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Orah Hayyim 581:1
Question: When is the proper time to begin reciting Selihot before Rosh Hashanah? Why do Ashkenazic Jews start on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah, while Sefardic Jews start on Rosh Hodesh Elul?
Responsum: The Selihot service is not mentioned in the Talmud. It is a custom which began in the Geonic period (ca. 500-1000 c.e.). As Rabbi Max Arzt explains, the Selihot are built around the Thirteen Attributes of God (Exodus 34:6-7). This is because Rabbi Yohanan says in the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17b) that “whenever Israel sins, let them recite this order of prayer and I shall forgive them”. Rabbi Judah adds (ibid.) that God established a covenant that a prayer in which the Thirteen Attributes are invoked would never be in vain.
Originally, the Selihot consisted of several chains of biblical verses, each climaxed by the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of God. In the Geonic period, the El Melekh Yoshev paragraph was composed as a prelude to the Thirteen Attributes. As time went on, the Vidui (confession of sins), Aneinu and many piyyutim (liturgical poems) were added. Though there are Selihot for all of the fast days, the term usually connotes the midnight or early morning service held from before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. (See Rabbi Arzt; also see Rabbi Kieval, Dr. Goldschmidt and Rabbi Rosenfeld)
There are seven different customs as to when Jews begin to recite Selihot:
1) During the Ten Days of Penitence from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur: This is the earliest and most original custom regarding Selihot. It is mentioned by Rav Cohen Zedek (Gaon of Sura from 838-848 c.e.), Rav Amram Gaon (Sura, 853-871), Rav Hai Gaon (Pumpedita, 998-1038) and Maimonides (1135-1204). They say that the custom is based upon a passage found in Rosh Hashanah 18a: ” ‘Seek God when he is found’ (Isaiah 55:6) – these are the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur”. (Lewin pp. 31-32; Seder Ram Amram Gaon, ed. Goldschmidt, p. 145; Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:4). In other words, we should ask God for Selihah, for forgiveness, at the most propitious time of the year – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Nissim Gerondi (Spain, 1300-1380) reports in his commentary to the Rif (on Rosh Hashanah, Chapter 1, ed. Vilna, fol. 3a) that this was still the custom in “Gerona and its environs” in the 14th Century. Nonetheless, this custom disappeared over the course of time and is no longer observed today.
2) From Rosh Hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur: After relating his own custom (see above), Rav Hai Gaon adds: “and we have heard that in some places in Persia they arise [every morning] beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul, and they say that on that day Moses went up the mountain a third time and came down with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. And whoever adds additional prayers of mercy and supplication, it is to his merit” (Lewin, p. 32). In other words, we recite Selihot for forty days from Rosh Hodesh Elul until Yom Kippur because, according to rabbinic tradition (Seder Olam Rabbah, Chapter 6 and Rashi to Exodus 33:11), Moses spent those forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the second set of tablets from God. When he descended on Yom Kippur, God forgave the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf.
R. Isaac ibn Ghiyat of Spain (1038-1089) adds: “and our custom is like those who arise from the beginning of Elul” (Sha’arey Simhah, Vol. 1, Furth, 1861, p. 43). Indeed, this custom was adopted by Spanish and Yemenite Jews and is observed by them until today (See R. Abraham ben Nattan of Lunel, Sefer Hamanhig , ed. Refael, parag. 25, p. 329; R. Asher ben Shaul of Lunel, Sefer Haminhagot, ed. Assaf in Sifran shel Rishonim, Jerusalem, 1935, p. 149; R. Menahem Hameiri, Hibbur Hateshuvah, ed. Sofer, New York, 1950, p. 260; Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 581:1; R. Yosef Kapah, Halikhot Teiman, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 10-11).
3) From the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur: This custom is first mentioned by Rashi’s disciple, R. Simhah of Vitry ca. 1120 c.e. (Mahzor Vitry, p. 345 = Siddur Rashi, p. 66). It was explained by the Mordechai (ca. 1300) two generations later. The Ashkenazim are accustomed to fast during the Ten Days of Penitence, but it is forbidden to fast on the two days of Rosh Hashanah, Shabbat Shuvah, and Yom Kippur eve (when it is a mitzvah to eat a lot – see Rosh Hashanah 9a-b and parallels). In order to complete the ten days of fasting, the Ashkenazim decided to fast and recite Selihot for four days before Rosh Hashanah. When Rosh Hashanah fell on Tuesday or Wednesday, they started Selihot on Saturday night a week before Rosh Hashanah (Mordechai to Rosh Hashanah, end of parag. 708 and to Yoma, parag. 723). The Ashkenazic custom is recorded by many Ashkenazic authorities (Minhagey R. Hayyim Paltiel, ed. Goldschmidt in: Mehkerey Tefillah Upiyyut, Jerusalem, 1980, p. 39; Minhagey R. Avraham Klausner, ed. Dissin, p. 1; Minhagey Maharil, ed. Shpitzer, p. 262; Minhagey R. Isaac Tirna, ed. Shpitzer, p. 87; R. Mordechai Yaffe, Levush Orah Hayyim 581:1; R. Moshe Isserles, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 581:1) and is practiced by Ashkenazim until today.
