A Ritual of Preparing for the High Holy Days
An important Jewish belief is that God wishes us to turn away from sin and that God helps us to do so. The High Holy Days focus almost exclusively on this idea, which is called teshuvah, a Hebrew word that means turning away from sin.
In Judaism, the word sin can refer to many different things. We sin when we break Gods laws. We sin when we hurt others. We sin when we do things that hurt ourselves. During the High Holy Days we have many opportunities to demonstrate to God that we have made sincere efforts to change our behavior from that which is hurtful or wrong to that which is constructive and healing. We also have many opportunities to reflect on our behavior and ask for Gods help to lead better lives.
Many Jews prepare spiritually for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur by attending a special service called Selichot (forgiveness). The Selichot service is designed to help worshipers direct their hearts and minds to the process of teshuvah. The Selichot service is traditionally held on the Saturday evening before Rosh Hashannah, as long as Rosh Hashannah does not fall on the very next day. Otherwise, its held a week before in order to give people a chance to reflect on the changes of behavior that they wish to make.
At the Selichot service, worshipers begin to examine their deeds of the past year, seeking forgiveness from God, and promising to improve their behavior in the New Year. Some of the prayers and music for the Selichot service are taken from the services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This provides a musical transition between the old year and the New Year.
Selichot services are usually held late on a Saturday evening after Shabbat is over. There is also a custom of holding Selichot services close to midnight, which is related to the belief that the Gates of Heaven open the widest at midnight. Therefore, it is believed, God will hear our prayers most clearly at this time of night.