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, so 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.
The fact 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; yet, when the first 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 Ashkenazi tradition, though, the custom is to recite Selichot from about the week before Rosh HaShannah. The shofar, which 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 Ashkenazi Jews is to begin reciting them from the Sunday before Rosh HaShannah, on the condition that there remain at least four days of Selichot before Rosh Hashana. In any event, 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 Ashkenazi 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. This being the case, Selichot is recited on these days. And even though today most people do not actually fast on these ten days, it none the less 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 Proper 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 rising 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.