The custom of reciting selichot (penitential prayers) in the days preceding Rosh HaShana is quite ancient, and is mentioned already in the early Rishonim. The custom of the Sephardim, as mentioned in Shulchan Arukh (OC 581), is to recite selichot from the beginning of Elul; the Rema adds that the custom of the Ashkenazim is to begin the week of Rosh HaShana, or if there are only a few days that week, the week before.
The Ran (on Rif Rosh HaShana 3a) gives the reason for these two customs. The custom of saying selichot from the beginning of Elul has its source in the ancient tradition that Moshe Rabbeinu ascended Mount Sinai to receive the second tablets on Rosh Chodesh Elul, and descended on Yom Kippur. (We mentioned this tradition a few weeks ago as the source for blowing the shofar during Elul.)
What about the custom of beginning before Rosh HaShana? The Ran describes a similar custom: “The custom in Barcelona and the surrounding area is to rise early in the morning from the 25th of Elul onwards.” The reason, he explains, is that this is when the world was created. The gemara records two opinions as to the creation of the world: according to Rebbe Eliezer the world was created on the first of Tishrei, whereas according to Rebbe Yehoshua the world was created on the first of Nisan. But the Ran cites the Midrash, which explains in a number of places that actually their dispute relates to the sixth day of creation, when man was created. According to Rebbe Eliezer, the first day of creation was actually five days earlier, corresponding to the 25th of Elul. (It would be inexact to refer to this day as actually being the 25th of Elul, since the moon itself was not created until several days later. The GR”A on OC 581 explains why this custom was modified to begin always on Motzei Shabbat, which may be a bit before or a bit after the actual 25th of Elul.)
This doesn’t quite solve the problem. Rosh HaShana was established on the first of Tishrei for the precise reason that the creation attains significance for man only because of our own creation. If the Day of Judgment depends on our creation, then why should the beginning of our special prayers coincide with the creation of the natural world?
Perhaps this shows that our level prior to Rosh HaShana is similar to the level of the world before the creation of man. In a sense, the world lacked meaning before man’s creation; man is not only the pinnacle of creation but in fact its entire object. Yet we see that Hashem did not create the world in a single utterance and then plop man into it; rather, the order of creation is described at length in the Torah. It seems that the exact preparations for mankind’s spiritual workplace are of immense importance.
Likewise, within this world our objective is righteousness, to attain a level of goodness which merits a favorable judgment from G^d. This is the level we aspire to attain on Rosh HaShana (or at any rate by Yom Kippur). However, the degrees ascending to this level are of great, even critical importance. Repentance is not an “afterthought”, a tragic necessity due to a bizarre breakdown in the world’s makeup, namely, the sin of Adam and Chava. Rather, repentance, the process of perfecting and educating ourselves, is part of the essential structure of the world.
The careful precision of the order of creation was inherently necessary to make it a suitable abode for mankind; likewise, the process of repentance is an inherent necessity in our quest for righteousness. Our penitential prayers thus begin about the day of the creation of the natural world, to show that the preparations for Rosh HaShana bear an importance that is inherent, and not merely incidental.
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.