Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or High Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.
The official liturgical kickoff of the High Holy Day season is the Selichot service. Selichot is a poignant collection of prayers of repentance and supplication that is recited for a week preceding Rosh Hashanah in the Ashkenazi community and for an entire month by the Sephardim. In most Ashkenazi synagogues, the beginning of the period of Selichot is marked by a special late night service held on the Saturday evening preceding Rosh Hashanah. Selichot prayers facilitate the worshipper’s ability to acknowledge those areas in which improvement may be required and embark on a path that leads to forgiveness or Teshuvah.
Although many of these prayers originate from earlier times, some as far back as the time of the Mishna, the first collection of Selichot, can be found in the Siddur of the great Ninth Century sage, Rav Amram. Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, who served for many years as a Hazzan is a noted complier and editor of prayer books. In the introductory section to his comprehensive, annotated compendium of Selichot prayers first published in England in 1956, Rabbi Rosenfeld indicates that although some of these moving supplications date as far back as the seventh century of the Common Era, the service compiled by Rav Amram is very close to the Selichot service we still perform in modern times.
The various types of poetry which make up the Selichot service; some have repeated refrains; some are alphabetical acrostics, are comprised of biblical verses stitched together by some gifted liturgical poets. These writers include Sa’adia Gaon (882-9420) and Rav Amram Gaon (821-875) who also authored texts that appear in our Machzor (High Holiday prayer book.) Also included in the Selichot service is the Vidui or confessional and portions of Tachanun – prayers of supplication. Serving as a refrain between all of this prayer and poetry is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of God introduced by the prayer “El Melech Yoshev Al Kisei Rachamim, God is the Monarch who sits on a thrown of mercy.”
El Melech Yoshev is first found in the siddur of the 9th century liturgical pioneer, Rav Amnon Gaon as noted above. As the introductory verse suggests, this composition depicts God as a merciful, compassionate ruler who forgives our sins and mitigates the severity of the punishment we really deserve. The image is evoked of Moses as he conferred with God in on Mount Sinai. Moses asked how he, as a human, could approach our Creator. The answer can be found in El Melech Yoshev. God instructed us to recite [and model] His attributes. Just as the best way to honor our physical parents is to practice and follow their qualities, principals and values; our divine parent requires that we strive for holiness by being guided by God‘s characteristics. Mercy, compassion, justice, slowness to anger, performance of acts of loving kindness and the pursuit of truth are examples from the litany of divine qualities that are recited throughout our services. Moses learned that not only is this emulation the best way to serve the Lord but also the path which can lead to developing a personal relationship with God.
As we prepare for and experience the Holy Days, we can be mindful of the fact that since there are many ways to communicate with the Almighty, possessing a tremendous knowledge of the prayer service, while being a goal towards which we should strive, is not an absolute requirement. By participating in the silent meditation or humming a melody along with the Hazzan or choir, or by offering sincere personal prayers, one can be a vital part of the communal offering of prayer. Most importantly, as we to enter the Holy Day Season, we must bear in mind the lesson learned and transmitted by Moses as described in the El Melech Yoshev Prayer: striving to reach closer to the Almighty by emulating God‘s Holy attributes is the essential way to approach God.
Here is a modern setting of El Melech Yoshev by Joshua Lind (1890-1973), Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi, one of the most talented and influential Hazzanim of our era. He is joined by New London Children’s Choir and Schola Hebraeica conducted by Neil Levin. This piece is available on the recording entitled, Introducing The World Of American Jewish Music (Milken Archive of American Jewish Music.)
I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion or question or request, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Hazzan Michael Krausman