Listen to Dr. Einat Ramon, Senior Lecturer in Jewish Thought and founder of the Marpeh pastoral care program, as she takes us on a virtual tour through the streets of Jerusalem during the days when Selichot prayers are recited.
Dr. Ramon describes the beautiful scene that takes place at the Western Wall, the Kotel, in the early pre-dawn hours during the month of Elul. She talks with yearning and wonder that will make you want to close your eyes and join her in the next Selichot prayer.
Watch the video below:
Sephardic Jews and Liturgical Poetry in the Selichot Period
Dr. Einat Ramon
The month of Elul brings the Jewish people, especially those residing in Israel, a spirit of Sephardic and Mediterranean-region Jewry. Residents of Jerusalem who, like I, live close to Jews formerly from Kurdistan and other countries in which the Muslim religion dominated, know that with the advent of the month of Elul, our “Sephardic brethren” begin to say Selichot, penitential poems and prayers recited in the days and weeks leading up to the High Holidays.
A marked attribute of Sephardic neighborhoods, as well as those neighborhoods in which both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews reside, is that beginning on the first day of Elul, synagogue-praying men – and often women – arise in the early hours of the morning in order to recite the words of Selichot.
When I join these prayers, before the sun rises or just after midnight, I find myself thrilled by the sensation that the heavens have come down to earth during these moments in which Sephardic synagogue-goers gather for nighttime prayer. Outside it is dark, inside there is light, and from time to time, a sweet mint tea is offered to worshipers as they arrive.
The Sephardic synagogue in which I – an Ashkenazic and formerly-secular woman – sometimes go to recite Selichot is small, no bigger than a room. And it is specifically this intimate atmosphere that brings holiness into the mundane, a sense of wonder into a material world in which, with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Atonement approaching, men and women gather at extreme ends of the night to recite and sing a series of liturgical poems, piyyutim.
The words of the piyyut are engorged with meaning and full of references to Kabbalistic insights and metaphors. When I began to attend the Selichot prayers, they were new to me; I encountered them as an adult after I had learned to appreciate not just the religion but also traditions that were not those of my own forefathers or foremothers – Russian Jewish Zionists who had immigrated to Israel. The words of the Selichot and the nature in which Jewish men and women who work in professions other than academia gather – to me, this is extraordinary: That working people can summon the strength and rise so early, every single morning for more than a month, until Yom Kippur, in order to say these prayers.
The melody that was once foreign to me – “Son of man, why are you asleep? Wake up and cry out your plea” – has become warm and familiar over the years, imbuing our neighborhood with the spirit of the New Year. It is still summer, the children are still playfully enjoying their long vacation, and at night – holiness inside the small synagogues… This is the hidden Jerusalem. A Jerusalem that is especially accessible during this specific season – at the end of the summer and in the early hours of the morning. A Jerusalem connected by liturgical poetry and Jewish mysticism. A Jerusalem requesting unification with her creator before the dawn rises.