Sephardic Selichot customs

Reciting selihot (סליחות‎; singular סליחה, selichah) before Rosh Hashanah is a time-honored and meaningful minhag (religious custom) among all Jewish groups. But in the last century there has been a tendency to make this spiritual practice into a strictly regulated law. In the Sephardic community this forces people to wake up very early, for forty days. Here we evaluate that stance.

Selichot Elul

Words from Rabbi Joseph Dweck, Senior rabbi of The S&P Sephardi Community.

It is Sephardi minhag to begin saying Selihot (lit. ‘apologies’) during the month of Elul and during the ten days from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur. Ashkenazi custom is to begin the Saturday night before Rosh HaShana.

There is room to argue that the Sephardi minhag may not be entirely appropriate. After all, in order for one to genuinely apologise for misdeeds one must meditate on the misdeeds and recognise the error. This recognition is what we call Teshuba (lit. ‘return’). Teshuba is therefore a prerequisite for seliha (forgiveness) as return to clarity is a prerequisite for an apology.

Teshuba does not begin on a national level until Rosh Hashana which is the first day of the ‘Ten Days of Teshuba’. So logic follows that Selihot should only be held during those ten days when the nation is engaging in introspection and achieving clarity regarding their errors.

Indeed, Rambam writes that the custom during his period was only to say selihot between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur [1].

However there is a concept regarding teshuba that sheds light on the Sephardi minhag to begin from the preceding month of Elul. It is a preparatory measure leading up to teshuba in that we call out to G-d for help knowing that we are in a poor state albeit not yet clear on the actualities.

Among the paths to [achieving] teshuba is for the one who wishes to return to call out before G-d regularly. [2]

The thrust of the Sephardi selihot is to ask G-d for help and to forgive us for His sake. After Rosh HaShana we add other portions to the selihot that focus more on apology.

The reason why we begin this calling out to G-d during the month of Elul is because our tradition has it that Moshe went up to Mount Sinai after the sin of the Golden Calf to pray for the people’s forgiveness on the first day of Elul and stayed there for 40 days returning on Yom Kippur. It would therefore be symbolically appropriate to similarly seek forgiveness from G-d during the same time period.

[1] Rambam, Hilkhot Teshuba, 3:4    [2] Ibid., 2:4

See Is Saying Selichoth Obligatory? By Rabbi David Bar-Hayim


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