A Call for Creative Addition
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A Call for Creative Addition

One author's suggestion for incorporating new selichot and piyyutim written by living rabbis, poets, and women.

Now is the time of the year when everyone is a bit more careful when they daven. People pray more slowly and are more attentive to the words they are saying. We spend more time in shul each day and the driving force behind this is the daily recitation of selichot beginning in mid-late Elul.  Selichot start slowly and build up momentum as Yom Kippur approaches. In the first few days when we recite three unique piyyutim, regardless of whether the service is at night or early in the morning, there is actually time to read the text. There is no question that the selichot are extraordinary literary creations. They are richly elusive, reflect the scope of the Tanach, and they have a finely wrought texture and aural appeal. The themes vary from mourning the predicament of the Jewish people to meditations on human failing and sinfulness.

There is no question that the selichot are extraordinary literary creations. They are richly elusive, reflect the scope of the Tanach, and they have a finely wrought texture and aural appeal.

But the selichot are highly stylized and composed in a vernacular from an older time. Most were written between the ninth and twelfth centuries by authors whose identity is unfamiliar to most modern readers. The content is dense and the ideas are hard to access. Is there a reason and space to insert new selichot into the liturgy?

As people read the one hundred piyyutim to themselves, the words are unfamiliar and the ideas are far from obvious. There is a rush to finish each poem in time to recite the El Melech Yoshev paragraph in time with the chazzan. I suggest incorporating new selichot, piyyutim written by living rabbis, poets, teachers, and women to enhance engagement and identification with the material. They would be composed in a modern idiom and reflect the thoughts sensibilities of congregants in shuls today. 

I suggest incorporating new selichot, piyyutim written by living rabbis, poets, teachers, and women to enhance engagement and identification with the material.

There are many reasons to consider this change. The piyyutim emerged fairly late in Jewish history, long after the Great Assembly and the closure of the Talmud. They have well identified authors and are poems without any claim to divine status. The themes of the selichot that arose in exile do not address many of the concerns of Jews living in the presence of a thriving state of Israel. While there are still existential threats to Jewish survival and continuity, there are gaps in the selichot that need to be acknowledged as we confront the looming divine judgement. Treatment of immigrants, how we care for the poor, the meaning of peace, educating and protecting our children, how we promote the dignity of all human beings – these are concerns that represent ideal topics for piyyutim of today. These ideas are invisible in the lachrymose selichot that dominate the standard repertoire.  Replacing some of the existing selichot with newer alternatives would avoid prolonging the service and burdening congregants. However, it might promote internalization of the meaning of the text and stimulate greater soul searching. 

Treatment of immigrants, how we care for the poor, the meaning of peace, educating and protecting our children, how we promote the dignity of all human beings – these are concerns that represent ideal topics for piyyutim of today.

Selichot have an established structure. They begin with Ashrei followed by a long meditative prayer. They close with Shema Koleinu and three repetitions of the confessional. In between these bookends, we read an increasing number of piyyutim with each passing day, each one capped by recitation of a chorus, namely the thirteen divine attributes. It is in this middle ground, in this congested space where concentration falters and comprehension lags, where introducing change might be feasible and meaningful. 

There is precedent for adding piyyutim to an ancient prayer service, witness the recitation of new selections about the Holocaust at the end of Kinot on Tisha B’Av morning. Some may worry about the lack of uniformity in the selichot service. But there are already differences in Ashkenazi and Sephardic practices. Communities simply skip some of the selichot in a haphazard manner in the interests of time. Maintaining the overall architecture of the selichot with a common opening, climax, and familiar chorus would allow people to remain comfortable with the service and avoid needless disruption in their state of mind as they recite the piyyutim each evening or morning even as they read new modern piyyutim

While Jewish prayer has a fixed format, we are enjoined to make sure that our prayers are not rote habits. Selichot are unique in their focused but limited appearance in the liturgy, at a time in the calendar when people are poised to pray in earnest.

While Jewish prayer has a fixed format, we are enjoined to make sure that our prayers are not rote habits. Selichot are unique in their focused but limited appearance in the liturgy, at a time in the calendar when people are poised to pray in earnest. They are human creations that invite creativity, that welcome the opportunity to compose new texts that will inspire us during this awesome period of introspection and judgement. Are we up to the challenge?

 

Dr. Chaim Trachtman is chief of pediatric nephrology at NYU Langone Health. He is on the board of Yeshivat Maharat and is editor of the bookWomen and Men in Communal Prayer: Halakhic Perspectives (KTAV, 2010).

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