The Laws of Elul and Selichot

  1. The Month of Elul
  2. At what point do we begin saying “Selichot”?
  3. The Time for “Selichot”

The Month of Elul

Elul is the month of repentance. With the end of the year fast
approaching, the time to make a personal accounting has arrived. It is
time to cast off all those bad habits we have become accustomed to
over the course of the year and to make a new start. On Rosh Hashana
God sits on His Throne of Justice and considers all of the actions,
words, and thoughts of the entire year. According to this He dispenses
life to the entire human race, and determines what sort of year it
will be – a year of blessing, or, heaven forbid, the opposite. All of
the prayers and acts of repentance performed in month of Elul are
intended to serve as a sort of preventative measure – a “medicine
before the illness.” For as long as a Divine judgment has not yet been
decreed, one still has the ability to nullify it very easily; yet,
after the decree has been established, it is much more difficult to
annul. Therefore, the entire month of Elul, because it precedes the
judgment of Rosh HaShana, is set aside for the purpose of improvement
in Torah and faith, prayer and charity. Such preparation allows us to
come before God for judgment in a state of purity and cleanliness.
This results in His blessing us and the entire world with a good New
Year.
That these days are capable of bringing Divine forgiveness and pardon
is also evidenced by the atonement granted the Jewish people after the
Sin of the Golden Calf. For forty days after this transgression Moses
and the Jews were rejected by God and their prayers went unanswered.
However, when the first day of the month of Elul arrived, God’s
compassion poured forth and forty days of pardon began. This lasted
until Yom Kippur, when God said to Moses: “I forgive according to your
request.”

Therefore, the Shulchan Arukh writes that from the first of Elul until
Yom Kippur it is customary to recite Selichot (penitential prayers)
and Tachanunim (supplications), and this, in fact, is the practice of
Sephardic Jewry. According to Ashkenazic tradition, though, the custom
is to recite Selichot from about the week before Rosh HaShana. The
Shofar, because it stirs people to repentance, is blown already from
the beginning of Elul after each Morning Prayer service. After the
blowing of the Shofar, Psalm 27 is read by the congregation. Sephardic
Jews are not accustomed to blowing the Shofar after Morning Prayers;
rather, they blow it during the Selichot. In this manner, all
traditions blow the Shofar during the month of Elul.

At what point do we begin reciting Selichot?

There are two customs when it comes to reciting Selichot. According to
Rabbi Yosef Karo, Jews begin reciting Selichot from the second day of
Elul. Sephardic Jewry follows this custom. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the
“Rema,” writes that the custom of the Ashkenazic Jews is to begin
reciting them from the Sunday before Rosh HaShana, on the condition
that there remain at least four days of Selichot before Rosh Hashana.
In any case, we begin reciting the Selichot on Sunday, or, more
correctly, on Saturday night: If there remain more than four days
between Saturday night and Rosh HaShana – for example, where Rosh
HaShana falls on a Thursday or Sabbath – we begin reciting Selichot on
the Saturday night closest to Rosh HaShana; but, if there are fewer
than four days separating Saturday night and Rosh HaShana – for
example, where Rosh HaShana falls on a Monday or Tuesday – then we
begin reciting Selichot on the preceding Saturday night.

The reason that Ashkenazic Jews recite Selichot for at least four days
before Rosh HaShana is that there is a custom to observe ten days of
fasting before Yom Kippur for the purpose of repentance. And since
during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur
there are four days on which it is impossible to fast – i.e., the two
days of Rosh HaShana, one Sabbath, and Yom Kippur eve on which one is
obliged to eat – four days are set aside before Rosh HaShana for
fasting. Therefore, Selichot are recited on these days. And even
though today most people do not actually fast on these ten days, none
the less, it remains customary to get up early for Selichot for at
least ten days – i.e., the four days before Rosh HaShana, and six days
during the Ten Days of Repentance. An additional reason for this
practice is that on Rosh HaShana a person must “sacrifice himself”
before God, and since we find that sacrifices had to be prepared and
checked for blemishes four days before being offered up, it was
decided that Selichot be recited four days before Rosh HaShana. In
order that people not become confused, it was established that the
first reading of Selichot take place on Saturday night. Furthermore,
it is only fitting that an individual begin to request God’s mercy
from the first day of the week.

The Time for Selichot

The best time for reciting Selichot is at “Ashmoret HaBoker” – i.e.,
the very end of the nighttime. At this time people are still asleep,
and the world is peaceful and uncontaminated by evil thoughts and
deeds. At this hour prayer issues from the depths of the heart,
shatters all barriers, and is received in Heaven.

Most people, though, find it difficult to get up at such an early
hour. The normal time today for waking up in the morning is six
o’clock, and “Ashmoret HaBoker” is about two hours before this. Rising
two hours earlier than normal results in drowsiness and can effect a
person’s entire day. Therefore, the accepted practice has become to
rise for Selichot about an hour or a half-hour before morning prayers.
Though it is no longer dark outside, it is still permissible to recite
Selichot. Hence, if a person feels that by waking- up early his work
will suffer, it is preferable that he rise for Selichot a half-hour
before the normal time.

According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a situation where one has no
alternative, it is even possible to recite Selichot before midnight.
If a community is unable to manage getting up early in the morning for
Selichot, its members are permitted, as an emergency measure, to
gather for Selichot at ten o’clock in the evening. By arranging
Selichot at such an hour, everybody is able to come, and their sleep
hours remain unaffected. Yet, according to many Kabbalists and
authorities in Jewish law, such practice is completely unacceptable.
According to them, the time for reciting Selichot is only after
midnight, for this is the time of Divine mercy. Before midnight the
world is still infested by evil thoughts and actions, and God’s
attribute of judgment remains present. Therefore, this is not a
fitting time for Selichot.

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