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When do we begin saying Selichot and why?

by Rabbi Shlomo Chein

  

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Before the High Holidays it is customary to recite early morning Selichot.1 Generally speaking there are two different customs for when we begin this pre High Holiday ritual.

Sephardim

Sephardic communities begin saying Selichot on (or the day after) Rosh Chodesh Elul.2

Moses spent three forty day epochs on Mount Sinai: During the first he received the first set of Tablets, which he broke upon seeing the Golden Calf. During the second He pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. At the end of this period G-d reconciled with the Jewish people and told Moses to hew for himself a second set of Tablets, so Moses went up for another 40 days with blank Tablets in hand. On the fortieth day of the third period G-d fully pardoned the Jewish people, and Moses descended the mountain with the Ten Commandments inscribed on the second set of Tablets.3

This third period, a period of good will and forgiveness, began on Rosh Chodesh Elul and concluded on Yom Kippur. Since then these forty days on the calendar have been designated as days of good will before G-d, and Yom Kippur as the Day of ultimate pardon and forgiveness.4

these forty days on the calendar have been designated as days of good will before G-d, and Yom Kippur as the Day of ultimate pardon and forgiveness.
(These days are considered auspicious days by all, and even those who don’t begin saying Selichot, nonetheless observe other customs of Teshuvah during this time. See What special customs are observed during the month of Elul?).

Ashkenazim (and Chabad)

If the first day of Rosh Hashanah is Thursday or Shabbat, we begin Selichot early on the Sunday morning before Rosh Hashanah. If the first day of Rosh Hashanah is Monday or Tuesday5 we begin Selichot two Sundays before.6

The prevailing custom is to begin the first Selichot in the early AM hours of Sunday, i.e. immediately after (Halachic) midnight on Saturday night.7

The Ashkenazi custom takes two things into consideration:

1. There should be a minimum of four days of Selichot.

Rabbi Gavriel Tzinner explains:8 With regard to all Biblical Festivals the Torah says9 "you shall offer an Olah (offering)", whereas with regard to Rosh Hashanah it says10 "you shall make an Olah." Our sages say that on Rosh Hashanah we need to make ourselves fit for an Olah. And just as every offering was inspected four days before it was offered,11 so too we must inspect ourselves for (at least) four days before Rosh Hashanah.12

2. Selichot should begin on Saturday night.

There are a number of reasons for this as well, here are two:

a. Creation began on Sunday, but "it was evening it was morning" – i.e. evening came before morning, thus Saturday night was technically the beginning of creation. On Rosh Hashanah we remember creation, and all of creation is remembered/judged before G-d, so we begin preparing from the "beginning".13

b. The liturgy of the first Selichot includes many references to night time supplications. It also includes a hymn that begins with the words "B’motzoei Menucah" ("With the exiting of [the day of] rest"), which obviously refers to Motzoei Shabbat, Saturday night.14

We begin after midnight on Saturday night because we do not recite Selichot or The 13 Attributes of Mercy from sunset until midnight (aside for on Yom Kippur).15

Footnotes

  • 1. Selichot are also recited on Jewish Fast Days. See http://www.askmoses.com/article/110,144476/What-are-Selichot-and-when-are-they-recited.html
  • 2. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:1 (see Magen Avraham ibib 2)
  • 3. Seder Olam, quoted in Rashi Deuteronomy 9:18
  • 4. Baba Kama 82a Tosfot "Kdei". Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:1 Magen Avraham 2. And Nitei Gavriel laws of the High Holidays 8:1 footnote 3.
  • 5. Rosh Hashanah never begins on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. See http://www.askmoses.com/article/283,2089239/Can-Rosh-Hashanah-fall-on-any-day-of-the-week.html
  • 6. Rama Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:1
  • 7. Selichot on the remaining days are recited in the morning.
  • 8. Nitei Gavriel laws of High Holidays 8:1 footnote 3
  • 9. Numbers chapters 28 and 29
  • 10. numbers 29:2
  • 11. Talmud tractate Menachot 49b
  • 12. The Magen Avraham offers another reason: The ten days beginning with Rosh Hashana and concluding with Yom Kippur are known as The Ten Days of Teshuvah. Many used to (and some still do) fast during these days. However, since one may not fast on the 2 days of Rosh Hashana, 1 day of Shabbat, and 1 day of the eve of Yom Kippur (on which it is forbidden to fast), they made up those four fasts by adding four fast days, and days of Selichot, before Rosh Hashana. Today most people don’t fast, but we still say the Selichot. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 581:1 Magen Avraham 3).
  • 13. Nitei Gavriel ibid.
  • 14. Nitei Gavriel ibid and Sefer Minhagim Chabad p. 54 footnote 1
  • 15. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 565:5 Magen Avraham 5.

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Holidays » Rosh Hashanah » A Month of Preparation

Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Teshuvah
Repentance. Or, more literally, "return" to G-d. Teshuvah involves regretting the past and making a firm resolution not to repeat the offense.
Rosh Hashanah
The Jewish New Year. An early autumn two day holiday marking the creation of Adam and Eve. On this day we hear the blasts of the ram's horn and accept G-d's sovereignty upon ourselves and the world. On Rosh Hashanah we pray that G-d should grant us all a sweet New Year.
Yom Kippur
Day of Atonement. This late-autumn high-holiday is the holiest day of the year. We devote this day to repentance and all healthy adults are required to fast.
Chabad
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
Ashkenazi
(pl. Ashkenazim). A Jew of Northern or Eastern European ancestry.
Ashkenazim
(pl.) Jews of Northern or Eastern European ancestry. (singular: Ashkenazi)
Sephardim
(Pl.: Sephardim) A Jew whose ancestors stem from Southern Italy, Spain, Portugal, North Africa or the Arabian countries.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Rosh Chodesh
The "Head of the Month," Rosh Chodesh is observed the first day of every Jewish month. If the previous month had 30 days, then the last day of the previous month is also observed; hence a two-day Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Chodesh is a semi-holiday, marked by Torah-reading and special prayers.
Sephardic
(adj.) A Jew whose ancestors stem from Southern Italy, Spain, Portugal, North Africa or the Arabian countries.
Elul
The 6th month on the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to August-September. This is the month which precedes Tishrei, the month of the High Holidays, and is a month of introspection and repentance.
Selichot
Penintential prayers recited before the High Holidays and on Jewish fast days.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.