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The Ashkenazic Jewish world begins its recitation of selichot - the penitential prayers of the season of the High Holy Days this coming Saturday night. Our Sephardic brethren have already been reciting their version of selichot for some weeks already, since the onset of the month of Elul. All of these prayers center about the continued recitation of the thirteen attributes of the Almighty as revealed to Moshe after Israel's sin of the Golden Calf. In them, we appeal for God's mercy and forgiveness as we approach the days of judgment and awe. The custom of reciting such selichot prayers is an ancient one, dating back at least to the sixth century in Jewish Babylonia. Almost every major rabbinic figure through the fifteenth century tried his hand in composing selichot. Out of the literally thousands of poems written, a few hundred have actually been incorporated into the standard ritual of the various groupings of Jews. The Sephardim naturally favor the poems of the great Sephardic poets such as Yehuda HaLevi, Avraham ibn Ezra, Shlomo ibn Gavriel (Gabirol) and Donash ibn Lavrat. The list of Ashkenazic poets of selichot poems includes Rashi (Rabi Shlomo ben Yitzchak), Rabi Shimon of Mainz, Rabenu Tam (Rabi Yaacov ben Meir, Rashi's grandson, Rabi Shmuel ben Meir (another grandson of Rashi)) and other notable French, German and Austrian scholars. Suffice it to say, the rabbinic elite, the great men of Israel, all took part in this project of selichot poetry and prayer.

Poetry was once an important aspect of Jewish religious life. It was also part of Jewish culture. In the world of the Sephardim during the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and thereafter, Hebrew poetry flourished. The great Hebrew poets of Spain mentioned above did not restrict their poetic talents to liturgy and sacred poems. They also wrote secular and general poems, even about romance and nature. However, poems of this nature were practically unknown in the Ashkenazic Jewish world until the time of the Haskala in the nineteenth century. Poems of secular or even general nature were never accepted in Ashkenazic religious circles as being necessary or even positive. The fact that most if not all of the poets of the Haskala were no longer observant Jews undoubtedly colored this attitude of rejection of all secular poetry. In the religious world of Ashkenazic Jewry, poetry was strictly restricted to those of a spiritual and liturgical nature. The nature of poetry itself was far different in the Ashkenazic world than amongst the Sephardim. Style, elegance of phrase and meter, and the rhythm of the sound of words combining with each other were all hallmarks of the Sephardic poetry, expressed even in their religious and liturgical poetry. Learned and ethical content were stressed in the Ashkenazic poetry, and style took a back seat to substance. However, both in Sephardic and Ashkenazic selichot poetry, the use of acrostics, alphabets and biblical quotations as being the chorus of the poem, all are usual components. The name of the poet himself is often hidden in the poem itself by the use of those devices just mentioned. Also, the poem always contained an intriguing mystery of authorship and other subliminal messages waiting to be deciphered by those who read and recited the poem as part of the selichot services.

In the Ashkenazic world, there were three main compilations of selichot that became fixed in tradition over the years. One is called the liturgy of Lithuania and is the one basically in use in the Lithuanian yeshivot and the non-Chasidic synagogues of Jerusalem and the world. The second compilation is that of Poland and is used extensively by the differing Chasidic groupings. There is also a compilation that follows the liturgy of the holy Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria of sixteenth century Tzfat) that is used by certain Chasidic groups. The Sephardim also have many variations of their basic selichot liturgy, depending upon their original countries of origin. The choice of which poems to include in the liturgy of the selichot service is apparently one left to the popularity of the poem and/or the poet in the eyes of the worshippers. The liturgical poem, Keter Malchut (The Crown of Royalty) written by Rabi Shlomo ibn Gabirol is recited on the night of Yom Kippur in may Sephardic congregations. This long poem of approximately one hundred stanzas is one of the true classics of all Hebrew poetry, both in stylish elegance and holy content. Selichot provided an outlet to the genius and creativity of the Jewish muse.

Shabat shalom.
Berel Wein

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