The gleam from lofty windows
lights the midnight shadow.
The congregation streams inside
Voices rise into the dark,
bearing pain and love.
And in the blackness of the night
a ladder stretches forth,
and rung by rung
the prayers are borne
from earth’s terrain to God.
In the Selichot* service, there is a prayer composed by Amram Gaon (821-875) which begins, “Machnisei rachamim – Angels of mercy” and translates as follows:
“Angels of mercy, may you usher in our [plea for] mercy, before the Master of mercy. Angels of prayer, may you cause our prayer to be heard before the One who hears prayer. Angels of outcry, may you cause our outcry to be heard, before the One who hears outcry. Angels of tears, may you usher in our tears before the King Who is reconciled by tears. Intercede for us and multiply supplication and petition before the King, God, exalted and most high. Mention before Him the Torah [that is kept] and the good deeds [performed] by those who dwell in the dust. May He remember their love and keep their children safe, so that the remnant of Jacob will not perish…”
The usual biblical word for angels (or messengers), “mal’achim” does not actually appear in the prayer, which addresses “ushers of mercy; ones who cause prayers and outcry to be heard before God; ones who bring our tears before God.” Clearly we are asking intermediaries who are understood to be angels, to intercede for us.
In his volume Selichot: Authorised Hebrew and Edition for the Whole Year, translated and annotated by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, R’ Rosenfeld notes, “Many a commentator abstained from translating this prayer, objecting to the idea of praying to angels. They overlooked the beautiful description of Jacob’s Ladder; most commentators agree that “prayer” is a Jacob’s Ladder joining earth to heaven…Various symbolic ideas have been read into the the imagery of the ladder and the angels upon it. One view is that it represents the vehicle by which one’s prayers ascend to heaven and through which salvation descends from heaven. The most acceptable interpretation, however, makes the ladder symbolise the link between celestial and terrestrial spheres, the angels being intermediaries, as it were, carrying messages from one to the other.”
(Even today, there are shlichei tsibbur who change the words slightly so as not to be perceived as praying to angels).
Here is a link to a contemporary rendition of Machnisei Rachamim by Odeliah Berlin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yXgW8j48NqA.
*Selichot are Jewish penitential poems and prayers, especially those said in the period leading up to the Yamim Nora’im and on Fast Days. God’s Thirteeen Attributes are a central theme throughout these prayers.
Selichot are usually recited between midnight and dawn. Some recite them at night after the evening service or in the morning before the morning service due to the convenience of synagogue attendance at these times.
Arguably the most important and certainly most popular night of Selichot in the Ashkenazi tradition is the first night, when many members of the congregation attend the late-night service on Saturday night. The chazzan wears a kittel and sings elaborate melodies. In some congregations, it is not unusual for a choir to participate in this first night’s service. This night also has more Selichot than any other night prior to Rosh Hashanah eve. The other nights are more sparsely attended and those services are often led by a layperson, rather than a trained musician, and with melodies that are less elaborate than the first night.
These ancient prayers for forgiveness are already mentioned in the Mishnah. A later Midrashic legend associates King David with the establishment of a special service for forgiveness when he discovers that the Temple will be destroyed. “How will they reach atonement?” he asks God and learns that the people will recite the Selichot prayers and then be forgiven.