by Alan Lucas
Excerpted from The Observant Life
Selihot are special prayers that are recited in anticipation of the High Holy Days. These beautiful prayers composed by the greatest ancient and medieval poets introduce us to the themes of the upcoming High Holy Days and intensify our avid anticipation of their arrival. According to Sephardic custom, these special penitential prayers are recited every morning during the month of Elul. In traditional Ashkenazic synagogues, and in some Conservative synagogues, the custom is to recite these prayers beginning on the Sunday before Rosh Hashanah unless there will be fewer than four days between Sunday and the onset of the festival. Since there should be a minimum of four days of Selihot, the recitation of Selihot begins on the Sunday of the previous week in years in which Rosh Hashanah begins on Monday or Tuesday.
A contemporary American custom is the midnight Selihot service held late Saturday night before the first Sunday when Selihot are to be recited (For many congregations, this is the sole vestige of Selihot recitation). This late night service highlights the beautiful liturgical pieces of the High Holy Days and, for many, truly initiates the High Holy Day season.
From the introduction to the RA Selihot text:
The essence of the ancient Selihot is still vital for our generation, no matter how far removed they may be from us in age, in language, or in doctrine. If we could learn to understand the poetry, the literary mosaics, and the mood of the Selihot, we would recognize in them the outpourings of our own souls, the hungers of our own spirits.