What are Selichot Tours?
Selichot are Jewish poems and prayers of repentance, recited during the period prior to the High Holidays, in preparation for The Days of Awe from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur. While Selichot are prayed in every Synagogue according to the local customs, many Israelis, as well as tourists, make their way to Jerusalem for Selichot Tours, in search of a meaningful way to experience the month of Elul. The time to repent and ask forgiveness and start anew. My wife and I had an opportunity to join Selichot Tour in Jerusalem and so we did. And today I’m going to tell about it.
Here is additional background information from Haaretz that demonstrates the magnitude of Selichot Tours:
It may be the most booming business in Jerusalem these days, but despite its religious character, it caters – rather paradoxically – to a largely secular crowd.
Welcome to the world of Selichot tours. It’s a phenomenon that draws tens of thousands to the capital each night during the weeks leading up to the High Holy Days – Israelis of all ages and from all walks of life who are eager to experience, or at least learn more about, this longstanding tradition of reciting penitential prayers and liturgy in the wee hours of the night.
The growing popularity of these tours – almost to the point of a craze – is the latest sign of a newly kindled interest in Jewish traditions among secular Israelis, says Doron Yosha, who runs a company that specializes in tours of Jerusalem. “Today, in Israeli society, we’re seeing this trend of going back to tradition, which has little to do with religious observance,” he says.
His company, Doron Tours, has organized 100 Selichot tours this year in the five weeks leading up to Yom Kippur, most of them completely booked in advance and each one accommodating about 30-40 people. “We’re talking about a sort of hybrid tour,” he says. “These aren’t exactly sightseeing tours, nor are they pilgrimage tours. Rather, they’re a combination of the two.”
Map of the area:
The Beginning Of Selichot Tour
We met at 10 pm next to Jaffa Gate. And this shot of Tower of David was made from the square just outside Jaffa Gate:
I’m used to seeing Jaffa Gate in its modern view. But, did you know that in the beginning of the previous century Jaffa Gate had a clock tower? The clock tower was build in 1908 by the Ottoman Empire and in 1922 it was knocked down by the British (for aesthetical reasons). It was one of seven similar clock towers built in Israel. The most known out of these clock towers is probably the tower in Jaffa (you can find more info towards the end of A day in Jaffa post).
Then we continued inside the old city. About 10 meters after passing the Jaffa gate you can see a small fenced area with two tombs on the left. These are believed to be the tombs of two architects whom Suleiman commissioned to construct the Old City walls. We don’t know why Suleiman ordered to kill them but there are several legends. The simplest explanation is: it’s cheaper to pay the executor for a five-minute work than pay two architects for a four-year work. Another legend tells that Suleiman was afraid that the architects could tell his enemies about the weaknesses of the wall. We don’t know which legend is closer to the truth, but we do know that the architects are not buried at the standard graveyard, meaning they didn’t die a natural death.
As mentioned above, Selichot Tour is a combo tour. It’s both sightseeing and a pilgrimage tour. And this tour wasn’t an exception. The beginning was mostly sightseeing. We were told about the Jaffa Gate, Tower of David and other buildings.
People at the bus stop in front of the Tower of David:
At the roofs
Then we continued to the roofs (above the market) of Jerusalem.
Night view of the Dome of the Rock:
These roofs are located next to Church of the Redeemer and if you have a chance to visit its tower then I would definitely recommend (for more info and photos check out Church of the Redeemer).
At the roofs, we had some snacks and had a talk about Selichot. Different streams in Judaism begin to recite the Selichot at different dates. For example, Sephardi Jews begin to recite the Selichot prayers at the start of the Jewish month of Elul, while Ashkenazim begin only on Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah. And this is only the general rule of thumb. There are exceptions. Moreover, there are additional differences. For example, Sephardi Jews use the same Selichot prayers and Ashkenazim recite different Selichot every night.
The tradition of reciting the prayers late at night emerged out of a belief that God is more merciful during those hours. But some believe that the reason is more practical. During the day people had to work, and the only remaining time was the night.
A couple in front Dome of the Rock:
From the roofs, we moved dipper into the Jewish quarter.
One of the alleys:
We reached Hurva square and talked about the Hurva synagogue. As you can see it’s probably around 23:30 and the Jewish quarter is packed with people. There are street performers and all restaurants and stores are still open. Some of them are even open 24h.
Then we went into Batei Mahse Square and talked about more recent history. Specifically about the history of Batei Mahse and the Six Day War (war with Jordan over Jerusalem).
From Batei Mahse Square we moved in the direction of the main attraction of this tour, the Western Wall.
The later it is, the more people there are at the Kotel. We were told that the peak is around 4-5 am.
When walking to the Western Wall you have to pass a security check. Since there were a lot of people, the line took us about 20 min.
After about 5 min, during which I was trying to get to the Wall, I understood that 20 min simply won’t be enough. Due to the masses of people, 10 min for one way wasn’t enough. And so I made my way back.
We reached starting point (Jaffa gate) around 1 am and that was the end of Selichot tour.
The tour turned out not exactly what I expected. And when researching for this post I read that in previous years Selichot tours were different. A decade ago Selichot tour meant that you would go to a Synagogue and listen to Selichot. But two things changed. First, most Selichot tours were in Nachlaot and Nachlaot residents complained about the noise. Thus, as far as I understood, noise prohibiting law was passed for Nachlaot area (though today many residents of the Jewish quarter also complain about the noise). Secondly, as the tours became popular, they couldn’t fit all people into small synagogues (and in the old city and the Western Wall specifically there is much more room). Therefore, the concept of Selichot tour changed. Today most tours start with sightseeing (in order to get you into the mood) and end at the Western Wall.
Though I was familiar with many of the sightseeing information, it was a nice tour and a fun experience. And if you haven’t been to Selichot tour, then I would definitely recommend. Moreover, after reading this post, you know exactly what to expect 😉
By the way, our tour guide was Yaakov Oster and his contact details are:
Hope you enjoyed the Selichot Tour post and I’ll see you in future travels.
For additional points of interest nearby check out Jerusalem page.