Each week we discuss one familiar halakhic practice and try to show its beauty and meaning. The columns are based on Rabbi Meir's Meaning in Mitzvot on Kitzur Shulchan Arukh by Rabbi Asher Meir
S'lichot prior to Rosh HaShana part two
The custom of saying selichot (penitential prayers) during the Days of Repentance is quite an ancient one, and is mentioned already in the time of the Geonim, who lived only a few generations after the last Amoraim (sages of the Talmud). The Ran (commentary on the Rif on Rosh Hashana 3a) mentions three different customs regarding these selichot:
1. In the area of Gerona, selichot were said starting only at Rosh HaShana. This is the custom mentioned in the Rambam (Teshuva 3:4) to rise early in the morning and say words of supplication and subduing [the heart] during the Ten Days of Repentance.
2. In some places, selichot were said starting at the beginning of Elul. This is the custom mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh (OC 581).
3. In the area of Barcelona, selichot were said starting the 25th of Elul. This custom doesn't seem to have survived; the custom mentioned in the Rema and followed in Ashkenazi communities today is to start always on Motzaei Shabbat, either the week of Rosh Hashana or, if Rosh Hashana is Monday or Tuesday, a week prior, so that there will be at least four days of Slichot before Rosh HaShana.
The Gra (C 581) explains that our current custom is actually just a modification of the custom mentioned in the Ran. As we explained last week, beginning on the 25th of Elul is intended to be a commemoration of the creation of the world, which likewise commenced (according to Rebbe Eliezer) on the 25th of Elul.
The Gra points out that while it is true that the
creation began on the 25th of Elul, it is likewise true that it began on the
"first day", that is, what we call Saturday night. So beginning on Motzaei
Shabbat is equally a commemoration of the beginning of creation, and has the
additional advantage that selichot are always begun on a fixed day of the
week. In any case, the selichot always begin within a very few days of the
25th of Elul.
A later Rishon, the Leket Yosher, mentions the custom of starting selichot on Motzaei Shabbat as we do now, and brings a different reason in the name of his Rebbe, the very prominent authority Trumat HaDeshen.
The Trumat HaDeshen, writes Leket Yosher, explains that "the Divine Presence doesn't dwell amidst sadness or sloth, but only from the joy of a mitzva", as we learn in the gemara (Shabbat 30b). Thus during selichot, when we seek G^d's presence to accept our repentance, we need to experience this joy. The ideal time for this is right after Shabbat. On Shabbat the people have been absorbed in the mitzva of Torah learning (which is primarily on Shabbat for many working people) and in the mitzva of Shabbat indulgence itself. This demeanor of joy provides an ideal backdrop for the beginning of our penitential prayers.
This explanation gives us an important insight into the nature of selichot. Repentance does not need to be a sad or frustrating process, punctuated by despairing regret over the mistakes of the past. Of course regret and renunciation of past sins is an essential component of repentance, but this can and even should be balanced and dominated by a sense of renewed hope for a better future once we have repaired our ways.
This approach complements the explanation we brought for the custom mentioned by the Ran. Repentance is not a tragic necessity, the result of the "freak accident" of sin. Rather, it is a natural part of human development, just as the creation of the world was a natural and essential preparation for the creation and subsequent development of man.
Latest publication developments: The book is completed! Yaakov Feldheim called me on Thursday to tell me that he "is pleased to announced the birth of a new book"... I hope to be able to give TT readers clear directions on how they can obtain a copy - probably I will direct them to the Feldheim website...
Rabbi Meir authors a popular weekly on-line Q&A column, "The Jewish Ethicist", which gives Jewish guidance on everyday ethical dilemmas in the workplace. The column is a joint project of the JCT Center for Business Ethics, Jerusalem College of Technology - Machon Lev; and Aish HaTorah. You can see the Jewish Ethicist, and submit your own Qs — www.jewishethicist.com or www.aish.com.