Selichot Prior to Rosh HaShanah

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18 Jan 2005

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 HaShanah 3a) mentions three different customs regarding these selichot:

  1. In the area of Gerona, selichot were said starting only at Rosh HaShanah. 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 Rama and followed in Ashkenazi communities today is to start always on Motza’ei Shabbat, either the week of Rosh HaShanah or, if Rosh HaShanah is Monday or Tuesday, a week prior, so that there will be at least four days of Selichot before Rosh HaShanah.

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 Motza’ei 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.
As we explained last week, the message of this custom could be that the process of repentance, like the process of creation, is a natural one and an inherent part of the fabric of creation. Indeed, the Gemara tells us that repentance was created prior to the world itself (Pesachim 54a, Nedarim 39b).

A later Rishon, the Leket Yosher, mentions the custom of starting selichot on Motza’ei Shabbat as we do now, and brings a different reason in the name of his Rebbe, the very prominent authority Terumat HaDeshen.

The Terumat 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.

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Arukh.