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Forgiveness—Slichot (סליחות)

July 2, 2014

by: Joanne Gosselin, BFP Staff Writer

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Photo credit: Carlos E. Santa Maria /Shutterstock.com

When walking about the bustling streets of Jerusalem, it is common to hear someone say “slichah” as they bump into you or ask you to move out of the way. In modern English, the Hebrew word “slichah” (slee-CHA, סליחה) is translated “excuse me” or “pardon me.” When the word slichah is used in the Tanakh (Strong’s #05447) it means forgiveness or pardon (Slichot is the plural form of the word slichah).

When the month of Elul on the Hebrew calendar comes around each year, it begins a cycle of introspection and soul-searching for the Jewish people. Since the destruction of the Temple in AD 70, the Jewish tradition has been to recite a collection of prayers called Slichot from the beginning of the month of Elul (August 27 this year) through Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

The Slichot prayer service is a collection of psalms, Daniel 9 and other prayers that are recited daily during this time. The psalms included in the Slichot service are: 127, 130, 17, 32, 51, 65, 85, 102, 27 and 104 (listed in the order of prayer sequence). The purpose of reciting these psalms and prayers in the Slichot service is to offer a sincere heart of repentance to God and to receive His forgiveness. The prayers are recited early in the morning at the synagogue with a quorum of at least ten men (minyan, מניין) present. The collection is recited in its entirety each day and adds about 45 minutes to the regular morning prayers. The ram’s horn (shofar, שופר) is blown daily, except on Shabbat (Sabbath).

Another custom during this period, besides seeking God’s forgiveness, is to go to anyone you have wronged and ask them for forgiveness. If you have never done this, it is very difficult to do. This is a good reason for keeping a short list, meaning it is better to take care of sin and offenses right away, with God and man, than to let them build up.

God’s Attributes

The Thirteen Attributes of God are foundational to the Slichot prayer service. These attributes are found in Exodus 34:6-7: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”

How many attributes can you find in these two verses? If you came up with less than thirteen, the following shows how it is counted according to Judaism:

  1. Ha-Shem (LORD) is the Name when God exhibits mercy.
  2. Ha-Shem (LORD) is used a second time to indicate that God is merciful before and after one sins.
  3. G-d (God) represents another name of God used when He is acting in the role of almighty ruler of nature and the universe.
  4. Merciful
  5. Gracious
  6. Long-suffering
  7. Abounding in goodness
  8. Truth
  9. Mercy
  10. Forgiving iniquity (capital crime, perversity or evil)
  11. Forgiving transgression (open rebellion)
  12. Forgiving sin (habitual sins of human frailty)
  13. Cleanses

It can be easy to gloss over these verses, but they describe God’s very nature as He revealed Himself to Moses. After the LORD passed by, Moses bowed and worshipped Him. As we look intently at God, it stirs a deep desire in us to want to do everything in our power to please and serve Him. It causes us to want to “be holy because He is holy.” The natural response to studying God’s character is repentance on our part. According to Judaism, repentance (teshuva, תשובה) is a total turning away from sin. It requires leaving sin in the past, regretting one’s action, confessing before God and acceptance for the future with resolve to not commit the sin again. Our repentance and God’s forgiveness are inextricably linked. When there is sincere repentance, God forgives. Forgiveness is one of His attributes, just as much as mercy and grace.

Prayers of Repentance from the Tanakh

The fervent prayers of David and Daniel are among the collection in the Slichot prayer service, including Psalm 130 and Daniel 9. King David was a man after God’s heart. He meditated on the Law day and night. When David sinned, he felt deep remorse and cried out to God as shown in Psalm 130:1–4. “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD. Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications. If You, LORD should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness (slichah) with You, that You may be feared.”

Daniel was a man of prayer. He regularly prayed three times a day (Jewish custom to this day, calls for three prayer times a day). He did not stop when he was in captivity in a foreign land, even when praying to God was forbidden. Daniel also was a man who knew the Word of God. When he realized from the prophecy that the 70 years of exile were almost up, he prayed and fasted in sackcloth and ashes.  He confessed the sin of his people as recorded in Daniel 9:9–10. “To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness (slichah), though we have rebelled against Him. We have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His laws, which He set before us by His servants the prophets.”

As the month of Elul approaches and the Slichot prayer services begin, may we learn from Judaism and take stock of our lives before God. Study God’s thirteen attributes and recite the psalms. Heartfelt repentance results in God’s forgiveness (slichah) and brings great joy and peace.

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