Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter Writes New Commentary on Selihot

Preparing for the Yamim Noraim: Saying “I’m sorry” with Hope and Optimism

In preparation for the New Year and Yom Kippur, Jews recite a series of prayers known as Selihot. From the word “forgive,” these soul-stirring supplications ask G-d for divine mercy. They are usually said in the morning, before the Shacharit morning prayer service.

“The capacity to say, ‘I’m sorry’ is a divine gift,” said Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter, who wrote the introduction and commentary to the new Koren Publishers Selihot, which includes a new translation of the piyyutim by Sara Daniel. “When we say it with sincerity and a profound sense of optimism, we can move forward with strength and meaning.”

Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter

Rabbi Schacter, Yeshiva University Professor of Jewish History and Jewish Thought, and Senior Scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future, notes the importance of engaging with the text of prayer. “The entire text of Selihot is to help the reader understand what is at stake during the High Holiday season and what is possible during this season,” he said. “If done thoughtfully and deliberately, it helps elevate our preparation and makes it more profoundly meaningful and positive.”

Rabbi Schacter’s goal in creating the commentary was to give deep, personal meaning to the collage of Torah verses and poetically written Hebrew works that make up the 100 Selihot, and to make these verses accessible and understandable. Connecting to these verses can help put us in the right frame of mind for the holiest and most significant days in the Hebrew calendar and Jewish religion. Selihot prayers are both intensely personal as well as a collective experience, connecting us through time to the national history of the Jewish people.

Quoting from sources that range from the Chazon Ish, the Satmar Rebbe and Rabbi Soloveitchik to his father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter z”l, and his wife, Mrs. Yocheved Schacter, Rabbi Schacter writes for a wide audience. “I try to cast as wide a net as possible,” he said. “It’s important to me that people who read it feel a sense of connection. I don’t assume knowledge, so even someone with less background should be able to understand and appreciate it.”

Asked by Koren Publishers to create the prayer book and guide for the services, Rabbi Schacter spent over a year — mostly during the pandemic — reading the original Hebrew text, the new translation, and the many existing commentaries, free associating. Using his decades of experience learning and teaching, he let his mind roam as he extracted points that resonated with him. “Every phrase in the prayers is so rich with meaning, the challenge was what not to comment on,” he said. The result is about five to seven comments per seliha as well as a 69-page introduction that analyzes recurring themes for those who want to connect to the text in a more academic way.

In hindsight, Rabbi Schacter, whose numerous books include a compilation of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik’s Tisha b’av teachings, realizes that the world-changing turmoil caused by COVID informed his writing. “During that time, it was easy to be overwhelmed with despair,” he said. “To push against that, I consciously chose themes that are optimistic, limiting my choices of passages to reflect those themes. Rather than drawing attention to the passages that describe humans as sinners, as unworthy, as deeply flawed, I instead focus on the optimistic texts, the relationship between humans and G-d, the possibility of what we can accomplish with G-d’s help. Especially now, it’s important to focus on light, not on dark.”

While many commentaries have already been written, Rabbi Schacter provides his own unique takeaway, themes that resonate in these times, in this generation. His message is one of optimism and hope, of recognizing our challenges but always looking forward.

“I want people to feel good about themselves,” he said. “Not everything is perfect and not everything in our lives is perfect. There are things that need to be fixed and improved. But we should come into this introspective season from a sense of strength, with the idea that ‘I know I have a lot of work to do, but I can do it. With G-d’s help, I can prevail.’”

The Koren Selihot Minhag Lita by Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter. Koren Publishers Jerusalem. 2022. Hebrew and English. Hardcover. 1314 pages. ISBN-13: 978-9657766682.

Rabbi Schacter’s latest book, a new edition of Magillat Sefer: The Autobiography of Jacob Emden, is due out in 2023 (Zalman Shazar Center Publishers)