Adon Haselichot: Poetic longing for forgiveness

Chart of letters of Hebrew Alphabet, illustrating a post about the alphabetical acrostic poem Adon Haselichot

Adon Haselichot, “Master of Pardons”

A piyyut (Hebrew liturgical poem)

  • written somewhere in the Middle East
  • sometime between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries
  • by some really skilled paytan (poet)
  • placed somewhere in the Yom Kippur liturgy by the editor of your machzor.

Really skilled paytanim took a standard format and made it new for each poem. In exploring a topic, they used the form itself to express their insights.

Adon Haselichot follows much of the basic style sheet for a piyyut.

  1. Alphabetical acrostic.
  2. Every line has the same number of accents (though not necessarily the same number of syllables.)
  3. Lines rhyme.
  4. Stanzas follow a regular pattern.
  5. Creative list of honorific synonyms for the main character of the poem.

The author of Adon Haselichot uses these features to explore his or topic: what happens when a human being approaches the Divine Master of Pardons.

Adon Haselichot: Poetic analysis, line by line

Master of Pardons, Examiner of Hearts, Revealer of Depths…


The repetitive meter draws our bodies into the prayer. It’s hard not to tap a foot or sway rhythmically. It’s easy to be drawn into a trance-like or dance-like state. Deep parts of ourselves that hide beneath the structured social self move to the foreground.

Ancient Repenter, Ancestral Promiser, Inner Searcher…

VaTIK ban’chaMOT, ZoCHER brit aVOT,  ChoKER kelaYOT

As children, perhaps we learned to recite the aleph-bet. This early, embedded memory awakens, and threads us through the poem. Perhaps it opens a willingness to feel God as part of a deep cultural memory.

Good to all creatures, Knowing all secrets, Conquering errors…

Tov u’meiTIV laberiYOT, YoDEA kol nistaROT, KoVESH avoNOT

A grammatical pattern makes the rhyme: plural noun, plural noun, plural noun. We are all fellow creatures; we all have secrets; we all have errors; we are not alone. Can we forgive ourselves for being merely human? Can we forgive others the same?

Full of merits, Awesomely praiseworthy, Forgiving errors


Honorific after honorific spins a web of adjectives around the ineffable, infinite God. Each name hints at the great power just beyond our mind’s reach. Could such a great and transcendent God hear our prayers?

Artisan of salvation, Visionary of the future, Reader of generations

PoEL yeshuOT, TsoFEH atiDOT, KoRAY hadoROT

God holds a vision, a plan. Its rules are as predictable as the structure of this poem. The most important rule: the plan evolves as we evolve. Each generation can make a change. We can search our own insides, learn to predict the consequences of our actions, bring about a more compassionate future. We can begin to act in imitation of this great power that we revere.

Perfecter of Knowledge


By praying to you, we have increased our self-knowledge.

RaCHEM aleyNU        

Have compassion on us.

***Thanks to Susan Shamash for bringing this poem to my attention, and to our study group at Selichot at Or Shalom for stimulating my thought. Helpful source for the history of the structure of the piyyut: “Piyyut” by Ezra Fleischer in Literature of the Sages, edited by Stone et al. (2006).

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