The next four customs we shall mention are less well-known. They were apparently only observed in specific geographic areas and they are no longer observed today.
4) From the 15th of Elul until Yom Kippur: This custom is mentioned in the Coronel edition of Seder Rav Amram Gaon (Part II, Warsaw, 1865, fols. 1-21), which would make it an early custom. However, it is not found in the more accurate Goldschmidt edition (Jerusalem, 1972, p. 145ff.). It is also mentioned by R. David Aburdaham, who lived in Spain ca. 1340 (Abudraham Hashalem, Jerusalem 1959, p. 260). The third mention of this custom is by R. Yahya Zalah (San’a, Yemen, ca. 1715) in his Tiklal Eitz Hayaim (Vol. 3 in the introduction) who prefers the custom of beginning Selihot on Rosh Hodesh Elul. Unfortunately, none of these sources cites a reason for this custom.
5) The 25th of Elul until Yom Kippur: Rabbi Nissim Gerondi mentioned above relates in his commentary to the Rif (ibid.) that in Barcelona and its environs they began to recite Selihot on the 25 th of Elul. This is because according to Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (Piska 23, ed. Mandelbaum, pp. 333-334), which was written in Eretz Yisrael in the fifth century, the world was created on the 25th of Elul, while Adam was created on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore, one begins to recite Selihot on the day upon which the world was created.
6) From the Monday or Thursday before Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur: This was the Italian custom. It is first mentioned by Shiboley Haleket ca. 1260 c.e. (ed. Buber, p. 265) and Tanya Rabbati (ed. Horvitz, pp. 153-154) and it is also found in Mahzor Bnei Roma . This is because Monday and Thursday were traditionally observed as fast days. In other words, if Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbat or Monday, they began to recite Selihot on the Monday before. If it fell on Thursday, they began on the Thursday before. If it fell on Tuesday, they began on Monday, eight days before.
7) Every Monday and Thursday During Elul and from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur: The Meiri (Provence, 1249-1315), in his Hibbur Hateshuvah (ed. Sofer, p. 250) says that there is a custom, presumably in southern France, to recite Selihot “every Monday and Thursday of Elul” and then continue during Aseret Yemei Teshuvah until Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, he does not cite a specific reason for this custom other than the midrash ( Vayikra Rabbah 30:7, ed. Margaliot, p. 705) that we should begin to supplicate God for forgiveness on Erev Rosh Hashanah.
All of these customs are legitimate since they are customs not based on biblical or talmudic law. The usual attitude of the Talmud and halakhic authorities to such customs is “nahara nahara ufashtey” i.e. every river follows its own course (Hullin 18b; ibid. 57a in Rashi). In other words, every locale follows its own customs and they are equally legitimate.
As the High Holidays approach, may the Selihot services give us the impetus and the courage to ask forgiveness both from God and from our fellow man (see Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
15 Elul 5766
R. Max Arzt, Justice and Mercy, New York, Chicago and San Francisco, 1963, pp. 205-207
Yitzhak Yosef Cohen, Mekorot Vekorot, Jerusalem, 1982, pp. 196-199
R. Ya’akov Gartner, Gilguley Minhag B’olam Hahalakhah, Jerusalem, 5755, pp. 104-108
Daniel Goldschmidt, Seder Haselihot K’minhag Polin, Jerusalem, 5725, pp. 5-6
R. Hayyim Herman Kieval, The High Holy Days, second edition edited by David Golinkin and Monique Susskind Goldberg, The Schechter Institute, Jerusalem, 2004, pp. 239-256
R. B.M. Lewin, Otzar Hageonim, Vol. 5, Jerusalem, 1933, Helek Hateshuvot, pp. 31-32
Yehudah Razhabi, Sinai 115 (5755), pp. 193-216
R. Abraham Rosenfeld, The Authorised Selihot for the Whole Year, New York, 1988
R. Daniel Sperber, Minhagey Yisrael , Volume 2, Jerusalem, 1991, pp. 214-216
Efrayim Yitzhaki, Morashtenu 10 (5756), pp. 199-206
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.