to pick up, and even someone like me, a newcomer to the group’s traditions, was singing along within a minute. When we stopped singing, the silence was complete and deep, waiting to be filled with prayer.
Psalm 145 acted as an introduction to the service. And then the chazzan recited the Kaddish, which praises G-d’s holiness, using the traditional High Holiday melody. Hearing the old familiar tune made me feel at home and opened my emotions to the prayers.
We went through the service at a pace that was comfortable for me. As is usual in Orthodox Jewish services, everyone recited the prayers quietly to themselves, and then the chazzan would repeat the last few lines of each hymn to keep the congregation together. But in a Carlebach minyan, the last few lines are sung to a lively tune, a different one for each prayer, and everyone joins in the singing. Many of the tunes go on as a wordless na-na-na following the last word, which gave me plenty of time to catch up and join in the singing.
In the first part of the service, after each hymn we recite a prayer praising G-d’s mercy, reminding ourselves that He is slow to anger, grants pardon for sins, and deals righteously with His people. And then we recite the ancient thirteen word formula He taught Moses (Exodus 34:6-7) when he begged G-d to forgive the people for the sin of the Golden Calf.
We repeated the formula several times during the service. Each repetition seemed louder and more unified than the previous one, as if we drew strength from our prayers. We knew we were relying on G-d’s promise to always forgive the people Israel when they recite the formula, the Thirteen Attributes of G-d: The Lord, the Lord, God, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth, Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and Who cleanses.
The emotional peak of the service is the recitation of the vidui, the confession. It is phrased in the plural: ashamnu, we have been guilty, bogadnu, we have been treacherous, gozalnu, we have stolen. Because the number of possible sins is infinite, the list is alphabetical, one representative sin for each letter of the alphabet standing for all the transgressions that begin with that letter. It is up to each of us to determine how each applies to our own life in our private words to G-d.
By the end of the service I felt uplifted and energized. So I was very surprised when Allen told me as we walked home that it was after 2 AM. When I told my friend Ruth that I had not felt the time passing during Selichot, she said it was because Selichot are outside time.
After the first day of Selichot, the prayers are said before the
regular morning service. Many people go to the Kotel to recite them at dawn, and I decided to join them Monday. Unfortunately, I did not hear my alarm go off, and missed the 4:40 AM bus, so I didn’t get there until most groups had finished. But I could say the prayers myself.
I opened my book of Selichot and started. I was not very far into my prayers when I heard the shofar sound near me as a group finished their service. A moment later, another shofar, farther to the back sounded. The two shofarot did not give their calls in the same sequence. Their sounds did not clash, however, but blended. The beauty of their call brought tears to my eyes.
Despite not reciting the penitential prayers with a group, despite the lack of singing, my prayers at the Kotel affected me the way my prayers in the Sunday morning minyan had. They brought me closer to the Creator, and gave me peace.
Later that day, over lunch with my friend Debbie, we talked about the power of Selichot. She agreed with Ruth, that Selichot are indeed outside time. When we pay attention to the words, they engage us totally, pulling us away from time, towards the Creator. Full engagement is not just the mind; it includes the emotions as well.
“So,” Debbie asked, “did you cry?”
“Only two or three times.”
She nodded. We had both experienced the timeless power of Selichot.