For those stalwarts who have been plugging away at the daily (or nightly in my case) selichos for the past 12 days, you may have been mystified by today's protocol. Yesterday (Wednesday), we recited the selichos for "Day Three of the aseres yemei teshuva". Yet today we recited those for Day Five - i.e., the ones slated for two days before Yom Kippur. Then tomorrow, we go back and recite the Day Four selichos! If you look at the instructions that are given in some selichos books, they simply say that this swap is made in years when Yom Kippur falls on Monday or Thursday. Sounds a bit like the rules for Fizzbin. What gives?
The rationale, while not very well publicized, is actually quite simple. The selichos marked as "Day Five" include a special pizmon [responsive recitation] that includes the "Yud Gimmel Middos" - the thirteen attributes of Hashem. This pizmon is to be recited on a weekday when the Torah is read, which can be either Monday or Thursday. Therefore, when Yom Kippur itself falls on Thursday, "Day Five" - two days before YK - is Tuesday, and thus the Day Four and Day Five selichos are switched so that the latter are read on Monday. Similarly, when Yom Kippur falls on Monday, as it does this year, "Day Five" would be Friday (i.e., two days before YK not counting Shabbos, when selichos are not said), and again the Day Four and Day Five selichos are switched so that the latter are read on Thursday.
I happen to have learned this obscure fact since I've been called upon to lead selichos almost every evening this year, at my shul's 10:00 pm maariv/selichos service. (On an ironic note, since my minyan recites each day's selichos the night before, we sort of defeat the purpose of the day-switch in the first place! Oh well.) My popularity as a chazzan is less due to any special talent than to the fact that a) I'm fast, which is the main criteria for leading that particular minyan, and b) nobody else wants to volunteer!
Flying through the selichos at breakneck pace doesn't lend itself to a deep appreciation of their meaning - difficult to discern under the best of circumstances. But I will say that I found last night's selichos - or at least the pizmon - particularly moving. The same pizmon is found near the climax of the Neilah [concluding] service on Yom Kippur itself, and the verse that always gets to me every year is:
"I fix my hopes on the thirteen attributes.
And on the gates of tears that are not yet closed..."
Powerful image that. Darkness is falling, the Day of Atonement is drawing to an end, the gates of special repentance are closing for another year. It is only our tears that still can find a way through.